Pop Culture

Most of the public-domain photographs I use in this blog were taken by commercial photographers. (Most of the rest were taken by photographers working for HABS or HAER.) Their work was once very much protected by copyright, but is now public domain by age or because it was donated. I’ve most heavily mined the archives of the Detroit Publishing Company, but I’ve used some pictures by Irving Underhill – and will be using more in the coming weeks – and I feel like it’s worth discussing why his type of archive is unlikely to be created from scratch today.

Underhill was a commercial photographer, and a successful one. It probably goes without saying that he was technically proficient in the messy, awkward technology of circa-1900 photographic development; it’s also worth pointing out that he was capable of striking artistic shots as well. The view above, of the Manhattan Bridge under construction in 1909, is rightly famous. (On a side note, unrelated to today’s topic, I find it interesting that all of the main-span hanger cables seem to be in place even though the deck is less than half built. Wasn’t that a problem when the wind blew?)

My interests being what they are, I know little about Underhill’s work in individual and group portraits. What I am familiar with is his architectural work, which might well be described as building portraits. Yesterday’s post on the Consolidated Stock Exchange had a typical example: a not-quite-three-quarters view of a single building. He created hundreds of these photos, some of which were used for postcards, but some were not. He was far from alone: the Detroit company created hundreds more, of buildings across the country, as did other commercial photographers. The question bothering me is “why?” Tourist photos and postcards – two areas with a lot of overlap – are typcially of famous buildings. We see them today at some skyscrapers, at some hotels, maybe famous theaters. I find it hard to believe that there was much of a market for a portrait of the Guaranty Trust Company in 1918:

It also seems unlikely that this picture was commissioned by the Guaranty Trust, as they would hardly have needed the name and location written on the image. Of course, I could be wrong about this.

I don’t know why postcard-style photos of ordinary buildings were a thing in the late 1800s and early 1900s but I’m glad of it. It has made it much easier to find images of buildings that have been demolished. It’s also unlikely that commercial photographers are taking hundreds of these kinds of shots today, as that would seem to be, in the current age, a good way to starve.

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