A collector of antiques discovers an unusually lifelike daguerrotype of old New York City; by Gary Alexander Azerier
I don't think I'd ever emerged from a visit to this dark little shop without bags of things, envelopes of photographs, books, postcards and odd maps of places (and people) and institutions that no longer existed. I had always overspent, far beyond what I had intended, often pointlessly, and my fingers were filthy as a result of handling the hundred plus year old merchandise. The treasures to be discovered, uncovered, buried in this shop's cabinets and on her tables were endless and unknown until excavated.
It was a joy to get home with these parcels and to unload the lot, the likes of which, despite their ripe age, probably had not been seen by too many people aside from a few inveterate collectors of New Yorkiana! There were rare post cards (photos, cartoons and linens) of Coney Island and her Steeplechase, eight-by-tens of the 1939 World's Fair, the last good time before WWII, glossies of the crowds at Yankee Stadium in its heyday, as well as original shots of bygone city eateries, hotels, buildings and streets; all from a forgotten era. Much of the material spoke of products vanished, as well as the advertisements boasting of those miracle items no longer extant. And, of course, there were the trinkets; buttons, badges, pins and assorted souvenirs. On a rare day you found something even rarer, more arcane, more of an esoteric surprise than you anticipated. This was one such day.
Aside from subway maps and booklets showing stops where today's trains, buses and trolleys no longer stopped, and charts of a city since evolved, with designations that were now not only no longer used, but considered quite inappropriate (such as "asylums"), there were those rare shots of New York's infamous and dark Third Avenue Elevated line; rare because the El was too physically dim to photograph easily, but it was also spiritually dark with few surroundings other than taverns, pawn shops and shadows. This cheerless configuration was taken down in the 1950s (the system was closed in sections from 1950 to 1973). Very little remained to remind the tourist or native of that chilly gloom. There were also photos of the city's other, earlier, elevated, now decimated, structures on sixth, ninth and second avenues.
Throughout the historical hovel there were bits of the past... pictures of crowds of only men... and only men wearing hats; gentlemen nicely dressed in shirts and ties, ladies in finery, dresses and heels, stereographic photos where images of the city would leap out at the viewer through the stereopticon into all three dimensions, and a fantastic set of photographs revealing new and crisply detailed original advertisements painted on buildings, or the faded remains of those depictions. (Often these remnants were so faint that discerning the original ad was nearly impossible, but trying to piece them together, or seeking to find a photo of the fresh original, made for an interesting pastime.) Some obscure street where a building had recently been torn down, and adjacent to it, on a five-story wall, the flecks of what once was a bright, garish message... quite indiscernible. But, there on one of Welcome to New York's dusty bins, was a clear, sharp, 8x10 glossy of the original advertisement: "Dutch Boy... Lead-Based Paint," "Broadway Central Hotel," "Mail Pouch Tobacco" or "Hotel San Rafael." There were the billboards surrounding neatly clad crowds of men (hats, white shirts, ties and vests) circling Yankee Stadium: "Drink Canada Dry," "Vat 69," "Call For Phillip Morris," "Brushless Burma Shave," and "Calvert Whiskey."
And when you looked at the glossies of the frolicking boys and girls at the 1939 World's Fair, you had to wonder how many of these boys were destined to disappear into the future darkness of WWII never to return.
It was on one such excursion to Welcome to New York that I came upon two spectacularly sharp and detailed daguerreotypes. The pictures were taken from one of the towers of the Metropolitan Life building in downtown Manhattan. They were of nothing in particular but I fell in love with their age and clarity. They cried out for closer scrutiny and examination. I thought perhaps I could find the buildings which preceded my current lodgings, and perhaps with sufficient magnification some of the original building sign paintings. The two photographs were outrageously expensive but I had to have them.
Because of the great height from which they were taken and the incredible clarity defining the detail and overwhelming density of the city, the images somehow seemed worth their price, and part of that worth was because of the challenge I felt accompanied each; the wealth of available information in each exposure.
It was on the following morning I examined each piece carefully with a powerful loupe. The detail was extraordinary and I thought I was able, after some time, to locate the exact avenue and cross street of where I now had my residence. In its place, though not nearly as tall, was a large tenement, some of whose side windows faced the camera's lens. I carefully studied each individual window, and worked out which would have been closest to my rooms. After more than two hours I was convinced I discerned what appeared to be a shadow through the open window. I got a stronger loupe and pored over the photograph until my eye began to smart. The quality of the photograph was so perfect and its grain so fine the sharpness of the image persisted through my staring. A shadow presented its distinct outline. It could have been a person looking directly at the camera lens.
Throughout the afternoon and evening I studied my photo, consulting additional maps and charts of the city that year. I tried to find other pictures of the same street. None of the other photographs I found was as sharp and distinctly detailed as my daguerreotype; I cross-referenced other images of the area, but I had no similar view of that window. It was on the next morning something strange occurred.
I took the loupe and the image, which I had protected with a piece of clear, thin Lucite and tabs for gripping the corners. Setting the magnifier comfortably in front of my eye, I found myself to be taking an inordinate bit of time to locate my window. After a few minutes of repetitious and frustrating circling about the photograph I removed the loupe and repositioned it. It was then I noticed the most shocking and disturbing image, scarcely believable. I can only surmise, to this day, that it had always been so, and that somehow I must initially have missed it. But behind what I had taken to be my window, someone had drawn a shade. No number of re-examinations of the photo has since afforded me the original image which I thought I had seen in that particular area.
After agonizing and obsessing over this inexplicable development I thought to consult my old friend, the proprietor of the shop Welcome to New York. I had hoped that, in his knowledge and familiarity with his stock, he would surely recall and be able to confirm if, in fact, what I was seeing had always existed. Perhaps it was through some optical mishap or mis-focusing I had simply overlooked the shade... or taken it for something else... or, through some aberration, something had gone awry with whatever elements made up this strange photo. The idea of bringing this enigma to my friend comforted me and assuaged my anxieties... somewhat.
So I wrapped the image carefully in several layers of protective paper, backed it with cardboard, and placed the entire business in an envelope.
I took the "D" train to Waverly Place and proceeded to Bleecker at Sixth Avenue. When I crossed over to where Welcome to New York had always made its home I noticed the banner which had flown, flapping over the shop's entryway, was gone. The place was closed. It was no longer. A shade was drawn over the window and the door.
That welcome oasis was never to open again. The little shop was itself now a relic of yesterday whose old and cool waters of the past would never again refresh the harried traveler through today. Little now draws me down to that peculiar area of New York City, and I remain at home, only occasionally taking out the old sharp and clear daguerreotype to examine it again. But I do spend many hours peering out of my window over the city, watching. And there are days when I could swear, on the far horizon, I see a glimmer of light; a flicker in the distance. It is then that I simply draw the shade.