This morning the NYT woke me up with a story about a building a block from where I grew up, that I passed every day of high school on my way to the subway. I had always found the building itself striking and a little scary, and too small for the claims of its design.
It’s nice to see at least some things endure in New York; my favorite younger daughter goes to school there and when I visit I bore her with tour guide information about “there used to be an X right here where I Y…”, and “here’s a really interesting Z, my cousin and I always…”. This pair of pictures, though, deserves more than a sentimental look, indeed I may use them in class as a “how many differences can you see between these, and what do they say about how we live?” exercise.
(right photo: Librado Romero)
First, of course, as Calvin’s dad explains, the world has become colored:
C: Dad, how come old photographs are always black and white? Didn’t they have color
film back then?
D: Sure they did. In fact, those old photographs ARE in color. It’s just the WORLD was
black and white then.
D: Yep. The world didn’t turn color until sometime in the 1930s, and it was pretty grainy
color for a while, too.
C: That’s really weird.
D: Well, truth is stranger than fiction.
C: But then why are old PAINTINGS in color?! If the world was black and white, wouldn’t
artists have painted it that way?
D: Not necessarily. A lot of great artists were insane.
C: But… but how could they have painted in color anyway? Wouldn’t their paints have
been shades of gray back then?
D: Of course, but they turned colors like everything else in the ’30s.
C: So why didn’t old black and white photos turn color too?
D: Because they were color pictures of black and white, remember?
Plus ça change…:
The streets are now full of cars, but not full of horse poop. The cars entail an explosion of undesigned, random objects (parking signs, the yellow traffic light hanging on its crane, parking meters). Other kinds of “street furniture’ proliferate (newspaper boxes), but nearly all the clutter in the modern scene is a result of coping with automobiles. The streets are lined with trees; this planting took off when I lived in the neighborhood, and it astonished us how much they improved the environment even when they were small.
…mais pas tout:
The row of brownstones on 30th and the apartment building to the north on Lexington are still providing economically efficient housing (with a facade renovation to the latter) almost a century later. The East Side Manhattan street pattern, created on a civil servant’s drawing board in the mid-19th century, fixed in place by the buildings around it, is as perfectly matched to the size and behavior of human beings wearing only clothing, not cars, as it was when put in place. It’s holding its own by the diffused ownership of property, against design conventions that get it wrong more recently again and again when we try to lay out something from scratch. As Jane Jacobs explained, small blocks allow a healthy pedestrian life on residential blocks if the avenues (north-south in NY) have commerce on the ground floor; narrow streets are comfortable and friendly.
Why didn’t Romero take his pic from the same point of view as the original? Assuredly because of cars and the traffic light; the older photo is from a point on the east sidewalk a few doors down Lexington from 30th, but Romero’s shot from that location would have an enormous yellow traffic light right in the middle of it.
More interesting, why aren’t the verticals corrected in his picture? This is something of a puzzle. It’s a near-universal convention, right back to Masaccio’s pioneering perspective construction in Santa Maria Novella, of architectural photography, painting and drawing/etching to override the “real” perspective of a picture looking upward from the ground at a building (real in the sense that it matches the image your eye puts on the retina), wherein the building’s vertical elements converge just as its horizontals converge in the distance. “Seeing” happens in the brain, and while we see both a picture and the world with horizontal perspective correctly, we “see” buildings as having vertical walls, so a picture of a scene looking up at one looks wrong if it isn’t straightened up.
The older picture was assuredly taken on a tripod, with a view camera that allowed the lens to be shifted up so the image could capture the whole building with the film plane parallel to the building. If Romero had had a wide-angle-enough lens, he could have done this by keeping his camera vertical and cropping off the bottom half of the image, that would be all street and sidewalk. But he didn’t; he had (almost certainly) a digital single-lens-reflex with no tilt or shift controls and an action-oriented zoom lens from about 28mm up, and an editor not willing to pay for a lot of location time (nor, probably, the twenty-five thousand bucks or more for a digital view camera). I also conjecture that as a news photographer, he hasn’t had the occasion to use shifts and tilts since he was in art school.
However, this still doesn’t explain the result. A view camera has two main tricks; one is perspective correction (shifts) and the other is focal plane control (tilts). The latter is how you get a picnic blanket full of food and the mountains in the distance beyond the meadow all in focus without having to stop the lens down to the point where diffraction will ruin the result. There is no digital substitute for the swings and tilts, but image editing software like Photoshop easily corrects perspective, and I’m genuinely mystified that neither the photographer sent out with the original to duplicate it, nor an editor looking at the pictures above, didn’t realize that this simple fix was needed before publishing them side by side. Something has obviously changed since 1910 in how professionals look at images, and what they see in them.