Art

Sharing Amateur Photographers’ Shots from the New York World’s Fairs

Jerry Kean (Gerald J. Kwapich Kean)   Toledo, Ohio – Sunnyside, New York, 1937- 2014 Collection of the Queens Museum; gift of Jerry Kean Gilles Dancers at Belgian Village, 1964
Jerry Kean, Gilles Dancers at Belgian Village (1964) (all photos courtesy the Queens Museum unless otherwise indicated)

With the ostentatious pavilions gleaming during the day, and the fountains and futuristic statuary illuminated at night, the World’s Fairs in New York were a photographer’s dream. Numerous professionals and news reporters flocked to Flushing Meadows, but alongside were just as many amateurs, often equipped with a Kodak preloaded with film.

Frank Oscar Larson_Sons Franklin and David_HiRes
Frank Oscar Larson’s photograph of his sons Franklin and David on a miniature of the 1939 World’s Fair Trylon & Perisphere (click to enlarge)

That Kodak Moment: Picturing the New York Fairs opened at the Queens Museum in November. Showcasing a recent donation of 1,200 medium-format color slides by fashion photographer Jerry Kean and performing arts photographer Van Williams, the exhibit also includes some of the 10,000 objects in the museum’s collection related to the fairs. Many of these have never been on public view, including personal scrapbooks with worn pages open to family vacation snapshots juxtaposed against a surreal landscape.

On one wall of the Kodak Moment, slides play in carousels, while mementos in display cases like World’s Fair-branded cameras and photographs lay flat. Certain shots catch the eye, like Dalí and Gala visiting a giant alien fish head at the “Dream of Venus” attraction in 1939, and Westinghouse’s Elektro robot who could smoke, talk, and flirt with ladies.

Kodak itself was highly aware that sharing photography was essential to their brand, especially at the flamboyant World’s Fair. Long before Instagram and museums were encouraging hashtags, Kodak was staging pavilions where you could pose with a miniature of the 1939 Trylon and Perisphere, and offering an incredible aerial vantage point from the 1964 World’s Fair undulating pavilion roof. On the exterior of each of these pavilions, gigantic photographs of cats and kids were displayed, suggesting anyone’s snapshots were worthy of being seen.

The Kodak pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair, and a view from the top (photographs by Doug Coldwell, via Wikimedia)
The Kodak pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, and a view from the top (photographs by Doug Coldwell, via Wikimedia)
The 1939 World's Fair Kodak pavilion, note the photos at right (photograph by Richard, via Flickr)
The 1939 World’s Fair Kodak pavilion, note the photos at right (photograph by Richard/Flickr)

Mia Fineman, assistant curator in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Photographs, wrote in “Kodak and the Rise of Amateur Photography” that “the most significant event in the history of amateur photography was the introduction of the Kodak #1 camera in 1888,” something that sparked the mass photography craze. She adds that by the 1960s the “snapshot aesthetic” had even gained “currency in art photography circles.”

Introducing new, user-friendly cameras at the World’s Fairs, Kodak likely encouraged a few enthusiasts to pick up one of their 1939 Brownie’s branded with gold Trylon. From our view in 2014 — with the once-king Kodak only emerging from its 2012 bankruptcy — both the fairs and the company are distinctly dated. However, the impulse to share a personal experience among a sea of photographers is certainly not. Even in 1939, everyone wanted their own shot of the spectacle.

Jerry Kean_US Royal Giant Tire_HiRes
Jerry Kean, US Royal Giant Tire at the 1964 World’s Fair
Van Williams American, dates unknown Digital prints from scanned original Ektachrome film Carousel, Belgian Village, 1964
Van Williams, Carousel in the Belgian Village (1964), digital print from scanned original Ektachrome film
'That Kodak Moment: Picturing the New York Fairs' at the Queens Museum (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
‘That Kodak Moment: Picturing the New York Fairs’ at the Queens Museum (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
'That Kodak Moment: Picturing the New York Fairs' at the Queens Museum (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
‘That Kodak Moment: Picturing the New York Fairs’ at the Queens Museum (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
Van Williams, Giant Engine at the Chrysler Pavilion, 1964. Color glass slide. Collection of the Queens Museum, gift of Jerry Kean
Van Williams, Giant Engine at the Chrysler Pavilion (1964), color glass slide
Jerry Kean (Gerald J. Kwapich Kean)   Toledo, Ohio – Sunnyside, New York, 1937- 2014 Collection of the Queens Museum; gift of Jerry Kean Hula Girls at Aloha Theater, Hawaii Pavilion, 1964
Jerry Kean, Hula Girls at Aloha Theater, Hawaii Pavilion (1964)
'That Kodak Moment: Picturing the New York Fairs' at the Queens Museum (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
‘That Kodak Moment: Picturing the New York Fairs’ at the Queens Museum (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
Anonymous_Clown Emmet Kelly Jr at the Bell System Pavilion_HiRes
Anonymous photograph of the Clown Emmett Kelly, Jr. at the Bell System Pavilion
Jerry Kean_Alice and the White Rabbit at Disney's It's a Small World_HiRes
Jerry Kean, Alice and the White Rabbit at Disney’s It’s a Small World
Jerry Kean (Gerald J. Kwapich Kean)   Toledo, Ohio – Sunnyside, New York, 1937- 2014 Collection of the Queens Museum; gift of Jerry Kean New York State Pavilion detail, 1964
Jerry Kean, New York State Pavilion detail (1964)
Van Williams American, dates unknown Digital prints from scanned original Ektachrome film Dancers, New Mexico Pavilion, 1964
Van Williams, Dancer at the New Mexico Pavilion (1964), digital print from scanned original Ektachrome film
Jerry Kean (Gerald J. Kwapich Kean)   Toledo, Ohio – Sunnyside, New York, 1937- 2014 Collection of the Queens Museum; gift of Jerry Kean Singapore Pavilion and Swiss Sky Ride, 1964
Jerry Kean, Singapore Pavilion & Swiss Sky Ride (1964)
Jerry Kean (Gerald J. Kwapich Kean)   Toledo, Ohio – Sunnyside, New York, 1937- 2014 Collection of the Queens Museum; gift of Jerry Kean Tyrannosaurus at Sinclair's Dinoland, 1964
Jerry Kean, Tyrannosaurus at Sinclair’s Dinoland (1964)
Van Williams American, dates unknown Digital prints from scanned original Ektachrome film Astral Fountain and Vatican Pavilion, 1964
Van Williams, Astral Fountain & Vatican Pavilion (1964), digital print from scanned original Ektachrome film
'That Kodak Moment: Picturing the New York Fairs' at the Queens Museum (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
Elektro the robot, ‘That Kodak Moment: Picturing the New York Fairs’ at the Queens Museum (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
'That Kodak Moment: Picturing the New York Fairs' at the Queens Museum (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
‘That Kodak Moment: Picturing the New York Fairs’ at the Queens Museum (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

That Kodak Moment: Picturing the New York Fairs continues at the Queens Museum (New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens) through February 8.

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