Beauty As An Accidental Artifact Of Technology

by Don Friedman on April 21, 2017

I used this picture once before, but I think it deserves some discussion:

[Click on the photo to enlarge.] That’s the Woolworth Building rising up over the old General Post Office. The two buildings are separated by Broadway and the small buildings on the right front on Broadway. City Hall can be dimly seen in the lower right corner, most recognizable by its cupola; the spire of St. Paul’s Chapel is just to the left of the post office; and the building at the lower left, nearest to the camera, is the old New York Times Building at 41 Park Row. That means this photo was taken from the American Tract Society Building at 150 Nassau Street.

At first glance it looks like this might be a foggy night, but that’s not correct. The distant lights of Jersey City on the upper right are clearer than some of the much closer detail. What’s happening is that the bright street lights of Park Row and Broadway, the brighter light at the apex of the Woolworth’s roof, and street lights elsewhere are burning-in the negative (a glass plate, in this case). In the days before different film speeds – a phrase that refers to a technology that didn’t yet really exist when this picture was taken and is rapidly dying today – there was an art to timing exposures. Too long and incidental light would blur the image; too short and the poorly-lit areas would not be visible. This photo is probably about as good an exposure as could be made back then.

What’s funny is that, from our perspective, the defects in image capture caused by the relatively primitive film technique are beautiful. We expect photos to be “photo realistic” regardless of the time of day, so when we see a blurred shot like this it strikes us as “art.” In some ways, the accidental defects enhance the majesty of the Woolworth Building. This may have been intentional on the part of the photographer, or it may have been an unavoidable result of the film technology…and I don’t really care which it is.

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