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Bain’s New York: A Book Review

By John Manbeck

When I researched Coney Island photos in the Library of Congress for the Kingsborough Historical Society, I encountered many diverse sources. One of the lots was the Bain Collection. Contained in these files was a plethora of unusual photo images of Brooklyn and New York from the 19th century.

There I found photographs of Brighton Beach with a sign advertising the rental of beach chairs at 3 hours for 10 cents; a 1914 print of bathers dancing a tango; a crowded midway at Dreamland Amusement Park; a sideshow depicting the Civil War naval battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac; the starting lineup of early racing cars at the Harkness race track in Sheepshead Bay.

Who was this George Bain? A photographer? A newspaper publisher? A librarian? He opened the first commercial organization that supplied newspapers with original photographs. His office at 15 Park Row was in the heart of the newspaper publishing world.

Now a collection of the Bain images has been released in a Dover imprint, revealing much about him as well as a generous sampling of photographs from his glass plate collection, now housed at the Library of Congress.

Michael Carlebach, the editor, has written 23 pages of introductory text to The City in News Pictures: Bain’s New York 1900-1925 (Dover Publications $29.95) that solves the mystery of Bain and his news service.

George Grantham Bain ran the first syndicated news photography service in New York but he included only limited captions and almost no identifications of the subjects and the photographers. The original stories that accompanied the photographs disappeared long ago. Carlebach has attempted to identify the subjects of the photographs, and has also included pictures of the anonymous photographers at work wielding their bulky cameras.

Bain, who started as a journalist, quickly appreciated the value of photographs after the half tone was developed in 1880. Previously, photographs were copied onto plates by artists and then were printed as woodcuts in such weekly magazines as Harpers and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News. As “yellow journalism” surfaced, there was more demand for sensational illustrations from newspapers. The Bain News Service opened in 1898 and worked with the United Press to supply photographs that were delivered by mail or messenger.

Topics of the day set the themes of immigration, health and labor issues. Social issues were covered but there are few images of minorities, although the illustration on the cover of the book is of a trolley car en route to Coney Island for a fresh air outing with orphans staring  curiously at the camera. Another photograph shows flag-carrying children in a truck bound for Luna Park for the Orphans Day Parade in 1911.

While the book includes wonderful spreads such as one that shows Pennsylvania Station from above shortly after its opening in 1910 and another that shows the completing of the Woolworth Building in 1912, it also documents faces and issues that made news. These include construction of bridges and tunnels at the turn of the 20th century. At the time, the publishing world reflected the wealthy upper classes but was evolving into a populist media.

With the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, Jewish residents of the crowded Lower East Side surged to Williamsburg. A photograph appears of a Jewish couple saying their Rosh Hashanah prayers on the bridge.

Another bridge-related picture is of the militia on guard under the Brooklyn Bridge in 1917 followed by a photo of women sewing flags and pennants at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to be used on naval warships.

Another photograph shows women sewing teddy bears in a Brooklyn factory for the Ideal Toy Company. One of the anonymous photos is of a young man and two women eating hot dogs in Coney Island, although it is not summer according to their cold weather clothes. A more seasonable illustration shows acrobats on a Luna Park bridge above a boat coming off the Shoot the Chutes ride. A 1912 photo shows a section of the Brighton Beach boardwalk as charred timber, a condition that cannot be repeated after the new composite walkway is completed.

Since Bain opened his library at the start of the Spanish-American War, he collected pictures of soldiers, of veterans and of Admiral George Dewey, commander of naval forces in the Pacific. A photograph that appeared in my
Historic Photos of Brooklyn, published by Turner Books, is repeated in the Bain book. It’s a photo of a young boy about 10 years old entitled “James Simcox, Mascot of Spanish War Veterans” and it was taken at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Typically, nothing more is known about the occasion or the boy wearing a uniform and carrying a sword.

Perhaps the most unusual photograph is of a wagon mounted with a sail. The text quotes the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which sponsored the first organized ice-scooter race on Great South Bay, Long Island. The photograph, taken in 1913, suggests that wind power was an issue even a century ago. The Superbas — later the Brooklyn Dodgers — received credit in a 1913 photograph of the team hauling a gigantic American flag to the center field bleachers of the new Ebbets Field.

As the century rolled on, pictures of crime — bomb throwing, a Mafia killing — became the subjects of Bain’s photos. In addition, early flights were documented, as well as celebrities, Enrico Caruso, Billy Sunday and an ape named Peter the Great. By 1925, the new wire services spelled the end of the business. Now, however, the Library of Congress stands as custodian of Bain’s singular memoir of news photography.

April 19, 2012 - 10:38am


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