Photographing the Skyline

By Ruben Cuellar

The years between 1870 and 1920 in New York City were characterized by incredible growth and expansion; the city began to rise vertically and became powered by all sorts of new technology that changed the skyline completely. The use of “modern” technology and the increase of height in the buildings caused a drastic change in the skyline. The New York City skyline, especially as viewed from Brooklyn Heights, became a spectacular sight, and people, both tourists and residents began capturing it in images. Photography was certainly a field that was improved significantly with advances in technology. As the city itself grew, there were more and more things to photograph. Photographers were capturing images of the city, like the view of the lower Manhattan skyline, and sharing them with the general public, photography began to gain popularity as a medium to represent the skyline. This led to a variety of photographic phenomena such as the use of photographs for advertising, the popularization of the photographic panorama, and a change in the way people view and commodify the skyline, all of which changed the skyline either by attracting more people or changing the way it was represented.

Photography first emerged in New York City with the daguerreotype around 1840. It was around then when Louis Daguerre introduced his process for obtaining images, which included producing pictures on silver-plated sheets of copper after several minutes of exposure to the camera. While Daguerreotypes were widely popular and got many people interested in photography, they were soon replaced with paper prints that were made from a negative of collodion and glass.[1]

The new paper print photographs caused an even wider popularization of photography as a medium: “Images taken with cameras were eventually the most widely used kind of illustration, especially valued in the field of advertising.”[2] Companies recognized that photographs were a great way to advertise because they were so widely distributed and because they were new and attention-grabbing. As it turns out, this form of advertising was so effective that everyone started using photography for commercial means, which in turn made photographs even more popular. This method of using photography to advertise products inspired people to start using photographs to advertise places. For example, aspects of the New York skyline were used as advertisements to encourage tourism.

As one commenter says, “Scenes of the city were often photographed, especially views of midtown Manhattan, the Bowery and Broadway, and the waterfronts along the East River. Photographs of the city were frequently used by real-estate developers and illustrators and were also sold for use in stereoscopes.”[3] This type of advertising did have an aesthetic quality because pictures were taken of landscapes and scenes that were pleasing to the eye, but the photographs were still primarily intended to be advertisements.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a shift back to the aesthetic properties of photography, and a movement known as the pictorialist movement tried to elevate photography to the realm of art. This was a drastic change from the earlier type of photography, that was used almost exclusively for advertising, and produced several new forms of photography. The photograph took on new implications and meanings as well with this shift. John Wood gives a detailed account of what such a photograph could mean:

All representational images of the immediate present, regardless of the genre, are of course elegiac visions, are memento mori in that they become for future generations both reminders of the past and foreshadowings of what inevitably is to come. There is, however, a narrower definition of memento mori -- the original meaning of the term-- that is, the purposeful creation of imagery to serve as both memorial and harbinger. During the middle decades of the nineteenth century new forms of such imagery appeared all across America.[4]

To Wood, photographs hold much more meaning than what they show; they represent something greater for a person, That can be a variety of emotions and meanings depending on the person capturing the image or the viewer. The type of meaning discussed in Wood’s statement is present in many of the photography of pictorialist movement. The photographic panorama emerges from the same idea.

Panoramas were typically painted landscapes that exhibited a three hundred and sixty degree view of a place, but with the use of photography to obtain images, panoramas changed completely. Although sometimes panoramas were painted or photographed as subtle form of advertisement to get people to either visit a place or to move there, most of the time panorama images contained much more beautiful and artistic content than commercial value. Cameras were finally able to capture landscapes and views in a relatively short time, without having to worry about mistakes or inaccuracy. The panorama image was a great innovation in the field of photography.

One commenter says: “The panorama is examined as a historical and discursive representation of modernity and modernization to consider its conditions of production and social relations as inseparable from technological change and economic growth and development.”[5] The panorama, then, is like one of the photographs that John Wood describes with deeper meaning that shows both the past and the future. A panorama of New York City around the time of 1870 to 1920, would show aspects of the past in the lower buildings with early technology, but it would also show the future in the high-tech skyscrapers that are mixed in with the older buildings. Being able to capture the lower Manhattan skyline like that was no small feat in this time period, and these panoramas became very popular. Many of them were used for advertising, as would expected. For example, newspaper presses in New York would include free panoramas in their newspapers to encourage more people to buy them. Photography allowed for images of the lower Manhattan skyline to be spread all over the place, making the skyline iconic and memorable.

All the different types of photographs in this time period, whether they were photographs used solely for advertisements, landscape photographs with commercial value, or panorama photographs, contributed to the lower Manhattan skyline. Innovations in photography created representations of the skyline in a new media, and allowed people to see the view of the skyline from Brooklyn Heights, for example, without having to travel to Brooklyn Heights. This representation led to an influx of people who wanted to move to the place that seemed so great and awe-inspiring in a photograph, which in turn led to more growth in New York City and even more expansion, upwards and outwards.

[1] Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. The Encyclopedia of New York City. (New York: Yale UP, 1995).

[2] Ibid., 900

[3] Ibid., 900. Stereoscopes were images constructed from a two pictures taken from different angles and were meant to create an impression of depth and solidity.

[4] Wood, John. America and the Daguerreotype. (Iowa City: Iowa UP, 1991). page 73.

[5] Watson, Petra. “Picturing the Modern City as a Panorama.” (Simon Fraser UP, 2007). page iii.