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Guide to the Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection
 PR 8

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

New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Jenny Gotwals, 2003; database migrated to Archivist Toolkit by Jennifer Gargiulo, 2016

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on September 09, 2019
Finding aid written in English.

Scope and Contents Note

The Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection spans the period from 1882 to 1918 and documents a city undergoing dramatic architectural change as it entered a new century. The collection, comprised of photographs of New York City, its immediate environs, and towns throughout New England, is arranged into three series based on provenance: Alland Purchase; Trappan Gift; and Other Sources. Within series, photographs are arranged by format. The Bracklow Collection includes: 2130 glass negatives; 1254 8 x 10" silver gelatin prints; 99 7 x 9" prints; 1510 5 x 7" prints; 90 4 x 5" prints; 29 albums including 24 6 x 8" prints, 12 2 x 6.5" prints, 658 4.5 x 6.5" prints, and 97 3.5 x 4.5" prints; 23 albumen prints mounted on board; 4 cabinet cards; 7 lantern slides; 2 logbooks; and several folders of documentary material. The images in Series I of this collection have been digitized.

Bracklow's photographs show a clear, documentary style. He often used a sharp focus, and did not retouch photographs, as did many others photographing at the time. During Bracklow's lifetime, New York ( as well as many other cities) experienced great changes that were visually exciting and new for many inhabitants. Bracklow set out to acquire images of both the old and the new. His photographs document areas of New York City that were about to be demolished, or retained antique features, such as wells or shanties. Architectural change was of great interest to Bracklow; he searched out and photographed new buildings, arches, and statues all over New York City. Downtown skyscrapers and the nearby streets turned into 'canyons' in relation to them are common subjects. Many Manhattan pictures also highlight older structures. Images of historic buildings and houses throughout New England are present in great numbers as well. Other views show pleasant journeys to New York suburbs, beaches, and rural places throughout the East Coast.

Many quintessential New York scenes from the turn of the century can be found in Bracklow's 29 photo albums, which he titled, captioning each image in ink. He often noted the date and time of day the photograph was taken. The opening of the Dewey Arch and the Naval Parade in commemoration of the Spanish-American War victory are well-documented, as are crowds at Newspaper Row reading Spanish-American war headlines on the newspaper buildings. One album shows crowds bustling to work in lower Manhattan, but in general people are not the focus of these photographs. A few group outings, especially Camera Club excursions, are shown, mainly by pictures of other photographers in action. Bracklow also photographed mass events, such as parades, but seemingly more for their historic value than to focus on the people in attendance. Bracklow's New York City was one defined by its monuments and history, rather than by its inhabitants. Those monuments include the Dewey Arch, Washington Arch, Lorelei Fountain in the Bronx, the Croton Reservoir and New York Public Library, the Flatiron Building, Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridges, Washington and High Bridges, City Hall and skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan. Bracklow's photographs also include many churches, historic houses, and university buildings. Street scenes of Hell's Kitchen (near Bracklow's home) and lower Manhattan (near his work) show that Bracklow was often just as interested in the familiar as in the monumental.

Unlike other photographers of his time, Bracklow was not interested in using photography to document social ills. Slums or other markers of urban poverty are not present in these photos. Bracklow did photograph what he called "shacks" on upper Riverside Drive, but these are almost rural farmhouses, notable for their connection to an early era of the city, and are not depicted as urban blight. While none of his writings survive to suggest his intentions, Robert Bracklow clearly respected the processes of city growth as much as he did its history. The New York visible through Bracklow's camera is a city shaped by its history, its willingness to change that history, and its resulting architectural beauty.

An exhibit of Bracklow's photographs, "Shanties to Skyscrapers: Robert L. Bracklow's Photographs of Early New York," was held at the New-York Historical Society from 15 December 1983 to 6 May 1984. The catalog to this exhibit can be found in the Collection File, as well as on the reference shelves in the Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections.

Series I. Alland Purchase consists of Bracklow's original glass negatives and silver gelatin prints made by Alexander Alland from those negatives. The negatives date from 1882 to 1918. Most prints seem to have been made between 1948 and 1950. The series is divided into two subseries, Negatives and Prints.

Alexander Alland (1902-1989) was a photograph collector and documentary photographer in his own right. As described in his essay, "Robert Bracklow: Self-Appointed Recorder of New York," which appears in the Bracklow exhibition catalog, Alland fortuitously stumbled upon notice of Bracklow's glass negatives, which had been abandoned after the sale of the family home of Bracklow's friend and heir, Mary Granger. Alland 'rescued' the negatives, and perhaps Bracklow himself, from oblivion. In 1949 Alland offered to sell prints he had made from these negatives to The New-York Historical Society. At this time, Alland produced a numbered list of photos (1 -- 2215A) that forms the basis for the organization of this series. He also furnished N-YHS with proofs for their consideration. N-YHS chose the prints it wished to buy, and Alland delivered 8 x 10 prints, backed with linen and stamped with his copyright, to N-YHS. In 1983, upon the mounting of an exhibit on the work of Bracklow, the Society bought the original glass negatives from Alland, in addition to all remaining sets of prints he had made from those negatives. Upon careful analysis of Bracklow's subjects, Alland's numbering system is revealed as haphazard, and perhaps tells us something of the disorganization of Bracklow's negatives at the time Alland received them. Shots of similar subjects, or scenes dated the same day, are rarely contiguous in Alland's number set. Examination of the prints and corresponding negatives suggests that Alland did not make exact prints of Bracklow's negatives, but sometimes enlarged one part of an image. The photograph titles for this series come mainly from Alland (who used Bracklow's notes on negative envelopes for some information), additional information was added by an unidentified staff member of N-YHS, and generally appears in the title in brackets. Alland's original typed list can be found in the Collection File.

Series II and III, Trappan Gift, include 29 photograph albums (containing 793 prints), 395 5x7" vintage prints, 7 7x9" vintage prints, 4 cabinet cards; 7 lantern slides, 2 logbooks, and documentary material. All prints appear to be platinum prints. Subseries were determined based on format: Albums, Documentary Material, Logbooks, Vintage Prints, and Lantern Slides. Ruth Trappan, whose grandmother was Mary Granger's cousin, inherited Bracklow's albums, vintage prints and other paraphernalia. While the material was in her possession, Trappan began working on an exhibit of Bracklow's photographs. She removed several photographs from Bracklow's albums, and wrote captions for the photos. All removed photos have been replaced in albums. Her captions can be found in a folder in subseries III.1. Trappan commented on or identified several of the loose photos and the photos in the albums. Her remarks are in pencil and are signed "R.T."

Photo titles from the photo albums were input into the database of titles numbered by Alland, which has been migrated into Series I of this finding aid. The vintage prints in the album were matched, when possible, with numbered prints. 202 album prints are also represented in Alland's numbered run. In addition, unnumbered negatives were matched to 65 prints in albums. Alland numbers do not appear to exist for 592 prints in the album. In general, most of the prints from outside New York were not found in Alland's numbered list.

Many images found in the albums in Series II do not appear in Series I. These include scenes from a trip to Fort Washington, N.Y. (possibly a Camera Club trip, as other photographers are shown.) Outside of New York, albums show the building of a waterworks in Milford, CT, historic houses throughout New England, beach and harbor scenes from Marblehead, MA, and landscapes and street scenes of Harper's Ferry, VA (another possible Camera Club outing).

Album 1 is entitled "Glimpses Through the Camera," but none of these photos correspond to the copies of the mounted series by that name found in Series IV. Album 3 contains a photograph on the last page about which Bracklow noted, "From skyscraper competition, 1907. Negative and print by Wm. E. Wilmerding." This seems to be the only occurrence of another photographer's photo in an album. Album 4, "New York," opens with photos of a house in 23 Bond Street, and has laid in a mounted clipping (dated 1902) about the death of Ann Eliza Partridge, the owner of that address. The sole unnumbered album is entitled, as is Album 5, "Dewey Days," and contains the inscription "limited edition, R. L. Bracklow." Indeed, it seems to be made with higher quality paper than the other of Bracklow's albums. It is almost entirely a replica of Album 5, with two photos from Album 6 at the end. While most albums contain photographs from similar periods of time, several are more subject centered than chronological. Album 12 documents, over several years, the unveiling, destruction, and subsequent renovation of the Lorelei Fountain in the Bronx. Album 23 and 24 are both titled "Harper's Ferry." 23 has the initials "RLB" on the front. 24 has the initials "JMT." Perhaps Bracklow meant this album for one of the friends who accompanied him on the trip. Album 28 has an index card laid in with picture descriptions and relevant dates.

Organization of the Collection

This collection is organized into series:

  • Series I: Alland Purchase
  • Series II: Trappan Gift: Albums
  • Series III: Trappan Gift: Other Materials
  • Series IV: Other Sources

Series I: Alland Gift is organized into subseries:

  • Subseries I.1: Alland Purchase: Negatives
  • Subseries I.2: Alland Purchase: Prints

Series II: Trappan Gift: Albums, is organized into subseries, with each subseries representing an album.

Series III: Trappan Gift: Other Materials, is organized into subseries:

  • Subseries III.1: Trappan Gift: Documentary Material
  • Subseries III.2: Trappan Gift: Logbooks
  • Subseries III.3: Trappan Gift: Vintage Prints
  • Subseries III.4: Trappan Gift: Lantern Slides

Series IV: Other Sources, is organized based on the year of the gift or purchase