before the flat iron building

Photographs and images are hugely important to me as I write. The Gilded Hour is set in the 1880s when photography was well established, but it’s not always easy to find the kind of images I need. If I lived in Manhattan  (now there’s a pipe dream) I’d spend a lot of time at the historical museums and libraries and I would have more luck in my searches, but alas. Here I am on the west coast, almost close enough to British Columbia to chuck a rock over the border.  To say I miss the East Coast is a massive understatement.

Every once in a while I come across a photo that takes my breath away. This example is  posted at Ephemeral New York: an 1884 shot of the corner where the Flat Iron building now stands. A big, clear, detailed photo like this gives me a jolt that’s hard to decribe.

The 1902  Flat Iron building  is iconic, as recognizable as the Eiffel Tower (though on a smaller scale) or Trafalgar Square in London. Film makers use it to establish geography almost as a matter of course.  But look at this corner before all that (clicking on the image will take you to the full-sized version at Ephemeral New York). I can almost project myself onto that corner.

23rd Street, Broadway and Fifth Avenue 1884
23rd Street, Broadway and Fifth Avenue 1884

Alice Adams on the streets of New York

Organ Grinder, ca 1896 (photo by Alice Austen)
Organ Grinder, ca 1896 (photo by Alice Austen)

I spend a lot of time looking at images, photos, paintings, portraits, diagrams, maps. It’s the way my writing-mind works. I need to see things to write about them.

But I always have to remind myself of something crucial: It’s very easy to be misled by the images that are readily available. There are great resources online for almost anything, but the choice is usually both  narrow and shallow. Looking for information about the clothes women wore, you’re likely to come away with the idea that every female wore bustles and corsets cinched down to twenty inches.

That’s why I like Alice Adam‘s work so much. She was one of the first female photographers to do documentary work, outside a studio. Her photos are full of information.

This is an organ grinder who posed for Adams, but somehow manages to seem undaunted by the oddity of the request. The lady with him may be a stranger, a wife, a sister — there’s no way to know. But what is clear about her is that she is not rich. She takes care of a family or works in a factory (or both). In the winter she wears multiple layers because she wouldn’t have a coat, at least, not the kind of coat we think of these days when the issue is getting ready to go outside in January.

This kind of photograph is immensely interesting to me, and very useful. I love the portraits Whistler did in this period, but for other reasons.