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Early-Morning Photographs of Turn-of-the-Century New York City

Robert L. Bracklow, "Astor House at Broadway and Barclay Street, New York City" (1913), glass negative (courtesy New-York Historical Society)
Robert L. Bracklow, “Astor House at Broadway and Barclay Street, New York City” (1913), glass negative (courtesy New-York Historical Society)

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.'”

The Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection
Robert L. Bracklow (second from left) and other members of the Camera Club (May 23, 1909) (courtesy New-York Historical Society)

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 BridgeBuffalo Bill Cody visiting Brooklynbuildings 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.

The Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection
Robert L. Bracklow, “80 Maiden Lane under construction, New York City” (1911), glass negative (courtesy New-York Historical Society) (click to enlarge)

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.

The Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection
Robert L. Bracklow, “Smoking ruins of a saw mill” (August 29, 1889), glass negative (courtesy New-York Historical Society)
The Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection
Robert L. Bracklow, “Unidentified girls in white with umbrellas in front of the Bloomingdale Reformed Church, West End Avenue and W. 106th Street, New York City” (1905-13), glass negative (courtesy New-York Historical Society)
The Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection
Robert L. Bracklow, “Group of unidentified women and children (and dog) having an outdoor tea party, Bensonhurst, Brooklyn” (August 27, 1898), glass negative (courtesy New-York Historical Society)
The Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection
Robert L. Bracklow, “Old houses, possibly at Eighth Avenue and W. 124th Street, New York City” (1897), glass negative (courtesy New-York Historical Society)
The Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection
Robert L. Bracklow, “Canal boats at Coenties Slip, New York City” (1891), glass negative (courtesy New-York Historical Society)
The Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection
Robert L. Bracklow, “Building under construction on Riverside Drive at W. 83rd Street, with signs advertising windows for sale for the Grant Parade, New York City” (1897), glass negative (courtesy New-York Historical Society)
The Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection
Robert L. Bracklow, “Men and boys bathing in a floating swimming pool or dock, New York City” (1882-1919), glass negative (courtesy New-York Historical Society)
The Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection
Robert L. Bracklow, “The Rhinelander Sugar House, with the building in front of it removed, New York City” (1892), glass negative (courtesy New-York Historical Society)

View the Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection from the New-York Historical Society online at METRO’s Digital Culture of Metropolitan New York

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