10 Photographers Who Captured the Tenor of NYC’s Past

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The obsession with old New York City continues, reignited after spotting a collection of Frank Horvat photographs on website Flashbak. We feature Horvat’s work below, along with images from other photographers who spent their careers capturing the tenor of the city’s colorful past, pre-Disneyfication. A mix of professional photographers and eagle-eyed amateurs wandering the streets, this scrapbook of New York City nostalgia paints a fascinating portrait of the city from different perspectives.

©Frank Horvat, 1982

Frank Horvat

“New York is the only city in the world that I know of where 10 million people can be cramped in the same space and not fight too much with each other, and get along sort of nicely. It’s a melting pot and a superb urban experiment.”

©William Klein, 1955

William Klein

“New York is a slum. You guys live on Fifth Avenue . . . You don’t know New York. I know New York, I’ve been walking my ass off.”

©Nan Goldin, Philippe H. and Suzanne Kissing at Euthanasia, New York City, 1981

Nan Goldin

“I was working as a bartender, at Tin Pan Alley, this tough bar on Times Square — back when it was Times Square, not Disney World — for this amazing woman who politicized me. This was Maggie Smith. I worked at the bar first, and then Kiki Smith worked there, and Ulli Rimkus, who later opened Max Fish, and Cara Perlman and other female artists. There were a lot of street people, a lot of prostitutes and pimps and gang kids. Some of them really didn’t like what happened to the bar. It was a neighborhood bar. Maggie cooked. It was on 49th Street and there was nowhere to eat. So people from CBS Records and all these places started coming because it was the only place with good food. And it was in this Japanese tourist guide, so suddenly a lot of Japanese tourists would come in, and the Clash would come in, and the bar changed and the regulars didn’t really like it, having all these arty women working there.”

©Weegee, circa 1945

Weegee

“I will walk many times with friends down the street and they’ll say, ‘Hey Weegee, here’s a drunk or two drunks laying in the gutter.’ I take one quick look at them and say, ‘They lack character.’ So even a drunk must be a masterpiece. I will drive around all night or all year looking for a good drunk picture. One of the most beautiful ones I got after riding around two years, then I made my drunk picture, was a guy on Amsterdam Avenue. One Sunday morning about five o’clock, he was sleeping underneath a canopy of a funeral undertaking parlor. Now that to me was a picture. Of course the obvious title would be Dead Drunk.”

©José Vergara, Girls with Barbies, East Harlem, 1970

José Vergara

“Housing projects in New York are very tall, they’re usually 12, 16 story, 21 story buildings. So I would go up the roof, and from the roof I would photograph, so of course you get the Twin Towers. But they would be different Twin Towers than the other folks get, because I got the ghetto in between.”

©James van der Zee, Couple with a Cadillac or, Couple in Raccoon Coats, 1932

James van der Zee

“The biggest day for studio photos was Sunday, especially Easter Sunday. The high class, the middle class, the poorer class all looked good on Sundays.”

©Elliott Erwitt, 1989

Elliott Erwitt

“This is where I live, this is what I identify with. New York is the center of my life, my activities, my family.”

©Garry Winogrand, New York, 1969

Garry Winogrand

“When a photograph is interesting, it’s interesting because of the kind of photographic problem it states—which has to do with the . . . contest between content and form. And, you know, in terms of content, you can make a problem for yourself, I mean, make the contest difficult, let’s say, with certain subject matter that is inherently dramatic. An injury could be, a dwarf can be, a monkey—if you run into a monkey in some idiot context, automatically you’ve got a very real problem taking place in the photograph. I mean, how do you beat it?”

©James Jowers, East Third Street, 1967

James Jowers

“Working the night shift as a porter at St. Luke’s Hospital, Jowers would spend his free time during the day roaming the streets of his Lower East Side neighborhood and the rest of Manhattan, capturing a gritty, funny and idiosyncratic view of the city.”

©Gregoire Alessandrini, 1990s

Gregoire Alessandrini

“At the time, I didn’t pretend to be a professional photographer, but I guess I had the intuition of being the witness of a vanishing world. Here and there, one could see the remains of a golden era, of a certain idea of New York. A mythical time, where one could stumble into Basquiat, Patti Smith or Debbie Harry at the corner deli. A period where everything seemed possible, cheap, simple and wild!”