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The New York City photograph collection began in the 1920s, not long after the opening of the new central library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The goal was to document the changing face of New York City, with a particular emphasis on new building construction, and on the structures torn down and replaced. The method is clear in this 1937 progress report by librarian Sylvester L. Vigilante on obtaining photographs: "The old Union League Building and site was taken care of and the erection of the new building is being covered.... Through the newspapers and tips from interested people, we get a line on demolitions, events and street changes."
Historical photographs complemented contemporary images, as the collection continued to grow systematically through commissioned photographs, purchases, and gifts into the early 1970s. Organization is by borough, and then by street address; a section of topical subjects such as Islands, Occupations, Parades, Social Conditions, Transportation augments the geographical portions of the holding.
Uniform, legal-size (15 x 11 inch) manila mounts enabled easy interfiling of the photographs, facilitated research browsing, and provided space on the versos for additional information about the scene depicted, its historical background, date, and creator. Later, acid-free archival board served the same purpose. Most recently, these photo- and caption-bearing mounts enabled swift and uniform digital capture, and in digital form permit a very nearly accurate estimate of an individual photograph's dimensions.
Among the well-known photographers represented are Berenice Abbott, Alexander Alland, A. Tennyson Beals and his wife Jessie Tarbox Beals, Ewing Galloway, Samuel H. Gottscho, Fay Sturtevant Lincoln, and Irving Underhill, as well as photo agencies such as Brown Brothers, Culver Service, International Photos, Underwood and Underwood, and Wurtz Brothers. In addition, a Staten Island-based commercial photographer, Percy Loomis Sperr (1890-1964), working under contract and directed by Library staff, produced nearly 30,000 of the collection's photographs to document changes in the City from the late 1920s to the early 1940s.
In 1981, University Microfilms International published a microfiche edition of the collection with printed indexes by Street, Building Name, Subject, and Photographer which now, repurposed, are serving the digital version. The Photographic Views of New York City Collection is the most outstanding original resource in the Milstein Division. It provides visual information-as evidence, documentation, and illustration-to a wide range of audiences. These range from historic preservationists in restoration work, community groups pursuing landmark designation for buildings and neighborhoods, to historians seeking to illuminate text, filmmakers striving to ensure the historical accuracy of set designs, family historians looking for the homes or business locations of their ancestors, and artists and writers in search of the specifics that can prompt imagination.
Blumenthal, Ralph. "Take 2: A Photo Archive of City Streets." The New York Times. (March 14, 2000): E1.
NYPL. Photographic Views of New York City, 1870s-1970s, From the Collections of The New York Public Library. [Microform.] (1981)
See also in the NYPL Catalog "New York (N.Y.) -- Pictorial works," and "New York (N.Y.) -- History," for numerous illustrated books.