Aerial and panoramic views of New York City are some of the most popular photographs in the Municipal Archives collection. The August 30th blog post described our project to digitize the photographs from the Queens Borough President’s office and highlighted a series of panoramic images dating from the 1920s and 1930s. The collection now is completely digitized. It totals approximately 10,500 images, of which 1,296 are panoramas. Once the new digital images are processed, they will be added to the on-line gallery. This blog post offers a ‘sneak peak’ of the amazing panoramas. Future blogs will feature other images in this fascinating collection.
Staff at the Municipal Archives continue to digitize the historical collections including paper records, books, motion pictures, maps, plans, and photographs. My current assignment is the Queens Borough President photograph collection. The thousands of fascinating pictures includes a series of panoramic images. They were taken mostly during the 1920s and 1930s by the Topographical Bureau in the Borough President’s office, under the direction of the Engineer in Charge, Charles Underhill Powell.
Powell’s tenure coincided with a time of rapid change in Queens. A borough that had long been mostly sparsely populated farmland was quickly becoming a diverse urban landscape. This required a drastic overhaul of the borough’s infrastructure, and engineers like Powell went out to survey, document, design, and plan.
The photographers generally used standard 8x10 inch sheet film, a format still popular for the high resolution it provides. Sometimes, though, an 8x10 negative just wasn’t good enough. In these situations, the photographers turned to what is known as a banquet camera. Originally intended for photographing large groups of people, the wide negatives (usually either 7x17" or 12x20") offered a lot of space to squeeze an entire crowd or banquet hall into one frame. Banquet cameras fell out of favor when medium format and other roll film formats were invented, allowing more flexibility and ease of use in event photography. But landscape and architectural photographers adopted the banquet camera for the precision, resolution, and wide angle of view it offered.
The Queens panoramic negatives (which are all 7x17") present a digitization challenge. Because of their width, they cannot be captured at high resolution in one shot with an overhead camera and they are too fragile for a flatbed scanner. There is an alternative: stitching. I photographed each negative in three shots, which partially overlap with each other. I then ran a Photoshop script to stitch them together. This has worked surprisingly well, even on the most deteriorated negatives. These advancing technologies and workflows allow us to make these beautiful images, which document an important period in New York City history, available to the public.
About a year and a half ago, I started learning Dutch through a smartphone app. While doing digitization for the Archives, I’ve had the chance to look at quite a few Dutch-language colonial records. I’m still only a beginner when it comes to Dutch, but knowing basic words and phrases has made working with these records very interesting. My current project is digitizing photos shot in the 1920s and 1930s by the Topographical Bureau in the Office of the Queens Borough President. While working through a box of 8x10 negatives, I came across numerous pictures of cemeteries. One photo in particular caught my eye.
In 1891 the Metropolitan Underground Railway Company presented a grand plan for New York City. They proposed to construct a set of tunnels and tracks that would crisscross Manhattan, connecting the Battery to 155th Street, as well as Jersey City and Brooklyn at an estimated cost of $60,000,000. While elevated lines were already in existence, this new transit system would alleviate traffic, reduce noise, protect service from the elements, and propel New York into the 20th Century. Included in the proposal were plans for an East River Tunnel, drawn up by Chief Engineer Charles M. Jacobs. From Battery Park to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, it would whisk travelers and freight between the boroughs in record time. Alas, the venture never came to fruition, at least, for Charles Jacobs. Instead he would helm the construction of a different kind of East River tunnel: a gas line connecting 71st Street to Ravenswood (now part of Long Island City) that was completed in 1894.