The City in Photography 1900-1948

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THE CITY: 1900-1948

Portfolio Description

This portfolio allows students to investigate photographs of changing ideas of “the city” during the first half of the twentieth century. This is the moment when modernity becomes visible through skyscrapers and the everydayness of modern technologies like electricity, streetlights, streetcars, bicycles, automobiles, radio, and photography. This portfolio also reveals the interest of photographers in social issues: class differences, living conditions, and differing professions.

‘Look Closer’ Work

Alvin Coburn, Fifth Avenue, from the St. Regis, from the book New York, ca. 1910, hand-pulled photogravure, UMMA 1972/1.167

Work Description

 “The soft-focus that dominated pictorialism was employed by Coburn in this image looking down Fifth Avenue from the St. Regis Hotel. In the gathering gloom, the spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the left and the tower of St. Thomas Episcopal Church at the right create an evocative atmosphere that belies the reality of New York in 1910. In his foreword to New York, H.G. Wells noted that this image of the city was his least favorite. He stated that he’d never seen New York look hazy and that Fifth Avenue, from the St. Regis represents the city in an uncharacteristically reflective mood. The towering energy of Wall Street is more in keeping with New York, but this elegiac view of Fifth Avenue may signal the disappearance of the city that would have been familiar to Henry James and Edith Wharton.”

-Carole McNamara, Assistant Director for Collections & Exhibitions

Related Article

Wigoder, Meir, "The "Solar Eye" of Vision: Emergence of the Skyscraper-Viewer in the Discourse on Heights in New York City, 1890-1920," in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 61, No. 2 (Jun., 2002), p. 152-69 [focus on p.165-67]

Article Discussion Questions

  • What were some of his aesthetic or pictorial influences?
  • In what way did Coburn desire to portray the city in his photographs?
  • How does the work Fifth Avenue, from the St. Regis, reflect his investigation of what Wigoder calls “the skyscraper-viewer,” and how does this reflect modernity?

Further Reading

Marl Jefferson, “The Real New York in 1910,” in Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, Vol. 43, no. 10, 1911, p. 737-740.

Amy E. Johnson, “Crooked and Narrow Streets,” in Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 47, No. 1, Spring 2013, p. 35-64.