Gottscho-Schleisner, Russel Wright, 221 E. 48th St., New York City. Office with secretary, 1948
This unsettling photograph has appeared on Shorpy.com, the online archive of vintage photographs. It was taken in 1948 for the office of Russel Wright, the esteemed mid-century American designer. His modern industrial design was not unlike that of Charles and Ray Eames, organic, playful and contemporary. So it’s a mystery why such a sterile image was deemed suitable to promote the business.
It has such a rare blankness it’s a treasure, a perfect depiction of 20th century urban alienation. Presumably these qualities were not intended. It was taken by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc, the architectural photography studio whose work often achieved a high degree of clarity and technical perfection. No doubt the photographer was just trying to do a neat job, and asked the secretary to keep very still during the exposure.
Whatever the explanation, I’m sure one day it will appear on the cover of George Orwell’s 1984 or some other dystopian novel. After all, the photograph was taken in 1948, the year Orwell wrote his novel, naming it by simply re-arranging the numbers of the year.
60 Hudson Street, New York
This fine photograph of New York Deco is by the architectural photographer Irving Underhill. It appeared recently in Shorpy.
Underhill was a successful New York photographer in the first half of the 20th century. You can see more of his handsome, well-crafted photographs at the Museum of the City of New York website.
The immense scale of the building against the tiny train reminds me of the 1927 film Metropolis. In fact, its director Fritz Lang was supposed to have had the inspiration for that film upon seeing the New York skyline from a ship. He wouldn’t have seen this building yet but he only missed it by a few years, it went up in 1931.
It turns out the old building is still standing and has a very modern purpose, it’s one of the main internet hubs in New York. Because of its earlier incarnation as the Western Union Telegraph Building it contained all the conduits and infrastructure to be adapted to internet cabling and switching. There’s an interesting short documentary about the building here: Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors
August 13, 1957. Greenfield Park, New York. “Tamarack Lodge. Sharp view.” .Large-format acetate negative by Samuel H. Gottscho.
This prime example of Mid-Century Modern was taken in 1957 by Samuel H. Gottscho. The Googie-style architecture meets the dart-sharped muscle car in the blazing sun of postwar prosperity.
Gottscho (1875-1971) was a very industrious architectural photographer in New York who didn’t go professional until he turned 50, after 23 years as a lace salesman. Now that’s a career trajectory that gives you hope. He even claimed his best work was done at 70, which gives me hope.
See how he organizes the picture in a tightly structured design: the sweeping diagonal white lines contrasted with the static dark of the car; the sense of movement, and that summery brightness. For more of his excellent photographs see this Museum of the City of New York site which shows a very disciplined and intelligent photographer.
The subject of this photograph is Tamarack Lodge, a hotel in the Catskills which burnt down in 2012. Its new owner was charged with arson soon after.
Washington, D.C., circa 1917, Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative
I’m constantly struck by the high technical quality of old commercial photographs. This image from 1917 is so sharp and clear it could be an advertisement for tailoring or wool manufacturing, “never mind the quality, feel the width.” In that era the combination of technical prowess, quality materials and the market for records of individualism made it a golden age of the studio portrait.
This one shows a bright and ambitious young American man, professional and eager for assignment. The informal desktop pose, hands in pocket, suggests readiness and practicality; the clear penetrating gaze, capability for the job in hand. He’s a Protestant citizen with a promising future.
The image comes from the website www.shorpy.com which publishes archival vintage photographs of general interest. This one is of interest, it shows a young man at the start of his famous career: J. Edgar Hoover, future head of the FBI.