March 01, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

                                                                  THE FLATIRON AS PART OF NEW YORK

This week I would like to return to the topic of what a photographer can do when they are confronted by a subject that has been seared into their brain long before they have ever encountered it in real life. In our visual age, we all have images in our brains that we have never actually seen. Most of these images are not historical, or scientific, but are simply famous places that we have never visited. The visual image is divorced from the experience in ways that our parents, much less our ancestors, could never have imagined. We now "know" what something looks like because these images are instantly available - and this ubiquitous nature of a particular image can sometimes make it very difficult for a photographer to find anything new to say when they actually see it for the first time.

One of these subjects is the Flatiron Building in New York City. You do not have to be an architect to be very familiar with this building. It has loomed far above the streets of its neighborhood in Manhattan for so long that the neighborhood has changed so much that one of the only things that is constant is the building itself. The real estate world finally noticed and now the neighborhood is known as the Flatiron District. The building is now 120 years old, and at twenty-two stories, was once one of the tallest buildings in the world. Even though it is now dwarfed by contemporary structures, it is the very embodiment of a "skyscraper", especially in the New York context. It was designed by Daniel Burnham, who was most famous for his urban designs in Chicago. Here in some ways he brought the prototypical Chicago skyscraper to the streets of New York, complete with a the tripartite base, shaft and top, and a variation of the usual paired large windows surrounded by muscular, but now decorative terra cotta "stone."

                                                                  NOW WE'RE IN NEW YORK - BUT WHEN?

The building caught the public's attention because not only was it the largest building that most had ever seen, but that it was in itself really a piece of urban design. Located at one of the disruptive junctions that Broadway makes with the regular street grid of Manhattan, the shape of the building was so unusual that viewers likened it to the similar shape they knew from their daily chores - the triangular cast-iron flat iron that at least the women used to iron the household clothes.

Men being men, they were attracted to the building because it created its own micro climate. In an era where a glimpse of "stocking was somewhat shocking" men would linger at lunch hour to see if the wind currents coming down the 18-story facade would hit the ground and very subtly lift a women's skirt a few inches above the pavement. This extraordinary event led to an expression of general delight - "23 Skidoo!" - that became a common idiom. The Flatiron building is located at 23rd Street. Another interpretation would say the phrase was coined by the cops as a way of getting those same men to "move along."

The FlatIron building became such a famous subject for photographers because of its striking appearance, its historic significance as an early skyscraper, and the fact that its erection coincided with a vast expansion of the photographic medium itself. Literally every famous photographer who ever visited New York over the past hundred years has contributed to its legend as a subject. Not to mention the millions of unknown photographers like myself who has tried to contribute to the "canon." One of the best photography books that I have ever read is actually totally devoted to just this fascination with the building. The author, Peter Kreitler,  realized that pictures of just this one building in New York could illustrate a good portion of the entire history of photography as an art. The constancy of the structure stands in absolute contrast with everything else - the fashions, the transportation devices, the storefronts - that the building becomes both historical and ahistorical. At least in the New York context, it has always been there. Recently the building and the neighborhood have seen hard times, but now it is in the process of being converted from offices to forty condos. When asked if he could sell these high-priced condos, the developer said that there were probably at least forty people who wanted to live in the Flatiron Building.

                                                                                FLATIRON WITH LAMP POST

So what is the enterprising photographer to do? There are 3,987 photos of the Flatiron building available on the Shutterstock stock photo web site! I think there is the real measure of maturity in the knowledge that one should at least try, even though the chances of saying something new is next to zero. The fun is in the process, the willingness to stretch your own boundaries even if others have probably already gone way beyond your own. The more context you include the better chance that your image will be of a particular time and place - although only you might only remember that particular era of taxi. The chances of encountering a particular weather condition after a century is also exceedingly rare, and even your "FlatIron in a Blizzard" will probably not be enlivened by snorting horses in the cold. The more abstract an image you pursue might lead a viewer to wonder what he was looking at, but that historical "Flatiron Memory" will probably help you with most New Yorker's if not the the tourists.

                                                                                A LAMP POST  THAT MIGHT BE AS OLD AS THE BUILDING

These four images were among my photographic efforts on one St. Patrick's Day in 2011. They probably will not be included in any future photographic opus on the building, but after finding them in my archives today, and doing a little massaging in Lightroom, I can show them to others without questioning my artistic talents.

The first image shows the most context, but it would take a pretty anal historian to declare "obviously 2011!" What I like about the image is something I have recently observed about my profession - that the strongest buildings can quietly assert themselves as part of the context of the city itself. This image is of New York, with all of its charm energy, and chaos. Oh there's the Flatiron building, looking good at the end of the street, behaving rather well with all of its ordinary neighbors. In the context of both photographic and New York history, converting to black and white removes the image a little from its time. We are so used to seeing New York in "black and white" that it can sometimes seem more real that way than in living color.

The second image removes most of the context. The shape is the subject, and the city has been reduced to one historic lamp post that seemingly harkens back to Edison himself. I tried to emphasize the subjects height by cropping to a vertical panorama, leaving out as much sky as possible. As usual in black and white, I can increase the contrast and sharpen the image far beyond what a color rendition could handle.

                                                                  LINING UP THE FLATIRON

Now I've gotten pretty abstract. Not only is the image all about the shape of the building against the sky, but I have allowed myself to ignore everything but graphics by aligning the cornice with an image frame that is totally the product of my imagination. I have chosen to frame this historic shape in this manner in order to strengthen the graphics of a building that needs very little help in this regard. While I am certainly not the first photographer who has tried this move, it certainly says "Rich"if you have encountered many of my photographs.

                                                                  GRAPHIC FLATIRON, B&W

Black and white allows Rich to have seemingly created this image at any time in the last 120 years, if you ignore a few window air conditioners. Black and white graphics also relieves the viewer of wondering about the sunshine on what is probably a nice Spring day. The image is now almost all about that cornice racing around the block.

                                                                  FLATIRON FACADE

Finally I have gotten so abstract that most people would be forgiven if they didn't know that this was the Flatiron building at all. It could be part of a New York quiz. What I love is the subtle play of the sunlight across the terra cotta masonry. Even more subtle are the oh-so-gentle bay windows which scream "Flatiron" only if you have spent as much time staring at this building as I have. Timeless, except again but for the air conditioning units, which at least give you a hint that it was taken some time while I was alive, but you already knew that. Maybe this is another answer for how to capture such a famous building -create an image which ignores the purported "subject" almost entirely.

Pretty perverse I know, but such extraordinary problems call for desperate measures. I would encourage you to also take matters into your own hands if you want to create your own images - your art is not what everyone, or even anyone else, sees -it is your little mark on the world we all share..