Our Story

The Discovery 

By David Stravitz, Author, "The Chrysler Building: Creating A New York Icon, Day By Day" and "New York, Empire City 1920-1945"

In the late 1970s, I was developing a series of special effect photographic filters and I became hooked, and I mean hooked, on photography. I began shooting around New York City with old large-format cameras—2¼ x 3¼ to 4 x 5s and 8 x 10s. Many of the lenses of the 1930s produced spectacular results. Some were a bit soft and warm, and others were tack sharp and contrasty. Working with a view camera made me understand the flexibility of this instrument—how marvelous it is in correcting converging parallel lines, a limitation of even the most expensive single-lens reflex camera today. When you think about the difference in the size of the negative between, say, an 8 x 10 camera and that of a 35mm camera, you can begin to understand how large you can blow up an image without the image breaking up and losing sharpness.

A fellow photo enthusiast who lived in New Jersey called me to let me know of an aerial photographer who was closing his studio and selling his equipment. Hoping I would come upon some great equipment, I jumped into my car and appeared at the photographer’s doorstep. A gruff, rather frail-looking elderly gentleman opened the door and I walked into his darkened studio, which had the strong smells of over thirty years of darkroom chemicals. By the time I arrived, the pickings appeared to be slim, however I did select two-large format cameras, an old tripod, and a few studio lenses, making it already worth the tour. As I continued to poke around a bit more, I discovered some boxes stacked in a darkened corner of the room. “What’s in these five boxes,” I asked my host. “Just some old stuff, no lenses, no cameras—just negatives.” “Hey, I collect images also—may I take a peek?” “Yes, but I’ve already arranged to reclaim the silver from them.” I later learned that it was a common procedure then for photo labs and professionals to send their no longer needed negatives to a reclaiming service.

I moved the five boxes squarely under a light and proceeded to open them one by one. The smell was overpowering—residue from silver nitrate and Kodak safety films, chemicals, decomposing reticulated images, and crusty old manila envelopes. It was impossible to review all the images then—there turned out to be around 500 total—but I bought the whole lot. When I returned to New York, I discovered I had purchased an important lost piece of New York history—images of New York City and the surrounding suburbs, all taken by people who I believe were working for the photographic team of Alfred E. Peyser and August L. Patzig.

These urban pioneers of architectural photography created masterpieces under difficult and complicated circumstances. The professional photographer who produced these negatives using an 8 x 10 camera likely dragged seventy-five plus pounds of gear around with him, including tripod, camera, lenses, sheet film, holders, blackout cloth, and a ground glass loupe. Setting up one shot might take a few hours to accomplish. Since many of these spectacular images are taken from high floors of nearby buildings, it likely took hours, if not days, to get approval, drag their gear up, set up the shot, take the shot, and fold the equipment back into its cases. Professionals working with expensive sheet film would likely shoot three exposures, bracketing from slightly underexposed to normal to slightly overexposed. If something went wrong, it was a major undertaking to go back and re-shoot.

Among the images I found are the photographs from the construction of the Chrysler Building, a broad assortment of views from other famous and not-so-famous buildings, ballparks, and the 1939 New York World’s Fair—simply work-for-hire assignments. Many of the manila folders had markings on them, as much as “$10 to XYZ Company for one-time use in XYZ article or publication.” Some seem to have been used many times over by different people and others by just a few. And yet, even so, these images of New York, taken by masterful architectural photographers from the early 1920s through the late 1940s, are nothing short of spectacular. Not only do they show great skill in manipulating the same equipment used by such masters as Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke-White, and Bernice Abbott, but they also show us the vibrancy of New York at a moment of incredible excitement.

An obscure New York City guidebook of 1939 called New York, The Giant City, by Laura Spencer Porter, compiled by the Travel Bureau of the Woman’s Home Companion, sets the scene for the images in this collection, providing a brief history of New York to the late thirties tourist: “In 1936, ten years after the Peter Minuit bargain, the first small permanent Dutch settlement, called New Amsterdam, was finally established on Manhattan.” The pamphlet goes on to say “But that early Dutch city extended only as far as what is now Wall Street. Beyond that—nothing but wilderness and beasts.”

In the early days, when the little old town from which New York sprang reached only as far as what is now Wall Street, where a wall or stockade was built for protection against the Indians, it belonged to the very small group living within its limits, some 500 souls in all. In the 100 years during which it belonged to the English, its population increased to 30,000. This was the size of the town when Washington in 1789 took his oath there as first President of the Republic. It had grown to the North until it reached what is now City Hall Park. In 1939, 150 years later, it has increased until its population is over 9,000,000.”

The guidebook also outlines some of the “Outstanding Facts about New York for Those Who Like Statistics.” Here are some of those facts, which I’m including in this compilation because the timeline of these images pairs closely with the data from the pamphlet.

It is the largest city in the wrld in the area at 309.84 square miles. It is exceeded in population by one city only—London. New York has more skyscrapers than any other city in the world—close to a hundred of them, of thirty stories or more—with a valuation of about $800,000,000. It has more buildings over 500 feet high than exists in all the other cities of the world put together. “As far back as 1929 the Superintendent of the Buildings reported that New York had enough electric elevators to carry 105,000,000 persons 78,500 miles daily.” That is roughly the current population of Mexico transported around the earth three times daily.

The Empire State building is the tallest building in the world, 102 stories. It has in it seven miles of elevator shafts. It has over 6,000 windows; a floating population of 40,000 a day; and enough floor space to shelter a city of 80,000.

Porter goes on to state that the New York park system is the greatest and its water system is the most generous, providing 145 gallons per day per inhabitant, versus the 43 gallon allowance provided for residents of London.

It has more and greater bridges than any other city, built at the following approximate cost: Brooklyn Bridge, $21,000,000; Williamsburg, $25,000,000; Queensboro, $25,000,000 (including land); Manhattan, $24,000,000; George Washington, $60,000,000 (and third largest suspension bridge in the world (3,500 feet); Triboro, $60,300,000.

In 1937, before the Lincoln Tunnel existed, we had only the Holland Tunnel.

The Holland Tunnel is one of the most famous tunnels in the world and is the greatest under-water tunnel. It was 7 years building. It is 9,925 feet long. Of this span, 5,480 feet are under water. It has twin tubes each 31 feet wide, sunk to a depth of 75 feet under water. It was used by 12,446,284 vehicles in 1938.

In 1939, “Trinity Churchyard, at Broadway and Wall Streets, in which lies buried the author of The Night Before Christmas, is the most valuable churchyard in the world. The land is estimated to be worth $25,000,000.” And “The R.C.A. Building in Radio City has the largest floor area of any building in the world, 2,924,036 square feet. It has more visitors than any other business building, 80,000 a day.” “The Rainbow Room on the sixty-fifth floor is the highest night club in the world, with a more magnificent view than any other.”

Porter goes on: 

New York has a larger food and marketing list than any city in the world…The New York Main Post Office is the largest in the world. Fifteen million letters pass through the New York Post Office each day; about 300,000 pounds of newspaper and periodicals, and 72,000 insured C.O.D. and parcel post packages. 

On this site you will experience rare images of a city that began as New Amsterdam from a $24 purchase by Peter Minuit 300 years ago, and 100 years after the invention of photography by Daguerre. What amazing progress in so young a city. New York was then, and still is, the Empire City, and I am pleased to have the good fortune and opportunity to share with you these wonderful images.

About Our Negatives

The hundreds of original 8" x 10" negatives have been scanned one by one with professional Heidelberg Scanners, preserving even the most minute of detail in these high resolution, high digital files. This means that our prints can be blown up to 10 feet long (50" x 120") if desired with no problem, or even larger. 
Unlike the most expensive full frame cameras of today, where a raw image may be 30-50 megabytes maximum, our 8" x 10" negatives are many times larger in size, and when enlarged dramatically, they hold their detail.  Naturally, when you think that a professional full frame DSLR camera's sensor is the same size as that of the traditional 35mm film, measuring 36mm x 24mm.  Whereas an 8" x 10" image measures a whopping 203mm x 254mm.  In laymans terms, the 8" x 10" is sixty (60) times the size of a professional DSLR full frame camera.   So, for example,  to print a 16" x 20" print from a huge 8" x 10" professionally scanned negative requires 2x (200%) enlargement and no loss of critical detail.   On the other hand, to produce a 16" x 20" print from that of a full frame (35mm x 24mm), you need to enlarge it 14x (1400%) and invariably the image is likely to get softer.  Naturally this softening gets far worse when you're printing extra large prints from full frame cameras.  
When you're starting with an 8" x 10" negative, needless to say, you can go high and wide and still the detail is supurb.  We're printing on demand so each print is meticulously handled with care and attention to detail. Guaranteed