This post is by Jill Reichenbach, Reference Librarian for the Department of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections. [*Blog post title taken from the song “Picture Book,” by The Kinks.]
The Album File, as its name suggests, is a collection of over 450 photo albums and scrapbooks, with the earliest dating back to the 1860s. The collection has been culled from myriad sources, both purchased and donated, and includes albums containing photos of everything from the Civil War, to the construction of the first World Trade Center, to a typical middle-class wedding from the early 1970s. (The marriage did not last, apparently, as the head of the groom has been cut out of numerous photos!)
The earliest albums in the series are small and ornate, testifying to the significance of the new art form and the value the tangible reproductions had to those who had the means to sit for portraits. As time passes the albums get larger in size and less beautiful, but the photographs begin to document more and more “ordinary people” and what they deemed worthy of capturing on film, chiefly family, friends, and vacations.
At a time when the camera phone is ubiquitous and the average person’s digital image archive numbers in the thousands, it’s especially interesting to see what people chose to put into an album, i.e., an early form of the now-pervasive “curating” of our online lives and identities.
It’s safe to assume that most people who put these albums together didn’t suspect that someday they would be housed in the photo archive of the New-York Historical Society, but that, perhaps, is what makes them even more interesting.
The images below are an admittedly random sampling of the albums in the collection, representing formal portraits, people, vacations, and locations in New York City. For more information about this collection, please see the Guide to the Album File.
The following album is rather plain on the outside, with a black leather cover, but the photos affixed to the black construction paper inside are lovely black and white photographs of a family trip to California in 1905.
Another family album captures Rye Beach, in Westchester County and oddly, a man changing a tire. The idea of one being photographed doing something so common or dull would probably have struck earlier generations as quite strange.
The following album documents a family trip to the West Indies in 1912. We forget now how much bigger the world was then. Television has exposed nearly everyone who lives in the industrialized world to the people and cultures of other countries, and many people of modest means have traveled the world themselves.
The next album documents the final years of the second Madison Square Garden, a beautiful structure that sat at the intersection of Madison Avenue and East 26th Street from 1890 to 1925; it was designed by McKim, Mead & White, one of the most celebrated architectural firms of all time. (The Society is home to over 60,000 of the firm’s architectural drawings and blueprints.) These photos were taken by the Wurts Brothers, a well-known photography studio at the time.
Also in the collection are a series of albums documenting the construction of Fort Tryon Park, in upper Manhattan, in 1934. The park was designed by the Olmstead Brothers, a landscape architectural firm founded by two sons of Frederick Law Olmstead, one of the designers of Central Park.
Finally, this album contains photographs taken by the famed photography studio of George P. Hall and Sons, of the recently completed ‘Central Bridge’ at 155th Street. It crosses the Harlem River into the Bronx. Completed in 1895, it’s most notable feature is its swing bridge span that allows larger boats to make their way north and south along the river. It was designated a NYC landmark in 1992 and is now called the Macombs Dam Bridge.
For those still reading, the Society’s “Behind the Scenes” blog featured one of the Library’s albums a few years ago. It is a collection of Brooklyn and Queens butchers ca. 1910.