Saturday, April 21, 2012

Our Story So Far (II)

Above, Weary & Kramer's 1893 Christ Methodist Episcopal Church (now the First United Methodist Church) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The building, which replaced an earlier church structure destroyed by fire, still stands, though recent photographs show no sign of the ivy. Below, some brief and very amateur thoughts on the historical uses of Rotograph's output of scenic view cards.

Dissertations could no doubt be written (and in fact, at least a few have been written) about postcards as an early form of social media (one often derided by traditionalists of the day as a trivialized and mass-marketed substitute for proper letter-writing), about what images were produced and why, and about the place of scenic views within the history of photography and modern art. Another body of potential historical evidence can be found in the messages that were written on the cards, which, while they tend to the banal and formulaic, sometimes illuminate tiny corners of interest to the microhistorian, as well as broader trends, like immigration, as in the example below, which was posted to a Norwegian-American woman.

On the most superficial level, of course, Rotograph's archive of thousands of images preserves a record of how the country appeared a century or so ago, but the fact is that most of what we see in them is amply documented elsewhere. Unlike Real Photo postcards, which sometimes captured unique images of ordinary life and events both profound and trivial, Rotograph's views tended to concentrate on those aspects of life that were most public and unchanging, at least from one day to the next: monuments, bridges, schools, churches, office buildings, parks, beaches, hotels, and so on. They were scenes that the purchaser might want to preserve as souvenirs, or share with others who lived at a distance (though postcards were very often exchanged between correspondents who lived no more than a few miles apart), but they did not in themselves reveal anything to those who were already familiar with the locations they depicted.

Cities and towns grow, but they also decay; often, they do both simultaneously, as one form of urbanization supplants another. Most buildings have lifetimes -- sometimes surprisingly short ones -- and only the most indispensable or symbolically significant structures are likely to be preserved indefinitely. A high percentage of the inns and resorts shown in Rotograph's views of New England, for instance, were lost to fire, often within a generation or two of their construction -- but recognizing this immediately raises the question of why many were not replaced. This negative evidence, the absence of these structures today, may be traceable to shifts in vacation patterns due to the rise of the automobile and the roadside motel.

The disappearance of some structures, like Hammatt Billings's canopy over Plymouth Rock (above), accompanied shifting fashions in aesthetics and public taste, while other absences -- buildings once regarded as assets that were later demolished as liabilities -- may be linked to demography or to changing patterns in the use and management of public space. The survival of certain buildings, like the "casino" below (really more of a recreation hall and sometime theatre) may speak to the relative immunity to change of favored enclaves like Nantucket Island.

To me, however, the aspect that is of greatest interest is cumulative, and comparative. Looking at an array of these images in succession and in juxtaposition, we see a world that is partly familiar but partly radically different. Manhattan, for example, has changed dramatically in the past hundred years, but most of its essential qualities of size, infrastructure, economic and political function, ethnic diversity, and so on were already firmly established by the first decade of the twentieth century.

From the perspective of a hundred years we see the changes, but from an even longer perspective there are equally significant continuities. New York is, as it was then, a busy, dense megalopolis where millions of people of different classes and backgrounds live, work, study, shop, fight, love, and die. When we look at the city a hundred years ago we are, in a real sense, looking at ourselves, but in a way that highlights both what we share and don't share with those who came before us.

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