Since September 1839, when the painter Samuel F. B. Morse put aside his brushes for a camera, photography has been integral to the life and art of New York City. This celebration of the city as muse includes works ranging from the 1850s to the 1970s, from Edward Anthony's busy street scene Broadway on a Rainy Day (1859) to Hiroshi Sugimoto's elegant study Radio City Music Hall, New York (1978). Among fascinating images of the city's architectural heritage, its explosive commerce, and its expanding population are dramatic views of airy nineteenth-century row houses and of the twentieth-century skyscrapers that replaced them. Alfred Stieglitz's From the Back Window, 291 (1915) and Berenice Abbott's Canyon, Broadway and Exchange Place (1936) portray this transformation.
New York's diversity and cultural traditions are celebrated in Bill Robinson and Spectators at a New York Black Yankees Baseball Game by James VanDerZee (1934), The Morning's Bagels by Weegee (ca. 1940), and Times Square, New York, a photograph of a street preacher by Robert Frank (1954). Sid Grossman's Coney Island (1947) and Dan Weiner's Family Shopping for Modern Furniture in a Brooklyn Department Store (1952) capture the post-war optimism of a generation. These artists explored the city's psychic temperament and evoked its vitality as well its moments of stunning emptiness and, at times, alienation.
The exhibition also features children at play on the city's streets. Helen Levitt's photographs of kids imaginatively interacting with urban surroundings (1939–42) are seen alongside Ben Shahn's balletic study of boys playing in a vacant lot, New York (1932–35), and Leon Levinstein's even more athletic Handball Players, Lower East Side, New York (ca. 1958).
The dizzying aspiration, rebirth, and renewal of New York City is articulated in Lewis Hine's Icarus, Empire State Building (1930). In this spectacular photograph, a lone steel-worker in a boundless sky, far above the burgeoning city, straddles a construction cable, tightening a clamp as if performing a high-wire act. Among the most iconic images on view is Edward Steichen's The Flatiron (1904). This view of what was then the city's tallest building is the quintessential chromatic study of twilight in the city and a prime example of the conscious effort of photographers working at the turn of the century to assert the artistic potential of their medium.
The exhibition also features four short art films made by New York City street photographers. These seldom-seen films are Manhatta (1920) by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler; In The Street (1952) by Helen Levitt, James Agee, and Janice Loeb; Under The Brooklyn Bridge (1953) by Rudy Burckhardt; and Broadway By Light (1958) by William Klein.