On 16 September 1920, a wagonload containing 45 kilos of explosives and 230 kilos of lead weights placed outside the JP Morgan bank at 23 Wall Street in New York was detonated, killing 38 people and injuring many more. The glass in the tall windows was blown inwards killing at least one JP Morgan employee of and injuring others. Interviewed in the New York Times the following day, one of the partners of JP Morgan Bank said: “From what we have learned I am inclined to believe that the explosion was due merely to an accident. There are no reasons that we can find that would lead to a premeditated bombing.”
He was wrong, of course. The confidence of the police that the explosion was an accident led them to remove the detritus and lose precious evidence as to the identity of the perpetrators. Although no one was charged, it is believed today that the bombing was conducted by a group of Italian anarchists known as the Galleanists, after Luigi Galleani who by 1920 had already been deported from the USA. Once the real intention of the explosion had been uncovered, it led to a pre-McCarthyite hunt for European radicals and another prolonged period of fear of violent revolution in the USA. Strangely, whilst the event still has a material impact on the fabric of New York, in many ways the bombing has best been memorialised in an image that predates it.
Paul Strand’s photographic masterpiece Wall Street shows the same sunken windows that would be destroyed by the anarchist bomb. His picture was taken five years earlier but subsequent events have lent to the image a political intention that was arguably not there originally. Maria Morris Hombourg explores this in her introduction to Paul Strand Circa 1916, published by MOMA in 1998 to coincide with the exhbition of that year. She notes that in the 1950s Strand responded to a pointed reading of the picture by the photographer Walter Rosenblum, saying: “Actually at that time I knew nothing about cartels etc. I was trying to photograph the surging to work and no doubt the black shapes of the windows have perhaps the quality of a great maw into which the people rush.”
Did the anarchists attack the JP Morgan bank because of the charge that the windows had in Strand’s photograph? Certainly the picture was popular but initially it was noted only within a small circle and since the local police cleared the area of evidence with the same efficiency that the State Department demonstrated in returning any Italian with links to leftist or anarchist groups back to their homeland, we will never know. However, the photograph itself has been radicalized as a consequence. A photo that Strand took the same year at the Palace of Fine Arts San Francisco shows a couple in black, breaking the rhythm of neoclassical columns in a similar way but lacking a parallel sense of menace.
It is not just the politics of anarchist terror that have radicalized the image, but Strand’s later association with groups like Frontier Films that were attacked by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The picture not only became more radical but so did its author. The world that they inhabited grew more divided as well, leading to Strand’s departure for France from 1949. It is possible though to look at the photograph again not just as a socialist or anarchist critique of capitalism; to look again at the relationship between the structure and those figures beneath it.
Irving Underhill was not a photographer in the same vein as Strand. He was a good architectural photographer who documented the construction boom at the beginning of the twentieth century, employing simple innovations to best capture a new urban condition. He was an architectural taxonomist, recording new projects as they went up: the construction of the Manhattan Bridge and municipal buildings in Brooklyn, but his best pictures capture bigger buildings in Manhattan. He developed a sense of urban dynamism in architectural photography by taking pictures from the 5th or 6th floor across the street, and rather than capturing the elevation face on, he captures it an acute angle of around 30 degrees.
As the Bowery Boys blog explains, Underhill:
“Was so successful that his agency received exclusive commissions to photograph and promote new buildings like the Woolworth Building, which he would capture in timed intervals to track the construction process. Many years later, his name could be seen from blocks away, plastered along the top of his studios at Broadway and Park Place.”
Underhill superimposed his office with the massive lettering “Irving Underhill, General Photographer” across one whole block, effectively inviting his name to be read on the grand urban scale, he was discerning in new buildings.
The series of Underhill photographs in the CCA Collection are of 1 Wall Street, designed by Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker Architects and built by Mark Eidlitz and Son. The first picture, taken on Jan 2nd, 1930, shows preparatory work on the foundations; another taken on August 1st shows the building nearly topping out. There are other pictures taken at around one month intervals, And the accumulated effect of the series of 7 photographs—and you’ll have to take my word because only the first and the last of them are shown here—is to create a sense of wonder at the speed of construction and to create, surprisingly, a sense of ghostly absence. The phantom presences in the series of images are the construction workers who built so quickly. Perhaps it is a coincidence but in the first picture we see a graveyard on the opposite side of the street; the worker is both departed and memorialized.
What Strand does in his abstracted way is show a direct relation between human form and building. It is not the building alone that is symbolic but its relation with the human form. Indeed it is the key relationship in the picture and one that explains its enduring appeal. An image like Ilse Bing’s Wall Street captures a more conventional critique of the experience of Wall Street. It is worth noting that the strand of light she finds between the canyons of Wall Street is the subject and it is almost the exact shape as Underhill’s picture of Wall Street, dominating the picture in the same way, albeit from top to bottom rather bottom to top.
Bing’s picture was taken in 1936 and is influenced more by early surrealist abstraction, her harsher lines and the higher contrast between light and dark is more redolent of the work of German expressionist film makers. The spear of light that descends into the chasm of the financial district leads the eye to the light of police car. This noir-ish image is doom-laden. Bing, on a trip to New York from Paris, has not yet found in New York, her second home, as she was to from 1941. The place image is imbued with a sense of impending catastrophe.
My colleague Gwen Webber recently gave a critique over the appropriation of images of Detroit to portray illustrate the effects of the banking crisis of late 2008. She detailed a complaint made last year by the Detroit-based photographer James Griffioen that fellow practitioners from all over the world were pitchingup in his home city from all over the world and contacting him for advice on finding locations for a suitable images of the post-2008 recession; even if the cause of that recession was not found in Detroit, but instead where Strand had taken his photographs. Griffioen’s point which he discusses on his blog was that, yes, there are degraded buildings in Detroit – he took pictures of them himself – but he did so in a way that explained a more complex relationship between humans and their built environment.
What makes Strand’s picture so entrancing is exactly that: the relationship it establishes between the workers and the blank chasm of JP Morgan’s windows. Black figures. Black windows. The power of Strand’s image is the sense that the structure of oppression is generated by the very men and women that passed by it. The maw is formed from their own inky substance, a feature heightened by Strand’s use of a Japanese paper that soaks up the image. What gives it even greater power is that it offers those individuals the chance to see clearly their own relationship and – should they wish – do something about it.