New York

Robert L. Bracklow

The New York Historical Society

The implicit inference some critics seem to draw from the existence of vast numbers of vernacular photographs whose makers have been forgotten—that these images have somehow come into existence of their own accord, by a kind of technological parthenogenesis—is a misleading one. However stereotypical a photograph, somebody decided to take it, in more or less that particular way. Amateur snapshots, weather photographs, surveillance photographs—all result from acts of human intention, even if those intentions may now seem obscure or inscrutable.

Robert L. Bracklow, a devoted amateur photographer in New York at the turn of the century, belongs to this army of little-known picture makers. The 163 photographs in this show, curated by Gail Buckland from the collection of Bracklow’s work donated by Alexander Alland, Sr. (who also rescued the photographs of Jacob Riis from oblivion), demonstrate the subjects and themes that Bracklow found worth depiction, and also offer a picture of New York on the verge of becoming the skyscraper metropolis it is today.

Bracklow, a stationer, was a member of the Camera Club, New York, in the years around the turn of the century when Alfred Stieglitz was zealously promoting photography as an art form through the club’s journal, Camera Notes. But despite occasional photographs that suggest artistic urges—pastoral landscapes on Staten Island, say, or one shot of tugboats in Turtle Bay entitled Cloud Studies !, 1902—Bracklow seems to have lacked any particular esthetic ambition. Instead he concentrated on well-made views of the city, with a historical consciousness of the major changes he was witnessing. Thus he photo-graphed the construction of the New York Times building and the New York Public Library, among other structures, as well as such notable newly completed skyscrapers as the Flatiron Building. By the same token he depicted important historical buildings like Fraunces Tavern along with such anomalies within the rapidly changing urban landscape as a white frame house among the brownstones near the Metropolitan museum, and farms on West End Avenue.

Above all, though, he was attracted to standard emblems of civic pride. He photographed statues of all sorts, including ones honoring Heinrich Heine, George Washington, Columbus, Lincoln, Abraham de Peyster (an early city father), firemen killed in the line of duty, and so on. The celebratory rituals of the city drew his interest, too—among others, the opening of Grant’s Tomb, the parade of ships up the Hudson in 1893 to honor Columbus’ discovery of America, and the triumphal procession, complete with ornate false-marble monuments, held in 1899 to celebrate Admiral Dewey’s return from the Spanish-American War.

Other pictures were made on photographic day trips to such places as Asbury Park or the Berkshires. Some of these images, showing other club members posing black waiters at a resort or setting up their tripods by the side of the road, suggest the conviviality that photography offered to these dedicated amateurs. One wall here, of photographs of Bracklow himself—drinking beer with fellow shutterbugs (The Kodakers, one is titled), or playing euchre at a mixed outing—showed him to have been a large, jovial-faced, bewhiskered burgher. Photography seems to have been a source of consistent pleasure to him; this show presented pictures dated from 1890 to 1917, and the collection of his work here includes over a thousand prints and three thousand glass plates. His straightforward, unexceptional photographs fix the image of a city that its inhabitants could see changing before their eyes, and at the same time throw light on the nature of the social exchange and occasion that photography constituted for Bracklow and his friends.

Charles Hagen