1.29.2007

into the window (with Joseph Mitchell)


If I come across a particularly vivid old photograph, especially if it's a New York street scene, I find it thrilling--as though I've uncovered a bit of treasure. I find I can pore over it so intently, get drawn in so completely, that, if I allow myself, I can almost —almost—fantasize being in the image. It's sort of embarrassing.

To the extent that a photographic image, the rectangle, is a metaphorical window, its frame blocks the rest of the world that continues just beyond those edges. The "glass" is immovable, the "window" shut. I wonder, though, about
what is to the left or the right. Or what connection there might be, in that photo of yesterday, to what I know today. The photographs here are part of a series of modern reprints I found in a drawer at Bowne. I believe they are a set of tax ID photographs taken in January and February of 1928 of the South Street area – in other words scenes right around Bowne. It shouldn't have been a surprise to see that the relatively tidy retail mall of today was rough, ragged-edged and tired-looking in the light of that day 79 years ago.


The dirtiness of the street, the worn and dusty clothes on the worker in the cap (click the details above for very large view), a horse drinking from a stone watering trough, the bundles of rags and paper scraps: the 19th century is palpable. Here, "the modern" is foreign. Seventeen years after these images were taken, Joseph Mitchell described these streets in Up in the Old Hotel:
I could distinguish the reek of the ancient fish and oyster houses, and the exhalations of the harbor. And I could distinguish the smell of tar, a smell that came from an attic on South Street, the net loft of a fishing-boat supply house, where trawler nets that have been dipped in tar vats are hung beside open windows to drain and dry. And I could distinguish the oak woody smell of smoke from the stack of a loft on Beekman street in which finnan haddies are cured; the furnace of this loft burns white oak and hickory shavings and sawdust. And tangled in these smells were still other smells— the acrid smoke from the stacks of the row of coffee-roasting plants on Front Street, and the pungent smoke from the stack of the Purity Spice Mill on Dover Street, and the smell of rawhides from The Swamp, the tannery district, which adjoins the market on the north.
After rereading more of the book, I discovered that the building above, left, in my photograph, 92 South Street, is the "Old Hotel." By the time Mitchell hung around the docks, the restaurant at 92 was called Sloppy Louie's (It was
still John Barbagelata's place in 1928) and the locals stopped in for breakfast specialties like a shad-roe omelet or sea scallops and bacon. (The South Street Seaport of today does not say "sea" or "port" or "shad-roe" or anything marine to me at all, unfortunately...)

The Romantic-era philosopher and essayist Johann Gottfried von Herder created the term Einf├╝hlung, which is often translated as "empathy." Not that I know very much about Herder (as I've said before I know a little about a lot of things, just enough to be annoying) but when I first came across this word I recognized it and identified with it as putting a name to a complicated, elusive and for me, enjoyable, state of mind.
... a "feeling into," [Einfuhlung is] projecting one’s mind into the object of one’s contemplation, of seeing and thinking and experiencing from its perspective and so coming to understand it better, of turning it into a subject and oneself into the object of its gaze.– Robert Daly (SUNY Buffalo)
Herder's intent may be different from my reading of it, but I'm satisfied to have it defined in my own mind.

When I look at these photographs above, I think about being on those streets with
horse-drawn wagons and automobiles and the last shadows of the 19th century, and then I think of Flappers and the Chrysler building, Hollywood and Art Deco, and I can almost see it happening at the same time, just beyond the frame.

2 comments:

Doug said...

Read something today that made me think of your blog... it's from the writings of architect Louis Sullivan and is about scholarship as it relates to architecture. Written in 1901:

"Ture scholarship, my son, is a sane and beautiful thing. It is born of reverence and of love, and fills the mind with wisdom, the heart of tenderness. No true man can look into the mysterious depths of by-gone days, as they pass in solemn procession through ever deepening twilights into the impenetrable abyss of oblivion, without being overcome by a profound feeling of awe and tenderness and wonder and inspiration at the power and the glory of that Infinite Creative Impulse, which has evolved from itself these countless generations of men upheaving and subsiding in waves of civilization."

Pretty dramatic, but the connection between scholarship, history, and ... tenderness? love? is rarely expressed... Happy Valentine's Day!!

angela said...

I've never read anything BY Louis Sullivan. I like the idea of looking "into the depths of by-gone days"
Thanks Doug!

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