Interpreting Historical Photographs

by Don Friedman on August 16, 2017


That’s Broad Street at the beginning of the twentieth century. The building on the left side of the street with the pasted-on temple front is the New York Stock Exchange; the temple at the end of the street is Federal Hall. So far, another try down memory lane…

This post came about after I read this piece in Boing Boing on artist Sanna Dullaway colorizing a photograph of Broad Street. (Note that it’s not the same photo as the one above, but similar.)

My first reaction was the same as the author’s: colorization really brings the photo to life. I suspect that’s partially a cultural reaction. Western art used to be dominated by representational painting and sculpture, until the existence of photographs forced artists to rethink their priorities, but art in other parts of the world has used different forms of expression that seem, to those of us trained to see representationally, weird. The colors seem off, the perspective is skewed or nonexistent, symbolism overrides accuracy. Since I’m talking about art, all versions are equally valid, but we have to relearn in order to fully appreciate other forms. This issue exists at very mundane levels as well: I’m just old enough to have grown up watching a black and white TV, and it took a long time for me to get used to watching color TV even though I was watching color movies in theaters at the same time.

My second reaction is that cityscapes are always more complicated than we think they are. Broad Street, because of the presence of the Stock Exchange, was long devoted solely to financial services companies. But the brokers and clerks have to eat, so the old building on the right of the colorized photo has a restaurant that serves a buffet lunch. (Presumably that was faster than regular table service.) The men had their petty vices, so there’s a cigar store nearby. Watches were expensive (so not everyone had one) and had to be set against a standard time (no internet time, or phone time) so street clocks, like the one on the left, were common. Internal-combustion cars and trucks existed, but horse-drawn wagons were still common.

But the thing that made me really think was the comment in the piece that “Before the streets were taken over by cars and taxis, pedestrians ruled.” That is to some degree true, although a block to the west of this scene Broadway was so crowded that one businessman built a pedestrian bridge for people to cross to his store in 1866.  But the crowd in the middle of Broad Street isn’t a bunch of pedestrians. It’s the Curb brokers, AKA the Curb Exchange, AKA the American Stock Exchange – the less formal sibling of the NYSE. All those men are standing there conducting business – conducting THE business of Broad Street, trading stocks –  and they had no reason to move for anybody.

It’s not just easy to carry our biases and ingrained responses with us when we look at the past, it’s inevitable. When we look at an old photo, or look at an old building, or read an old text, we interpret it through our experience. If we work hard, we can limit the effect of those biases, but the work never ends. What that means in a practical sense is that we have to check on the context of any historical artifact before thinking we understand what it means. I happened to know that the Curb brokers met in the middle of Broad Street. I’d like to think that if I did not, I’d check on why there might be a  bunch of men standing there. Or, in a more day-to-day occupancy, I try to look up the history of a building before I take about what it is.

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