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In the early-morning hours in turn-of-the-century New York City, a photographer who was afraid of the dark took his camera out into the light. Robert L. Bracklow, known as “Daylight Bob,” was a documentarian who captured quiet scenes of a rapidly changing city, often in areas where demolition and construction were underway. Despite the uniqueness of some of his images, his work isn’t widely known, partly because it hasn’t been easily accessible. This month the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) and the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) announced that the Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection has been digitized and is now available on the Digital Culture of Metropolitan New York site.
According to N-YHS, Bracklow got the “Daylight Bob” nickname because of his fear of the dark; he went so far as to create a “daylight developing tank” so he could avoid the darkroom. Lenge Hong, cataloging and metadata technician for the Robertson Digital Project, wrote in a post on the N-YHS From the Stacks blog that Bracklow “made his living as a stationer, eventually operating his own shop selling legal stationery in Lower Manhattan. He also sold mounted prints of the photographs he took during his off hours, inscribed ‘Glimpses through the Camera. Robert L. Bracklow, New York.’”
Immigrating to the United States from Germany as a kid, Bracklow took up photography in his 30s. The negatives at N-YHS date from 1882 to 1918, a time of flux in New York City’s architecture, infrastructure, and society. His photographs show horse carriages riding past new skyscrapers, the recently completed Brooklyn Bridge, Buffalo Bill Cody visiting Brooklyn, buildings going up on Maiden Lane, and the Croton Reservoir, which would later be torn down and replaced with Bryant Park and the New York Public Library. A few shots appear remarkably like the present day, even a century later, such as Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain surrounded by snow and a view of the Civil War Monument in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.
Bracklow was a member of the Camera Club, led by Alfred Stieglitz, but he never shared Stieglitz’s passion for approaching photography as a fine art. That’s why his negatives were acquired by N-YHS rather than an art museum.
“We don’t have the Alfred Stieglitzes, we don’t have the Dorothea Langes,” Marilyn Kushner, curator and head of the N-YHS department of prints, photographs, and architectural collections, told Hyperallergic. “We don’t have these great photographers because we weren’t collecting fine art photography, but what we do have that other people don’t have are wonderful examples of amateur photography of New York City and images of New York City from unknown photographers, who were excellent and had a lot of talent.” Some of them “really could be considered in the pantheon of wonderful photographers,” she added, “if anyone knew about them.”
N-YHS has hundreds of thousands of such photographs, and Kushner is planning in the coming years to stage an exhibition focused on New York from this perspective, including some of Bracklow’s images. “I think what Bracklow means to me as a photography curator — he’s just a wonderful example of these hidden treasures that we have at the New-York Historical Society,” she said.