Tuesday 3 June 2008

The New York ‘El’

Just as Paris has its métro aérien so New York City has, or rather, had its elevated railway (or ‘El’). These postcards give a little flavour of the visual excitement they brought to the city streets as they clattered overhead. Artists and photographers were especially drawn to the visual drama of light and shade created beneath the huge metal viaducts. The lithographer, Louis Lozowick had a passion for recording the visual fragmentation of the street scene as shadows ricochet underneath the ‘El’ and did so with exemplary finesse. The notoriously grumpy English artist, C R W Nevinson tackled the same subject with creditable results. Edward Hopper, John Sloan, Charles Sheeler and Reginald Marsh all explored this imagery. Chris Mullen has the outline of a lecture that was never delivered on this topic at the Visual Telling of Stories and includes a comprehensive list of the special qualities that distinguish the ‘El’.

A wonderful short film, Third Avenue El, made by Carson Davidson is available at the splendid Prelinger Archive and is compulsory viewing for anyone curious to understand the fascination of this long obsolete means of transport. The film was made in 1955, just 2 years before the system was closed and subsequently demolished. Photographers who captured this subject include Berenice Abbott, André Kertész, Andreas Feininger, Todd Webb and even Cecil Beaton.

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