It may seem like there is always work happening to fix up our decrepit mass transit system, but once upon a time not that long ago, there was no subway system at all to complain about. A new exhibit at the New York Transit Museum will show incredible early photographs documenting the construction of the subway in the early part of the 20th century—it is an invaluable portal into a transformational time for the entire city.
Streetscapes & Subways: Photographs by Pierre P. and Granville W. Pullis will be on display at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn now through January 17th, 2021. When construction began at the turn of the century, transit officials hired Pierre and Granville Pulls to be the official photographers for the project. They took survey photos and documented the area before and during construction between 1900 and 1940, and also happened to capture daily life in New York.
"On the surface, Pierre and Granville Pullis were doing what any photographer hired by a construction company would do: making a record of what the street conditions were during construction, what a building façade looked like, or the progress of some kind of excavation," Jodi Shapiro, the curator of the exhibit, told Gothamist. "When one spends time looking at the photographs, one begins to notice that the Pullises are also doing something deeper—they’re making artistic choices within the boundaries of making technically correct photographs. The laborers performing the backbreaking work are depicted in a way that is dignified. There’s a sense of humor that permeates some of the images. The composition of the images is almost painterly."
"You can see that they are waiting for just the right moment to click the shutter so that they capture the pedestrians crossing the street in a way that is visually interesting, or for the woman to lean out of the window to shake the dust off her rug," she added. In some photos, you can see men congregating outside taverns, children playing, people selling their wares; often, workers or passers-by look directly into the camera, as it's possible this was some people’s first encounter with a camera.
Shapiro notes that one of the best things about the photos is that because we know exactly where they were taken, we can go to these places today and see how the construction changed the landscape aboveground: "Buildings that appear in photographs from 1901 can still be found, while others, so significant to the city’s landscape at that time, are long gone."
The selection of images in the exhibit was pulled together from the Museum’s vast collection of subway construction photographs. And it took a lot of time to whittle down: "There are thousands of Pullis images in our collection, and the goal was to find the cream of the crop," Shapiro said. "Many of these images are newly digitized, so they haven’t appeared in our exhibits before. Everyone had their own favorites, so we chose things that we felt people would have an emotional connection to, ones that depicted something they would not normally see, people who we could identify and tell people about, or a particular neighborhood that was one type of neighborhood in the early 1900s, but is completely different today.”