“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them,” solemnly intoned the narrator at the end of a television police drama that first aired in the late 1950s. I think of his words whenever I look at early 20th-century street photography. That genre, which involves taking spontaneous images in public places, usually without the knowledge of those being photographed, is voyeuristic but also informative. Each frozen moment suggests a tale.
The “naked city,” of course, was New York, which not coincidentally was a focal point for street photography and is the focus of this exhibition. Street photographers were heir to a slightly earlier tradition of urban realism in painting and printmaking also centered there. That movement is chronicled in Ashcan School Prints and the American City, 1900–1940, on view at the museum from July 17 to December 26.
It is no coincidence that street photography blossomed in New York around 1920. That year, for the first time, more Americans lived in urban than rural areas. Many were drawn to New York, including Black Southerners moving north in the Great Migration. The city also received an influx of European, Puerto Rican, and Latin American immigrants. The new, mostly poor residents were forced by high rents to crowd into tiny apartments, so they turned stoops, sidewalks, parks, and beaches into their parlors. Living out private moments in public view, they provided ample opportunities for photographers to chronicle the recent demographic, social, and economic shifts in the city. Some street photographers had noble motives. The socially concerned members of the Photo League, which included Walter Rosenblum, Lisette Model, and Leon Levinstein, hoped their images would bring awareness to inequities and effect social change. Walker Evans and Helen Levitt made their pictures in this exhibition as personal artworks. Louis Faurer and Lloyd Ullberg worked for magazines. There are also several examples by photographers such as James Van Der Zee, Roy DeCarava, and Ralph Steiner, who collaborated with their subjects to produce enduring portraits. Whether created for an assignment, as a personal expression, or to advocate for societal change, the images in this show—drawn entirely from the museum’s collection—function as a time machine that allows us to experience a slice of life in New York City almost a century ago.