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Guide to the Alexander Alland Photograph Collection
1885-1905, 1940
  PR 110

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400

@ 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Jenny Gotwals

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on October 31, 2011
Description is in English.

Scope and Content Note

The Alexander Alland Photograph Collection spans the period from 1885 to 1940 and primarily contains photographs of New York City and its inhabitants. The collection is divided into two series: Photographs by Alland and Photographs by Unidentified Photographers. Alland's titles and descriptions of the images are attached to this finding aid. Alland's essays about his own photographs can be found in the Collection File.

Series I. Photography by Alland is made up of 136 black and white, 8 x 10" photographs. The series is divided into two subseries, which are based on Alland's own titles for each group of photos: Gypsies in New York City and Black Jews in New York City. Both groups of photographs were taken in 1940. Each of the subseries is an excellent example of the kind of documentary photography work that interested Alland: in-depth studies of ethnic communities over a controlled period of time. The photographs show the seriousness of each community, as well as its capacity for playfulness. Alland was interested in showing the quotidian as well as the unique in order to gain a fuller understanding of the lives and culture of each group. His accompanying introductions combine historical information with economic facts and tales of the difficult lives of the two ethnic groups.

Subseries I. Gypsies in New York City. These photographs document a group of Gypsies residing in Manhattan's Lower East Side. In his introduction to the series of photos Alland claims that, "these people are the least known and most misunderstood group in this country." The Gypsies in New York City numbered about 2,500 in 1940, according to Alland. The leader of the group, Steve Kaslov, was known as "the gypsy king" (a newspaper article about his opposition to child marriage is in the Collection File.) He features prominently in these photos, as do children, musicians, and fortune tellers.

Alland showed concern for the economic situation of the Gypsies in the modern urban environment. He noted, "When factory-made wares of cast aluminum replaced the heavier and more expensive copper vessels, and the horse gave way to motor vehicles, the Gypsies were deprived of work in the only trades they knew. Woman [sic] may still tell fortunes, but the stringent laws prohibiting this practice, cut deeply into their purse. . . Now these people, with wanderlust their heritage, always free to roam, are confined within the limits of a city, where a majority of them are on home-relief." Several photos document an adult education literacy class initiated by Kaslov.

Many of the photos show the poor conditions of most Gypsy homes, but often highlight a spirit of perseverance. "Fond of children, and unhampered by the most primitive conditions, Gypsy mothers give their infants the best care they are capable of" Alland comments about a photo showing a mother washing her child in a ceramic tub on the floor. Several photos of children playing call attention to their plight. "Ramshackle condemned houses are usually the only kind rented to Gypsies" Alland captioned a photo of children at the top of a rickety wooden staircase above a yard full of trash. The gypsies are also shown at an Easter Mass at a Russian Greek Orthodox Church, at a party, and at a funereal meal. Alland's captions call attention to the continuation of these traditional forms of socialization among the community in New York.

Included in the series is a March 1941 copy of the magazine Pic, in which some of these photos were published.

Subseries II. Black Jews in New York City. In his introduction to this photographic group, Alland claims "the origin of Black Jews goes back to the reign of Menilek I, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. For centuries before and since 333 A.D., the year in which Christianity was adopted in Ethiopia, a large part of the population followed the Jewish religion." He continues, "[a] census taken three years ago reveals that there are about 10,000 Black Jews in New York City, out of a possible quarter-million in the Western Hemisphere. . . Through membership in Masonic Lodges affiliated with the Royal Order of Ethiopian Hebrews, they are in constant touch with each other. The biggest lodge is in Harlem." In this Harlem congregation, located at 128th Street and Lenox Avenue, Alland found his subjects.

Most of the photographs show religious services, highlighting the faces of the congregation, rabbi, and cantor, and traditional Jewish rituals. The majority of the photos were taken during Simchat Torah, a Jewish holiday celebrating the year-long cycle of reading the Torah, and include images of rabbis blowing the ram's horn and displaying the Torah before the congregation. Typically, Alland was interested in both the commonality and the individual attributes of his group subjects. A caption for photograph number 32 reads, "[I]ndependent of all other Jewish religious organizations, the congregation of Black Jews is orthodox, but some ceremonies are peculiarly their own, such as the raising of the hands while receiving the blessing." Also shown in this vein are members of the choir and junior choir, all of whom are female. Other views show meetings of a "Young Judea" group led by the Rabbi's daughter, and of a "Talmud-Torah" Hebrew school for younger children.

Series II. Photographs by Unidentified Photographers is made up of approximately 261 black and white, 8 x 10" photographs, which are mainly of New York City. The prints were made by Alland from negatives whose provenance was unknown to him. They were previously considered part of the Robert Bracklow Photograph Collection, but were removed in November 2001. The photographs are numbered from 2250-2511, which is an extension of the numbering system Alland devised for the Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection. Prints are filed by number. Alland titled approximately 125 of these photographs. A list of his titles, as well as a photocopy of each photo, is available at the Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections.

These photographs document quotidian elements of turn of the century New York City life, including crowds of people in the street, elevated trains, schoolchildren, houses, streetcars, churches, and graveyards. Other views show police parades, political rallies, street banners in Hebrew (photograph # 2277), men (seemingly homeless) sleeping on park benches, crowds ice skating in a park (perhaps Central Park), women buying newspapers on the street, photographers, a public market, and ships in New York Harbor.

Streetscapes of downtown Manhattan are shown, including several of Baxter Street, both with and without celebratory bunting. Architectural events such as the construction of the Washington Bridge are present, as are photos showing more specific events. Madison Square is photographed filled with columns for the Dewey Arch construction, as is an illuminated sign bearing the greeting "Welcome Dewey." One photograph documents a banner and street celebration on April 21, 1909; the banner's message, "We believe in you," refers to Frederick Cook's controversial arctic expedition of 1908-1909. Photos of Coney Island include general beach scenes as well as the elephant hotel and the Streets of Cairo exhibit. Images also highlight Union Square, the People's Baths (photograph # 2474) and the Qbata Company baby incubator (photograph #2502).

While most of these photographs were taken in New York City, there are some views of a more rural nature. The majority of these involve portraits of houses or landscape views. Three photographs show the interior of Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York. A photograph titled "Japanese proxy brides" shows a group of Japanese women on board a ship. Several photographs may be the work of A. F. Sherman, the Chief Clerk of the Immigration Service. New immigrants are photographed with their luggage on Ellis Island. Alland was known to have acquired Sherman's work, but there are no markings on these prints to suggest their provenance.


Photos are filed by Alland's numbering system.

  1. Series I. Photographs by Alland
  2. Series II. Photographs by Unidentified Photographers