Larry Silver puts his concentration on display in show at New-York Historical Society
“The cop took my camera and looked through the images and finally gave me the camera back,” Mr. Silver said. “This happens a lot to photographers now. We don’t have the freedom we had.”
It helped that a woman watching the exchange came to his defense. She went over to the officers, Mr. Silver recalled, “and said, ‘I know this man. He has a show at the New-York Historical Society. He’s a reputable photographer.’”
The show, “Photographs by Larry Silver, 1949-1955,” vividly shows the artistic benefits of what Mr. Silver describes as lingering. The 45 photographs are of everyday New Yorkers amid sights such as the newly completed United Nations Secretariat Building, the old Penn Station and subway cars. The exhibition opened this month and runs through Dec. 4.
There’s something about the black-and-white images, a meditative quality, that captures that era. You get the sense that whether it was children rafting at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx or even the bright lights of Times Square, the city wasn’t the frenetic place that it is today.
‘Boy on Rooftop’ (1951) ENLARGE
‘Boy on Rooftop’ (1951) PHOTO: LARRY SILVER/NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY
“A lot of people were moving to the suburbs,” explained Marilyn Satin Kushner, the show’s curator and the head of the society’s Department of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections. “These are the people and the city they left behind.”
Much of the exhibition’s power comes from Mr. Silver’s sense of mood and composition. I’ve seen those famous photographs of light slanting through the steel framework of the original Pennsylvania Station, demolished in 1963. But the sense of loss really hits home in an image of a man with two children stepping out from under the station’s stately colonnade onto Seventh Avenue with Gimbels department store in the distance.
These days, that location is the entrance to a hole in the ground that is the only Penn Station most of us know.
“I design my pictures a lot,” Mr. Silver said. “I usually crop with the camera, not in the darkroom. Every single print here I made myself.”
I felt a personal connection to a good number of the photographs since they were taken around the time I was born and capture what I realize in retrospect was the innocence of that era. (I suppose, though, any era seems innocent compared to subsequent ones.)
Mr. Silver looks at his work in a gallery. ENLARGE
Mr. Silver looks at his work in a gallery. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
There’s a 1950 image of three children bundled up against the cold and ogling the toys in a store window. And a photograph of a dog in a coat doing pretty much the same thing at a D’Agostino Brothers grocery store. He appears motivated by the weekly flier—“Families can’t be wrong!—advertising bargains, including halibut at 69 cents a pound.
“You were interested in humanizing the New York City landscape,” Ms. Kushner said. Mr. Silver agreed. “I used the people and their surroundings.”
Like any self-respecting artist, the photographer remembers the moments that got away as vividly as the ones he captured. There’s a photograph of a woman, her head resting but her face hidden but her head resting against the sill of an apartment window. Mr. Silver took it at eye level from a subway platform in the Bronx.
“It started to snow and she let the flakes of snow hit her face,” he remembered. “I waited for that shot to come again and it never did.”
Mr. Silver’s claim that photographers today don’t have the freedom they once had rings strange in the age of the iPhone, Instagram and Snapchat.
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But an image of a man in the waiting room at Grand Central Terminal taken in 1952 makes the photographer’s point. The man is engrossed in his newspaper. Whether or not he realizes he is being photographed, he doesn’t acknowledge the camera; it poses no threat.
“People’s attitude now is they’re leery of photography,” Mr. Silver explained. “People are taking pictures and putting them on the internet.”