Book Review: New York: Capital of Photography by Max Kozloff

Spontaneous snaps

This has to be my favorite book on New York photographers after Jane Livingstone's brilliant study The New York School: Photographs, 1936-1963. The 101 photos capture the feel of the city over the decades of the last century and especially the street ambience of the thirties to the sixties.

The book is a record of an exhibition of the photos organized by the New York Jewish Museum in 2002. Most of the fifty-nine photographers who exhibited were Jewish. NYC is, after all, their city and perhaps no other metropolis has generated such an amazing number of talented, creative camera folk. The book's contents clearly show this.

The first seventy-eight pages have a wonderful essay, by Max Kozloff, about all these photographers and the various influences that showed up in their work. Here and there a bit of editing wouldn't have gone amiss though, as in this example:
'They almost describe an arc, wherein a material triumphalism is aestheticized to an apex of etherealization, then rounds over to an accounting of the social and human costs of "progress", and finally descends to the pathos of life and the solitude of observation'.
Hmmmm!
Karen Levitov's Introduction, over seven pages also adds to the book's overall comprehension. The back pages provide useful biographies to all the photographers followed by a good bibliography (with ten references to Kozloff's writing). There is a slight editorial lapse in not providing, in the Index, any reference to 101 images.

As to the photos I found them enormously varied in content and style. The first, by the Byron Company, is from 1913 and shows Indians and teepees on the roof of the Hotel McAlpin. A wonderful shot by Ruth Orkin taken on the canopy to the Hotel Astoria in Times Square on V-E Day and includes what looks like a TV camera. Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Lewis Hine, Edward Steichen, Helen Levitt, Bruce Davidson, Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott, Andreas Feininger and many others are all represented.

The book's production is as you would expect for a photo book, one photo to a page with generous margins and thankfully the comprehensive captions are on the same page. The paper is a good matt art for the 117 duotones printed with a 175 screen. I was made aware of an interesting point while with Morris Engel's 1937 photo of a Harlem merchant (plate twenty-one) looking out of a small window of his street stall. The photos show plenty of detail: small packets and bric-a-brac; strip ads for products; bottles and jars etcetera. This same photo also appears, about the same size, in a 1972 Time/Life book on documentary photography but the print used was darker and shows a lot more detail that was obviously included on the original negative. It was also a duotone but although it was printed with a 150 screen it had stronger second black plate to punch out the detail. This does raise the point that photos in art books can have a look that varies depending on the quality of the original print supplied to the printer. A reader could have a different interpretation of a photographer's creativity depending on how their work is presented on the page.

New York: Capital of Photography is available at Amazon (US | CA | UK | DE | FR | IT | ES | JP | CN) and Book Depository

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Two other excellent books of New York photography.

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Spread from Kozloff's seventy-eight page essay.

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Right: a wonderful shot by Ruth Orkin on V-E day, 1945, from the sidewalk canopy of the Hotel Astoria, Times Square.

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