The Man And The Myth
Samuel H. Gottscho's architectural and interior photography changed the way we see New York
Donald Albrecht -- Interior Design, 9/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
During the 1920's and '30's, architectural photographer Samuel H. Gottscho created a portrait of New York as the quintessential modern metropolis. Gottscho focused on the bold interplay of sun and shadow, dramatizing the angular forms of skyscrapers and silhouetting signature bridges. With the Depression-weary city's seamy side rigorously edited out—no breadlines, tenements, or shantytowns—Gottscho's city glowed with glamour as he cast his eye over vast aerial views, framed individual buildings and interiors, and even zoomed in on single products. Skyscrapers embodied forward-looking urbanism; the sparkling plate-glass windows of fashionable businesses reflected streamlined cars and stylish pedestrians. And in Gottscho's round-the-clock city, night was as charismatic as day—with artificially illuminated Times Square theaters and World's Fair pavilions turned into pop-culture fairylands. This dreamlike vision truly dazzles in "The Mythic City: Photographs of New York by Samuel H. Gottscho, 1925-1940," an exhibition that I organized as curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, one of only three major repositories of Gottscho photos. (The show opens November 1, and Princeton Architectural Press is publishing the catalog.) There's nothing more rewarding than bringing to light the work of someone so extraordinary but virtually unknown.
Born in Brooklyn, Gottscho took his first amateur photographs with a large-format box camera at age 21. He was unable to support his family as a photographer. However, while making his living as a traveling salesman, he continued to take photographs. He began selling those amateur shots around 1915. In 1925, the 50-year-old Gottscho quit his sales job and began a career as a professional photographer.
The early 20th century witnessed a growing recognition that photography—as opposed to drawing—was the best means to capture modern architecture. Gottscho conveys volumes of information about a city that had been largely rebuilt in only a few decades. Yet his brilliance was rooted in a capacity to synthesize the documentary and the artistic, and his images are always animated by a profound pride and a defiant optimism. His commercial work, commissioned by architects, designers, and builders, and his own "views," as he labeled them, exude a powerful promotional zeal that simultaneously reveals and celebrates modern New York.
More than any other commission that Gottscho received in the 1930's, Rockefeller Center allowed him to explore his fascination with scale. He lovingly photographed the center's art deco theaters; the chiseled body of the main tower; the golden statue of Prometheus at the tower's base; and the elegant Rainbow Room 65 floors above. His images of the extensive retail spaces successfully "glorified," as he put it, an architectural vocabulary of swooping forms, shimmering materials, and indirect lighting effects. Ultimately, Gottscho elevated Rockefeller Center as a symbol of capitalist enterprise and resilience in the face of the Depression.
Though Gottscho was fascinated by Rockefeller Center, no area consistently captured his attention so much as the Upper East Side. As wealthy New Yorkers moved into the new apartments and hotels of this fashionable enclave, designers strove to make small spaces appear larger and more complex by conceiving ingenious strategies, from indirect lighting to mirrored walls that magically opened up unexpected views. Gottscho proved himself especially masterful at photographing interiors by the likes of Elsie Cobb Wilson and Donald Deskey.
He welcomed the viewer in by placing his camera near eye level, and he bridged the real world and the world of the photograph by bringing walls and domestic objects close to the picture plane. Since magazines shied away from people in photographs, he often used furniture and objects as surrogates. Capturing the Cosmopolitan Club, he pulled a dining chair out from the table, suggesting that the chair was ready to receive the viewer; he even cropped its legs, a device that makes it appear as much in the viewer's world as in the image's.
Both natural and artificial illumination animated and dramatized Gottscho's interiors. He claimed to rely exclusively on existing illumination, artfully combining indirect cove lighting, the sun's rays bouncing off mirrors, and task lighting from table lamps. Through technical mastery and visual artistry, he created interiors that were simultaneously theatrical and inviting. Manipulating light was also key to Gottscho's strategy with consumer goods. Automobiles, refrigerators, and shoes—treated with a sophistication typically reserved for works of art—were reflected and magnified in plate-glass windows or contrasted with shiny, sun-dappled floors.
Gottscho's metropolis is a place both literal and dreamy, familiar and revelatory. What he visualized was the city famously described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby: Manhattan "seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world."