Speaking Volumes: Something Big in the Air

"New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world," wrote novelist and short story writer F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1932 of the city that would forever be the embodiment of his dreams. David Stravitz, the author and compiler of the clear, crisp photography that fills New York, Empire City, 1920-1945, recently published by Abrams, uses the Fitzgerald quote as an epigraph, and nothing could be more appropriate for this exquisitely produced anthology of cityscapes.

Even more appropriate still are the introductory essay and captions provided by Christopher Gray. Devoted readers of the Sunday New York Times will recognize Gray's name as the author of "Streetscapes," which has been for many years the most consistently interesting and well-written column in the paper's "Real Estate" section. Gray's historically acute, elegiac pieces have introduced readers to the lore of New York architecture in the most stylish and least didactic manner possible. His knowledge and tone add immeasurably to this book's effect.

How Stravitz, a nationally recognized industrial-design consultant, product creator for many Fortune 500 companies and accomplished photographer, came into possession of these New York images is an entertaining story in itself. In the late 1970s, Stravitz became hooked on photography, and was in the market for whatever equipment he could come across, especially if it was at a cut-rate price. A fellow photo enthusiast from New Jersey told him about a local aerial photographer who was closing up shop and selling his equipment. Stravitz jumped into his car, certain he was on the trail of bargains.

Things had been pretty much picked over by the time he pulled up to the man's studio, but he did find a few items to buy. And as he continued poking around, he came across some boxes stacked in one dark corner of the room.

"I moved the five boxes squarely under a light," writes Stravitz, "and proceeded to open them one by one. The smell was overpowering – residue from silver nitrate and Kodak safety films, chemicals, decomposing reticulated images, and crusty old manila envelopes. It was impossible to review all the images then – there turned out to be around 500 total – but I bought the whole lot. When I returned to New York, I discovered I had purchased an important lost piece of New York history – images of New York City and the surrounding suburbs, all taken by people whom I believe were working for the photographic team of Alfred E. Peyser and August L. Patzig."

These "urban pioneers of architectural photography," as Stravitz calls them, did their work under difficult and demanding circumstances. These negatives were probably produced by using an 8×10 camera, and any photographer likely dragged along 75-plus pounds of gear, including tripod, camera, lenses, sheet film holders, blackout cloth and a ground glass loupe. According to Stravitz, setting up a single shot might take several hours. Things were complicated even more when the photos were taken from above, usually on the roofs of other tall buildings.

Among the many images, Stravitz found photos of the construction of the Chrysler Building, an assortment of shots of famous and not-so-famous buildings and ballparks, and images from the 1939 New York World's fair.

It may well have been work-for-hire, as Stravitz surmises, but the end result was of the highest quality.

As Christopher Gray puts it in his introductory essay, "There is something … BIG about these photographs … . I don't mean big in size, although certainly they are that: enlarged from the original 8×10-inch negatives, they capture detail like gold dust. No, it's a bigness of scope, of ambition, of vision – reflecting and reflected by the city and the time they document."

These assorted, sharp, silver-tinged images are the perfect accompaniment to any Labor Day celebration, when we pause to honor the daily work done by everyday Americans, and especially the spectacular monuments to grandeur and large ideas they contributed to in perhaps the greatest city of them all.



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