Monday, June 22, 2009

Landmarks of New York @NYHS

JTF (just the facts): A total of 80 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against orange walls and pillars in a single gallery space. 46 different photographers are represented in the show. Each of the images was taken at the time the specific building was designated a landmark, starting in the mid 1960s. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: This exhibition was designed to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the New York City Landmarks Law. Since 1965, over 1200 individual landmarks in all 5 boroughs have been designated, covering buildings constructed between 1640 and 1967. For each building in the show, a single photograph has been selected, and the wall text includes information about the building, its importance, the architect, and the photographer.

The exhibit is divided into six time periods. I've included some of the stand out buildings from each period as examples of what's on view (there are many more beyond these in each section):

  • 1641-1848: City Hall
  • 1849-1889: Brooklyn Bridge, Metropolitan Museum, Statue of Liberty, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Central Park
  • 1889-1926: Carnegie Hall, New York Public Library, NY Stock Exchange, Flatiron Building, Grand Central, Woolworth Building, Plaza Hotel, NY Life Building
  • 1927-1937: Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center
  • 1939-1958: Parachute Jump, Seagram Building
  • 1958+: TWA Terminal, Four Seasons Restaurant, Guggenheim Museum

While I didn't recognize any of the photographers who documented the buildings for the city, these images are surprisingly well made; they are strong architectural photographs, with meticulous attention to important historical details, not cheesy postcard shots of tourist spots. As such, I found this exhibit quite a bit more thought provoking than I had expected; it isn't a tired rehashing of obvious buildings, but instead a carefully constructed historical timeline of New York's architectural history, using singular images of the landmarks as reference points. Passing by the photographs of these buildings in roughly chronological order is like seeing a flip book history of the city, with each landmark an important piece of the much larger puzzle.

Collector's POV: Since our collection is full of architectural photography and city scenes, this show was a good fit for us, especially given the generally high quality of the images on view. The exhibit was also a good reminder that these iconic buildings can still be fresh, when seen from unexpected and carefully composed angles. While the pictures here were made as historical documents, there is plenty of artistic vision embedded in them, both from the architects and the photographers. And while the Brooklyn Bridge and Empire State Building are already represented in our collection, I came away from the show with a short list of additional buildings that may be worth exploring as well.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (here)

Landmarks of New York
Through July 12th

New York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024

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