The Urban Palimpsest: Cameras Peel the Layers

New York Exposed: Photographs from the Daily News , by Shawn O’Sullivan. Harry N. Abrams, 319 pages, $39.95.

What meaning clings to a collection of images of New York-320 photographs from the Daily News -all taken between 1920 and New Year’s Eve, 2000? I put off looking at it, suspecting that the stories it had to tell would seem naïvely irrelevant now-worse, would reinforce the catastrophic sense that our city has broken with its past.

But this turns out to be an excellent time to lose yourself in a photographic history of New York. Despite our endless recycling of 70′s fashions, the present era has been marked by a nearly pathological reluctance to look back. The physical past still permeates New York: in the old cobblestones winking up through layers of street tar; in faded advertisements steeped into brick buildings; in hitching posts and coal doors and moldering piers on the Hudson. The pleasure of a splendid 1926 photograph of traffic stalled in snowy mud on Orchard Street-automobiles cheek by jowl with horse-and-buggies; signs hung aloft reading “2 rooms to let / electric lights / inquire janitor”-comes only partly from the curiosity of observing outmoded habits of life and dress. It’s the satisfaction of finding a visual corollary for the shadowy anterior New York whose presence we feel, consciously or not, every day in this city.

Looking through New York Exposed chronologically, it’s striking how many strands of New York life have remained constant: preoccupation with celebrity and baseball and crime, with acts of daring and tableaux of destruction. The 1930′s photos of John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich deliquesce into shots of Kate Moss and J. Lo. Mobster killings of the 30′s and 40′s yield to Chinese-Vietnamese gang slayings in the 90′s. By coincidence, one of the first images in the book, taken on Sept. 16, 1920, depicts the frenzied aftermath of an explosion on Wall Street outside J.P. Morgan (the bomb was concealed inside a horse-and-buggy) that killed 30 and injured more than 400, an unsolved crime presumed to be the work of anarchists.

To the extent that New York Exposed has a narrative, it’s an impressionistic history of newspaper photography as practiced by a daily that devoted itself to the camera from the first (at its inception in 1919, the paper was called the Illustrated Daily News , and its logo even now is an old-fashioned camera). Still, aspects of the city’s evolution reveal themselves. Some of the most powerful images in the book depict individual deaths: in 1935, a man holding his head as he stands near the body of his wife, who has just been hit by a car; in 1961, a woman holding the bloody head of her dying lover, whom her husband has just shot; in 1954, a man slipping and falling from a roof. Pete Hamill points out in his eloquent preface that the influx of guns and drugs in the 1960′s and the resulting jump in murder rates made single deaths less newsworthy. He writes, “It gradually became difficult to get an ordinary crime of passion into the newspaper, or a death in a simple holdup; by the Eighties, reported killings were almost always multiple homicides.”

Mr. Hamill invokes the concept of the “pseudo-event,” a term coined by historian Daniel Boorstin in The Image (1961) to describe events that exist solely to be covered by the media. Politicians’ visits to schools or hospices are quintessential pseudo-events; the reporter’s mandate in such cases becomes decoding the artifice on display to lay bare some hidden kernel of authenticity. An early, hilarious pseudo-event depicted in this volume features John D. Rockefeller on his 84th birthday, having ostentatiously bestowed a nickel upon an unimpressed toddler, who is handing it back to him. Mr. Hamill notes that as the pseudo-event has become ascendant in America, reporters hunger for genuine crises as a relief from the numbing grind of public relations. “All routine assignments are cancelled,” he writes. “Adrenaline flows. Photographers and reporters rush to the scene of the calamity.” Though Mr. Hamill doesn’t go this far, it’s safe to say that readers and viewers feel similarly; catastrophes are authentic, and the prevalence of pseudo-events in our culture creates a longing for authenticity.

A survey of news photography in New York cannot help but raise the question of where, and how, the spectacle of destruction we have witnessed this fall will take its place in such a narrative. To be sure, there are pictures in New York Exposed that stand apart from the general continuity: a Prohibition photograph of children in Red Hook lunging with pots and pails into a gutter to scoop up wine being dumped from a nearby warehouse; a 1934 shot of a Nazi rally in a packed Madison Square Garden arrayed with swastikas and columns of young men in gleaming black boots; soldiers from the 82nd Airborne marching through the Washington Square arch during a victory parade in 1946.

The images we’ve seen this fall strike me as something different in more than just degree. Terrorist acts are in some sense pseudo-events: manufactured occasions intended to reverberate through the mass media. And yet the carnage and chaos they have wrought are as brutally authentic as anything we’ve seen. As events, they are both false and true. From a news standpoint, they are new.

The picture I’ve returned to most often in New York Exposed is from 1927; it shows the construction of the Independent Subway System on Sixth Avenue. Slightly retouched, it lays bare a chasm of dirt and pilings that extends for miles, a construction project so massive and ambitious that it looks like folly. One can hardly believe that the work will ever be completed, or the street made whole again. And yet it was, many decades ago, using technology we’ve far surpassed-a welcome, timely reminder of what New York is capable of building.

Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me (Nan A. Talese-Doubleday) was a finalist for the National Book Award.