Timeless Images Preserved: The Parks Photo Archive by Gerard Malanga

BOMB 20 Summer 1987
020 Summer 1987

Archives … give a physical existence to history, for in them alone is a contradiction of a completed past and a present in which it survives, surmounted. Archives are the embodied essence of the event.
—Claude Levi-Strauss

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Alajos Schuszler, Union Square, Interior of Pavilion, Demonstration of Radicals, November 24, 1934. Courtesy of Parks Photo Archive.

There’s a haunting image of two mysterious-looking figures emerging from the newly opened Ferry House at Carl Schurz Park in the late afternoon winter light. The year is 1935. The two men are Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. That same year, two girls are photographed at a pet show at the Jerome Avenue Recreation Center in the Bronx. One of the girls is smiling and holding a poodle.

Robert Moses’s team of engineers are gathered around construction plans down at the end of 72nd Street, discussing the proposed West Side Improvement Project. It’s June, 1934. The man with the Graflex camera in hand off to the right is Max Ulrich, one of the Parks Department photographers. A year later, the same landscape is transformed into a mass of steel girders, derricks, and wood piles that are the skeleton of what later will become an approach onto the Henry Hudson Parkway.

An army of schoolchildren are at attention saluting the flag at opening day ceremonies of the Sara D. Roosevelt Park on the Lower East Side. The volleyball nets are taut, the seesaws are at ease, and the Parks Department band is playing. New Yorkers are on their elbows, leaning out of tenement windows across the street watching the fanfare.

These are just a few of the images that have been preserved in the photographic archives of the Department of Parks and Recreation. By archival standards it’s a modest collection—just under 33,000 catalogued historic negatives chronicling the years 1934-1969, but for its sheer scope and diversity the collection is impressive simply that it is a public collection.

Though the accumulation of documentary photographs is generally the province of libraries, museums, and universities, this collection is housed in the northwest turret of The Arsenal in Central Park—The Park Historian office, and like their FSA predecessor at the Library of Congress these images are in the public domain.

What sets the Parks Photo Archive apart from others is its unique subject matter and the fact that for almost since the time of the collection’s inception these photographs have never been exhibited or reproduced. Originally conceived as a Parks Department photographic survey and progress report, the collection not only presents a consecutive history of the agency but also documents the social, political, and economic life of New York City. And while they are prized for the information they contain, many of the photos can also be appreciated as works of art.

During the 1930s, President Roosevelt’s New Deal Program to combat the Depression gave New York City an opportunity to refurbish existing parks and to create new ones with funds from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Robert Moses, then the city’s Parks Commissioner, had the capacity, fiscal intelligence, and insight to seize the moment. Moses was instrumental in getting the city seven percent of the entire WPA allotment for the country. He hired federal laborers to work on park-related construction and clean-up projects. They built bridges, beaches, swimming-pools, zoos, recreation centers, parks, and parkways.

Moses drew upon the best artistic talent the WPA’s Art Service Project had to offer. For each project, he employed artists, photographers and craftsmen, including sculptor Frederick Roth, whose stone relief murals adorn the animal houses of the Central Park Zoo; and artists Theodore Kautzky, John MacGilchrist, E. Marugg and Cornelius Flynn, who translated blueprints into exquisite architectural delineations.

Almost half of the photographs from 1934 through 1940 were the work of Ala jos Schuszler and Max Ulrich, who worked in two-and-a-quarter-inch and four-by-five inch formats, respectively. Unlike other WPA photographers such as Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott and Ben Shahn, who eventually found their places in the history of American photography, the two Parks Department photographers have remained virtually unknown. They photographed many of the same events and though much of each man’s work is distinct, today their photos look like the work of a single artist. Perhaps time is the artist. The significance that these photographs held at the time was time itself. As soon as the photo was made it was already the future.

Moses was virtually creating a new city and soon he had Schuszler and Ulrich fanning out to document not only official functions and opening ceremonies, but projects still under construction and park properties undergoing repair. Moses even recruited two aerial photography firms, Fairchild Aerial Surveys and McLaughlin Air Service, to make a record of project sites before, during and after construction. For one project, the West Side Improvement, 6,000 WPA laborers worked on the massive landfill operation that paved the way for the construction of the Henry Hudson Parkway, which eventually stretched from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Riverdale in the Bronx.

Ironically the photographers under Robert Moses’s stewardship already knew more or less not to concern themselves with the question of whether they were making art. They were not creating work for themselves, or at least they were not known to have done so. Their primary concern was to get the picture, record the event, and come away with a truthful image of directly observed fact.

The pictures that resulted contained not only a close-up of an entire culture of the urban dweller but for all their simplicity exerted a greater political awareness in that they became tools in which social conditions could be evaluated through improvement programs. Therefore these pictures were not intended to bring about reform but to truthfully record what was already in the process of being reformed through social change. In doing so the spirit which gave rise to this collection was a desire to preserve images in a way that Walker Evans would describe of his work with the FSA as “what any present time will of a presumed historical truth look like as the past.”

What essentially determines the meaning of these pictures as a whole today are the undeniable aesthetic considerations in how they have transcended their utilitarian function by the sheer unselfconsciousness of what they originally proposed as fact. Fifty years later the Parks Photo Archive is just now taking its place as one of the formidable research collections in the United States.

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Alajos Schuszler, Flushing Meadow Park, Mayor LaGuardia Stepping into Official Vehicle Following Meeting of the City Commission at Corona Golf Club, re World Fair Site, November 13, 1936. Courtesy of the Parks Photo Archive.

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Alajos Schuszler, Massed School Children Salute the Flag, Roosevelt Playground Dedication Ceremony, September 14, 1934. Courtesy of the Parks Photo Archive.

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Alajos Schuszler, Freight Train going south on Eleventh Avenue, April 9, 1934.

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Alajos Schuszler, Astoria Park, Triborough Bridge Tower, April 14, 1935. Courtesy of the Parks Photo Archive.

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Alajos Schuszler, Highbridge Water Tower and Reservoir, Prior to Construction of Highbridge Swimming Pool, View North, June 11, 1934. Courtesy of the Parks Photo Archive.

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Images from left to right: Marine Parkway Bridge, Tollgate, Opening Day Ceremonies, July 4, 1937; Landfill, Westside Improvement, View North, May 16, 1934; Crowd, Opening Ceremonies, 79th Street Rotunda, October 12, 1937; President’s (FDR) Visit to Sara D. Roosevelt ark, October 28, 1936; Panorama, World’s Fair Trylon and Perisphere, Grand Central Boulevard Extension Under Construction, September 28, 1938.

Gerard Malanga, photographer and poet, is also the photo archivist for the New York City department of Parks and Recreation. He is presently writing the text for a book, entitled Photographers Unknown.

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020 Summer 1987