Collection of photographs of New York City

Collection History

Several hundred prints and photographs offering the complete content of a wide range of selected image collections and illustrated monographs: Hudson River mansions, including Washington Irving's home and vicinity in the 1860s; street views by Alice Austen from 1896; a panorama of Fifth Avenue from 1911, and more.


It was natural for the founding libraries and benefactors of NYPL to collect local and regional pictorial publications, a fact that explains the strength of 19th- and early 20th-century books picturing New York City and vicinity in the Library's holdings. In addition, Library staff actively sought to supplement books with original archival materials, such as the two holdings presented here. Over time, this digital assemblage will grow, as curators identify additional New York-related illustrated rare books of interest and other small, specialized holdings of prints and photographs.

Villas on the Hudson (1860) by A.A. Turner & Classic Grounds of American Authors: Irving (1864) by George Gardner Rockwood

Augustus Austin Turner (ca.1831-1866) produced the first American book illustrated with photolithographs, its pioneering (or primitive) nature apparent in the slightly uneven printing and page alignment. Rockwood (1832-1911) was a commercial photographer who perhaps intended to launch as series with his book, illustrated with mounted albumen prints, called "Classic Grounds of American Authors," but published only the Irving volume.

Alice Austen (1866-1952)

Elizabeth Alice Austen was the privileged daughter of a prominent Staten Island family. She took up photography at age ten. The Library's holding consists of Austen's 1896 camera record of Manhattan street scenes and street types, which is very unusual in American photography of the period, as it is in Austen's work, for she never again systematically photographed the world outside her own social sphere. Although Austen never worked professionally as a photographer, she always strove for professional standards. As a result, her pictures of her home life and her social contemporaries and their daily activities provide a rich and intimate vision of a now-vanished way of life (not held by NYPL).

The stock market crash of 1929 left Austen destitute. By 1945, failing health forced her to abandon her life-long home, the 17th-century house "Clear Comfort" on Staten Island facing New York harbor. Before an antique dealer purchased the last of her furnishings, she donated her photographic negatives to the Staten Island Historical Society. There they were rediscovered in 1950, and then published prominently in national magazines. At an exhibition of her rescued work the following year, Austen reportedly observed, "I am happy that what was once so much pleasure for me turns out now to be a pleasure for other people." These NYC prints form part of the Romana Javitz Collection, a special group of photographs assembled by, and now named for, the pioneering head of the Branch Libraries' Picture Collection, transferred to the Photography Collection of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs in 1991.

Today, the ferry "Alice Austen" connects Lower Manhattan to Staten Island, and "Clear Comfort" is both a New York City Landmark and a National Historic Landmark, operated by The Friends of Alice Austen House, Inc., where rotating exhibitions continue to present examples of Austen's pioneering visual social documentation.

Fifth Avenue (1911)

Fifth Avenue, the street that became the social and cultural spine of New York's elite, first appeared on the Commissioners' Map of 1811. At that time, it was merely a country road to Yorkville (then just a tiny self-contained village), but in the proposed grid plan it would be a grand boulevard. As the City grew and prospered Fifth Avenue became synonymous with fashionable life, the site of mansions, cultural and social institutions, and restaurants and shops catering to the elite.

In 1907, alarmed at the approach of factories, the leading merchants and residents formed the Fifth Avenue Association. The "Save New York Committee" became a bulwark against the wrong kind of development. Perhaps inspired by this contemporary movement, photographer Burton Welles used a wide-angled view camera in 1911 to document this most important street from Washington Square, north to East 93rd Street.

Percy Loomis Sperr (1931-42)

Physical change in the city's appearance fascinated photographer Sperr who had a long professional relationship with NYPL. Thousands of his prints also appear in "Photographic Views of New York City, 1870s-1970s," the premiere photographic collection in the Milstein Division. This smaller collection of views depicts the boroughs of Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, capturing New York City during the Great Depression until just after American entry into World War II.

Sperr specialized in streetscapes, focusing usually on buildings and infrastructure, though passersby make occasional appearances in his compositions. This collection features views of the dismantling of the Second Avenue and Fulton Street Elevated train tracks, and the construction of the Belt Parkway.

Related Resources

Butler, Joseph T. Washington Irving's Sunnyside (c1974).

Gray, Christopher, ed. Fifth Avenue, 1911, from start to finish in historic block-by-block photographs (c1994).

Hanson, David A. "A.A. Turner, American photolithographer" History of photography 10 (July/Sept 1986): 193-211

Lynch, Virginia. Washington Irving footprints (1922).

Novotny, Ann. Alice's World: The Life and Photography of an American Original, Alice Austen (1976)

Owens, William A. Pocantico Hills, 1609-1959 (c1960).

Sperr, Percy Loomis. [Collection of photographs of Staten Island, 1924].

_____ Island scenes: pictures of Staten Island, its beauty spots, historic houses, parks, bridges, public buildings and other points of interest selected from a portfolio of over 5000 views (1937).

_____ Photograph album of New York City views and subjects [1925?].

_____ Photographic views of Manhattan (192-?).

_____ Photographic views of Staten Island [192-].

_____ [Photographs of the annual Feast of Saint Anthony of Padua, East 106th Street, New York City, 1924].

Williams, J.L. The land of Sleepy Hollow, and the home of Washington Irving; a series of photogravure representations (1887).

Collection Data

The Milstein Division's collection of Wurts Brothers views of New York City includes sites in four boroughs: Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. Depicted are images of apartment houses, townhouses, brownstones, skyscrapers, factories, churches, hotels, banks, theaters, libraries, restaurants, bridges, parks, etc. Street views document storefronts of many varieties. Housing for both the wealthy and the middle class can be found here. Most views are exteriors, but there are some interior views of domestic and commercial spaces. General aerial and scenic views are included as well. The collection includes some photographs that pre-date the founding of the company in 1894.
Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) (Photographer)
Dates / Origin
Date Created: 1887 - 1964 (Approximate)
Library locations
Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy
Shelf locator: AZ 06-6805
New York (N.Y.) -- Buildings, structures, etc
Historic buildings -- New York (State) -- New York
Manhattan (New York, N.Y.)
Queens (New York, N.Y.)
Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
Bronx (New York, N.Y.)
Bibliographic history: The Wurts Brothers Company of architectural photographers was founded in 1894 by Norman and Lionel Wurts. Lionel's son Richard joined the company in 1920 and ran it until it closed in 1979. Working for architects, developers, and construction companies, the Wurts Brothers photographed all types of buildings, both commercial and residential.
Content: Titles from penciled captions on reverse side of photographs.
Content: Some irregularities in numbering.
Physical Description
Gelatin silver prints
Extent: 3 boxes (813 photographs) : b&w ; 21 x 26 cm. and smaller
Type of Resource
Still image
RLIN/OCLC: 76696635
NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b16468585
Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): 5a9b7c30-c5ec-012f-32f8-58d385a7bc34
Show filters Hide filters
51 results found
Filtering on:
x Place: Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)