And furthermore ...

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Monday, 8 December 2014


Three postcards and nine snapshots of New York
 “I regret profoundly that I was not an American and not born in Greenwich Village. It might be dying, and there might be a lot of dirt in the air you breathe, but this is where it’s happening.” 
John Lennon

When this postcard was bought from the top of the Empire State Building (as it says on the back), New York was the centre of the world. This was a fact. Only a few Parisians and Londoners who had failed to notice the lights change would have contested that. These days the city is like an old actress who totters about the streets in a fur stole and pillbox hat, defiantly oblivious to the whispers and stares from passers-by. Age and the times have robbed it of something it can never get back. Today, someone could get in a helicopter and take a photo from exactly the same spot but the idea isn’t interesting anymore. It would be like taking a photo of our actress just to tell her how old she looks. 

 The three postcards and nine snapshots are all about power. For the postcard photographers the best vantage point for revealing that and the sheer intensity of existence at the centre of the world is from above. The snapshots were taken at street level, looking up They tell the same story as the postcards, only from the point of view of people willing to accept the status quo. The Statue of Liberty doesn’t have to be in focus or the exposure correct to transmit that idea of power. 

 Here’s an even more technically challenged view. It looks like a plastic model, but the most important reason for taking snapshots of famous landmarks is that they are a confirmation you have seen them. The second is that they are usually irresistible.  Imagine going to New York in 1952 and not taking a photo of her. There were certain things you had to do if you were a tourist in New York in 1952 and catching the ferry to circumnavigate her was one of them. If for no other reason, it was an act of homage to everything that mattered about America in those times. 


‘Iconic’ being a much abused word, it is hard to use while keeping a straight face, but some cities do have iconic skylines. Remove the Eiffel Tower from a view of Paris, or St Paul’s from one of London and what remain are quotidian views of what could be any large city anywhere. Here however, you don’t need to identify the Empire State Building to know at once that this is an American city, after which New York would be most peoples’ first guess. It was views like this, probably from the North Williamsburg wharf, that made urban planners and architects conscious of the importance in a city’s silhouette. The outlines of buildings were not just distinctive; they were part of a city’s identity. Notice how the people appear to be gazing at them, at a scene that doesn’t change but still holds their attention. 

 The best snapshot in the post, it looks like it was taken from the Naval Shipyard in Brooklyn, sometime in the 1940s. Notice how the RCA Building, the Empire State and the Chrysler give the skyline a distinct pyramid shape. New York used to dominate the statistics. Whether it was the tallest buildings, the most art galleries per square mile or the most murders, it was always up the top. Today it is only one of the most expensive, no longer even in the top ten when it comes to the most dangerous, and in the rankings for most culturally exciting (however they are determined), Miami, Santa Fe and even Boulder Colorado come out ahead. People used to acquiesce to New York. When they heard ‘New York is on the line’, you could see their Adam’s apple pulsate. Now the call is likely to come from Beijing or Bahrain. What happened? 

 The economists have an answer, but they can make the barroom drunk sound interesting so let’s skip the theories and return to these snapshots instead. When I try to think of great New York novels from the 1950s it turns out to be a bit of a struggle. Only one comes to mind: John Clellon Holmes’ Go; the book Kerouac could have written if he had sobered up and stopped thinking about his mum. The genuine beat novel – people actually smoke tea, sleep around and hang out in jazz clubs, whereas in On The Road they just talk about doing them – it is set entirely in the city and one of its lasting impressions is of a greyness; not the dismal weather of London but of an ingrained smog. People catch the ferry past the Washington Bridge and instead of pausing to make some claim on the greatness of New York they hurry inside because it is cold and bleak and they don’t have enough cash to think about how great the city is, except that it is obvious they wouldn’t live anywhere else. 

 Because Beau Geste was released in August 1939 we can assume this photo was taken around that time. Did New Yorkers think they were living at the centre of the world in 1939? The energy in the photo suggests they had to. My guess is that, if you had a job, money and an education, you sat around talking about Europe as though it was an older brother who’d gone off the rails. Those German intellectuals and artists who had managed it had got out and a lot of them had come to America. New York was the first port of call but most kept travelling westwards, to LA and Hollywood, to Boston, and quite a few skipped America altogether for Canada. Not everybody thought New York was where it was at. This is an excellent scene. At first glance it looks like chaos unleashed but on closer inspection you realize there is a very precise order at work. These days Times Square has those temples to corporate blandness, McDonalds and Starbucks, and little else.

 Yankee Stadium in the 1950s, the capital city of baseball. Paris had Picasso, but New York had Joe DiMaggio. My guess is that our photographer took a river cruise and passed a landmark. He (Can we assume that it was men who’d be interested in the Yankee Stadium?) had to photograph it from the ferry because, for various reasons – wife, kids – the chances of actually getting inside and watching DiMaggio play his final season or Rocky Marciano bash some palooka to a bloody mess were slim. We know the feeling. This is an image of desire, not nostalgia.

 Another from the same set, all taken from the Hudson River and by someone who owned a cheap camera but had a feel for what mattered about the city. Again, the greyness. New York is like London. Who’d want to photograph it on a bright, sunny day? The results would look drab.


Today the Empire State Building and the Chrysler are ranked 25 and 65 respectively in the list of world’s tallest buildings but that is just a statistic. The competition doesn’t matter. Who can seriously get excited about the Burj Khalifa or the Shanghai Tower? Critics may dribble mindless platitudes about those pointless monuments to competition, but who will ever feel the same rush of excitement everyone does when they first set eyes on New York’s finest? 

 I recall watching a TV documentary in the 1980s about organized crime in the U.S that began with an aerial view like this as the narrator solemnly intoned; ‘everything you see here is controlled by the mafia’, or words to that effect. We knew then that corporate America was corrupt but the speed and ruthlessness with which it has broken the nation has been astonishing in its self-destructiveness. If there is nostalgia in this image it is for that idea most people in the world ascribed to in the 1940s that American power was fundamentally good. That might have technically died not so long after this photo was taken but the illusion was on sale until recently.


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