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Thursday, March 30, 2023

Museum of the City of New York Photography Collections Go Digital


The Museum of the City of New York recently made available on its website some 62,000 historic images of New York City. The images, in the main, date from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1950s and were taken by such luminaries as Berenice Abbott, Samuel H. Gottscho, Andreas Feininger, Jacob Riis, and the Wurts Brothers. They document buildings and interiors, streetscapes and skylines, as well as fashion and events.

Grace Mayer, named Curator of Prints and Photographs in 1934, led the Museum of the City of New York to become one of the first collecting institutions to acquire photographs. During her long tenure, she organized more than one hundred exhibitions at the museum and amassed one of the world’s great collections of prints and photographs of New York City.

Recent Museum exhibitions and publications have highlighted the collection, such as The Mythic City: Photographs of New York by Samuel H. Gottscho, 1925–1940, which showcased the work of a former lace salesman who became one of the most sought-after architectural photographers of his day, and Willing to Be Lucky: Ambitious New Yorkers in the Pages of LOOK Magazine, featuring, among others, the work of a young Stanley Kubrick.

Susan Henshaw Jones, the Ronay Menschel Director, who became director of the museum in 2003, has overseen the modernization of its 1932 building and launched many new initiatives, one of which is making the museum’s collections available online. The digitization project has been made possible by a number of donors, among them Shelby White and the Leon Levy Foundation, the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone and the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Other organizations and individuals have championed other aspects of making the photography collections digitally accessible. Many thousands of additional images will soon be added to the museum’s collections portal.

Photographer unknown
Wallabout, Brooklyn, First Meserole House
Daguerreotype, ca. 1848
4½ x 6 inches
Gift of Miss Sally Meserole Hollins, 1942 (42.121).

The French artist and chemist Louis J. M. Daguerre built on the work of his partner Nichole Niepce, and in 1835 discovered the process that would bear his name. A copper plate was treated with a layer of photo-sensitive silver halide. The plate was exposed to an image, and was then placed over mercury vapors in order to develop the image. The silver coating made the object susceptible to tarnish and daguerreotypes were therefore usually covered with glass and fitted inside hinged cases. Exposure to mercury tended to cause severe health problems and even death, and daguerreotypes fell out of favor by around 1860 with the advent of the safer and less labor-intensive calotype and tintype.
Victor Prevost (1820–1881)
The Woodlawn Hotel, Bronx
Salted paper print, 1997 (from an 1853
or 1854 calotype waxed-paper negative)
13⅛ x 10¾ inches

The calotype was invented by British photographer William Henry Fox Talbot. Talbot pioneered a process of creating positive images called the photogenic drawing process, but had struggled to produce negatives. In 1841 he used hyposulphite of soda to fix images, producing a more stable print. The salted paper print consists of an image made from silver embedded within the fibers of the paper. Exposure times for the prints varied depending on weather conditions and the season, and could take many hours.

Victor Prevost immigrated to the United States from France in 1850 and established
one of the earliest photography studios in New York City. This print was created for research purposes in 1997 using the original salted print process, from one of Prevost’s original 1854 paper calotype negatives.

Unknown photographer
Frederick Pearce [Pierce] Budden, in the uniform of the New York Volunteer Fire Brigade
Ambrotype, hand colored, ca. 1855
4¾ x 3¾ inches
Gift of Mrs. Barbara Budden, 1972 (72.115).

An ambrotype process is derived from the wet-collodion process invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851, which attempted to combine the image quality and speed of the daguerreotype process with the reproducibility of the calotype. The ambrotype employed an underdeveloped and underexposed wet-collodion negative on glass which, when displayed with a dark background, usually a black varnish, appears as a positive image. Although ambrotypes were also unique images, they were much less expensive to produce than daguerreotypes and became extremely popular throughout the 1850s. Ambrotypes were often hand-tinted and housed in special cases for protection and display.

The volunteer Fire Department of the City of New York was founded in December of 1737 by the city’s General Assembly. The volunteer Fire Department was only superseded by a paid Metropolitan Fire Department in 1865.
S. A. (Silas A.) Holmes (1819/20–1886)
Top of Brooklyn Pier at
Fifth Course Above Roadway
Albumen print, 1872
16 x 20½ inches
Gift of Mr. Shirley C. Burden, 1957 (57.15.10).

In 1850, French photographer Louis Desire Blanquart Evrard announced his discovery of the albumen print. In this process, egg white was beaten with salt and, when the froth settled into liquid again, sheets of paper were floated on the surface of the solution. When the liquid dried, a silver nitrate solution would be applied, creating a photosensitive paper with a detailed, intense, glossy look. The albumen process became very popular, rendering salted paper prints nearly obsolete. The only drawback was that the printing and processing needed to be done on the same day as the treatment of the paper, lest the egg white rot in the interim. By the late 1850s, a more stable albumenized paper was being manufactured and photographers did not need to make their own.

Augustus Hepp (n/a)
Gapstow Bridge, Central Park
Cyanotype (photograph), ca. 1880
7 x 9 inches
Gift of the Park Association, 1965 (X2010.11.1550).

The cyanotype process was discovered in 1842 by British scientist Sir John Herschel, but did not become popular until the end of the nineteenth century. Like the platinum print, the process uses iron salts, but instead of interacting with platinum, they interact with the same iron compounds that create the pigments “Turnbull’s blue” and “Prussian blue.” This process was relatively cheap and was thus attractive to amateur photographers, like the talented Augustus Hepp, who produced an exquisite series of cyanotype prints of Central Park.Anna Atkins, one of the first female photographers, used the cyanotype process to create photograms. This involved placing an object directly onto treated paper and exposing it. This technique was widely used to capture specimens of leaves and plants, and was especially attractive as an activity for school children. Many examples of this type of work still exist.

Henry Piffard and Richard Hoe Lawrence
Bandit’s Roost, 59½ Mulberry Street
Jacob A. Riis collection, lantern slide, ca. 1890
3½ x 4 inches
Gift of Roger William Riis, 1946 (

The lantern slide was invented in 1849 by two brothers in Philadelphia, William and Frederick Langenheim. The use of glass plates to project images had been around since the 1600s, but the brothers were seeking a method of transferring photographic images to the plates. They perfected a glass plate negative, which could then be printed as a positive onto another glass plate. The Langenheims planned to use their invention for entertainment purposes, envisioning an audience paying to see a series of projected images, like an early version of a movie. The ability to display an image to a large group, however, soon proved useful for lecturers and it was in that field where lantern slides made their greatest impact. Jacob A. Riis, the world’s first photojournalist, used lantern slides to illustrate his lectures on “How the Other Half Lives,” bringing reformers’ attention to the cramped and dirty conditions in which recent immigrants were living in lower Manhattan.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.)
Snow Scenes, Blizzard,
Street Scenes in New York City
Printing-out paper | gelatin silver print, 1899
10 x 8 inches
Gift of Percy Byron, 1942 (

Paper coated with a sensitized gelatin emulsion began to be manufactured toward the end of the nineteenth century and replaced albumen paper as the major printing medium. Gelatin and collodion were both used. Printing on silver printing-out paper far out-paced any prior format. In order to process an image, the paper had to be exposed to light. The Byron Company was founded in New York City in 1892 by the British commercial photographer Joseph Byron. He took his son, Percy Byron, into partnership. The younger Byron became an admired maritime photographer, but the firm captured a broad swathe of theatrical productions, ships, street life, and society before closing the firm in 1942.
Ernest Walter Histed (1862–1947)
Gladys Vanderbilt
Platinum print, ca. 1905
6¾ x 6¾ inches
Gift of Mrs. Ernest Walter Histed
Presented in the memory of Ernest Walter Histed by his family, 1956 (56.386.125).

The platinum print process was in practice from about 1880 through the turn of the century. It used iron salts and platinum compounds, rather than silver. The process typically produced a steel grey image, but some variations resulted in warmer tones like the one pictured here. The subtle tonal variations were particularly valued by photographers interested in artistic expression rather than commercial work. The sensitized paper, like albumen paper, didn’t keep well, however, and the industrial value of platinum drove up the price of creating this type of print. Photographers and their commercial clients liked the matte black print characteristic of this process, though, and silver paper producers attempted to imitate the effect.

Ernest Walter Histed was another British photographer who set up shop in the United States, operating out of Chicago and Pittsburgh before establishing a studio on Fifth Avenue in New York City. He was in high demand by members of the city’s high society.

Berenice Abbott (1898–1991)
Burns Bros. Coal Elevator and U.S.S. “Illinois”: Armory for Naval Reserves
Gelatin silver print, 1937
19¼ x 14³⁄₁₆ inches
Museum purchase with funds from the
Mrs. Elon Hooker Acquisition Fund, 1940 (40.140.23).

Gelatin silver prints, commonly referred to as “black and white prints,” were the predominate photographic printing process of the twentieth century. The earliest gelatin silver papers were made in the 1870s, but it wasn’t until the 1890s that technology enabled mass production and wide adoption of the papers by photographers. The printing paper suspends light-sensitive silver halides in a gelatin layer. This layer of silver reacts to exposure to light. During processing, the excess silver is washed away, while the silver that remains reveals the latent image. As the process gained popularity throughout the twentieth century, manufacturers created hundreds of different varieties of paper thickness, surface texture and gloss for printing in a myriad of applications including snapshot, journalistic, and fine art photography.

Born in Springfield, Ohio, Berenice Abbott began her career in the 1920s in Paris as an assistant to portrait photographer Man Ray. Returning to New York in 1929, she had her first solo museum exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York in 1934. The museum’s Abbott collection consists primarily of her landmark series, “Changing New York,” created under the auspices of the Federal Art Project between 1935 and 1938.

Alfred C. Loonam (n/a)
3rd Ave. “L” North from Express Platform, 9th St. Station
Stereoview, ca. 1955
3½ x 7 inches
Gift of Mrs. Alfred C. Loonam, 1966 (X2010.26.13).
A stereo image combines two pictures of the same object taken from a slightly different angle. Once seen through the stereographic viewer the images appear to combine and produce the illusion of three-dimensionality. A stereo image or stereograph first gained popular notice in 1851 during the Great Exhibition in London. In America, Oliver Wendell Holmes invented a hand viewer that helped to popularize stereographs and promoted the creation of stereograph libraries. As their popularity gained, entire series of educational and “armchair traveling” stereo series were made available inexpensively. By the early twentieth century, the motion picture had eroded the stereoview’s novelty.

Alfred T. Loonam was an amateur photographer who captured the rapidly developing city. The museum holds his series of stereoviews that document the railways of the city as elevated trains were disappearing, particularly in Manhattan.

Marc Asnin (b. 1961)
The Rebbe
Chromogenic color print, 1992
61 x 20 inches
Gift of Marc Asnin, 2001 (01.71.1).

A chromogenic development print (also know as a C-print) is a color photographic process used by amateur, commercial, and art photographers alike, making it the most common type of color photograph throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Chromogenic prints are developed in a process in which dye couplers bond with silver halides, which produce a full color image after processing. Because of the unstable nature of the dyes used in this process, the prints are subject to fading and color shifts.

Marc Asnin is a Brooklyn born documentary photographer who has worked for countless magazines, including Esquire, Time, The New Yorker, Mother Jones, and LIFE. This photograph of The Rebbe was the result of an assignment Asnin received in 1992 from the New York Times Magazine to photograph the Rebbe Shneerson and the Lubavitchers in Brooklyn, New York.

Caleb Cain Marcus (b. 1978)
Long Island Railroad
Archival pigment print, 2011
20 x 24 inches
Gift of Mr. Scott Stitson, 2011 (2011.2).
An archival ink-jet print is produced from either a born digital file or a scanned negative. Using a computer, the image is created with an ink-jet printer that sprays long lasting pigment inks onto specially prepared paper. The droplets are sprayed in a precisely controlled manner, producing different colored dots of varying sizes which form the final image.

For more than three years Caleb Cain Marcus photographed the experience of walking alone after dark on the streets of New York City. The resulting black-and-white photographs were assembled in the 2010 publication The Silent Aftermath of Space. Marcus’s images embrace the solitude found in the city at night amid vacated construction sites, parking lots, and subway tunnels. This photograph depicts the exposed cutaway of Manhattan’s Hudson Yards (West Side Railyards) at night, in a counterpoint to the bustling commuter crowds in the daytime.

To view the portal, visit Search by keywords such as mansions, parties, parades, costumes, Broadway, or Central Park, and find the city’s past accessible today. The text and images that precede illustrate the history of photography through the collections at the Museum of the City of New York. Sean Corcoran is curator of prints and photographs and Lacy Schutz is director of collections access at the Museum of the City of New York in Manhattan. All images courtesy, Museum of the City of New York.