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Thursday, 16 September 2010

Edwin Denby: The Street


Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Elevated structure and buildings, Lower Manhattan: photo by Arthur Rothstein, December 1941

The street is where people meet according to law
Organize their natures to twenty-four hours
Say what to eat, take advantage of what they saw
And continue exercising daily powers.

Take one of these buildings, when standing awhile
The architect's headaches have been written right off
Just as a father's headaches amount to a smile
Like a cipher, when he gets a client to laugh.

So a million people are a public secret
(As night is a quieter portion of the day)
These are their private lives tearing down the street
Stepping past mouldings and past 'Special Today.'

Running they see each other without looking,
Love has not stopped, has not started by fucking.

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Apartment house, Harlem: photo by Gordon Parks, May 1943

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Children playing on East 63rd Street, New York, New York: photo by Sheldon Dick, 1938

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Forty-ninth Street near Sixth Avenue, New York, New York: photo by Arthur Rothstein, December 1937

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

A Harlem street scene, New York, New York: photo by Gordon Parks, May/June 1943

Image, Source: b&w film copy neg. of print

Children playing in the street, 63rd Street, between First and Third Avenues, New York, New York: photo by Walker Evans, Summer 1938

Image, Source: digital file from original

Street hawker selling Consumer's Bureau Guide, 42nd Street and Madison Avenue, New York City: photo by Dorothea Lange, July 1939

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Children playing in the street, 63rd Street, between First and Third Avenues, New York, New York: photo by Walker Evans, Summer 1938

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

House fronts, 61st Street, between First and Third Avenues, New York, New York: photo by Walker Evans, Summer 1938

Image, Source: b&w film copy neg. from print

A woman and her dog in the Harlem section, New York, New York: photo by Gordon Parks, May 1943

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

A street cleaner on Washington Street, New York, New York: photo by John Vachon, March 1943

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

A group of boys on East 62nd (or 63rd) Street, New York, New York: photo by Sheldon Dick, 1938

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

A Bowery hotel about midnight, New York, New York: photo by Marjorie Collins, September 1942

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Bum who claimed to be a Scotch comedian, at Third Avenue and 14th Street, New York, New York: photo by Marjorie Collins, September 1942

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

A bum on the Bowery at 7th Street, New York, New York: photo by Marjorie Collins, September 1942

Edwin Denby: "The street is where people meet according to law...": from In Public, In Private, 1948

All photos from Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress


TC said...

Another of Edwin's early sonnets addresses what goes on under the street:

Edwin Denby: The Subway

Anonymous said...

This is another remarkable, unique sonnet. Like Manhattan life, it’s so direct, so subtle and – “Just as a father's headaches amount to a smile/Like a cipher, when he gets a client to laugh” -- so painful (or just on the edge). Vague, but unmistakable traces of old East 63rd Street still persist. I wonder how long they will last into this century. The man passed out on the Bowery is a shock, however. It all looks so clean and organized. Query: What was the Farm Security Administration doing photographing within NYC limits? I suppose the same question might apply if these shots were the work of the Office of War Information.

TC said...


That's an excellent question. This wasn't/isn't exactly farm country.

The FSA inherited the legacy of its predecessor, the Resettlement Administration. Both agencies were in the business of putting roofs back over people's heads. (In case there might have been any doubt as to why I find the work of these agencies so inspiring...)

But in the actual event what the FSA director Roy Stryker was doing was sending great photographers out on their own to document poverty across the nation. And this included urban as well as rural poverty. The photographers made contacts with regional FSA functionaries, but anecdotal evidence suggests these "middle" people were as often an encumbrance as a help. When it came down to it, the photographers were moving around and shooting pretty much on their own. Many have commented on the fact that they saw each other only rarely, if at all.

Of the 161,000 black and white negatives in the files, only a tiny fraction have ever been looked at and used. Stryker made some efforts to place the pictures in magazines, but there proved to be not much interest.

My experience with putting up these photos on the blog explains why. Images of poverty, hardship, pain and suffering are simply not what people wish to see. The common reaction is to turn away. The "entertainment" quotient is insufficient. The satisfactions and consolations that might be thought to come with seeing the real history of one's country unfolded before one's eyes are apparently not enough.

(By the way, all these photographers were with the FSA, and when the FSA was de-funded and swallowed up by the OWI, all this work ceased. The OWI was a propaganda agency. The FSA was in the business of recording history.)

Curtis Faville said...

Why not images of Edwin's partner, Rudy Burckhardt? Here--



TC said...


Here are the reasons:

1. Too obvious. I wanted to bring something different to the party. Many have already "seen" Edwin's poems through Rudy's images. I wanted to show something different. (Beyond the predictable.)

2. If you'll look through my Vanitas and BTP archives you'll find that the Burckhardt images from that Google page which would have worked best for my purposes here have already been posted on one or the other of the two blogs I do. I would pause now to spend some time looking up and posting those individual links for you, but something tells me you wouldn't be interested anyway, and too I'm afraid I'm a bit preoccupied today, my wife is having cancer surgery, I have contractors to deal with, and besides, the last time you saw fit to quibble with my image-posting methods (on the Eigner post), it was an enormous waste of time having to patiently spell out for you what was anyway obvious and elementary, when you were just missing it. Once was enough for me, with that.

3. To provide a wider dimension for Edwin's poem here I was looking for a multi-angle view of the New York streets from the divers POVs of a number of photographers working in the same time window in which the poem was written. Here I have used seven very great photographers. Each FSA photographer has his/her own style. The fact they weren't all Edwin's living partners does not seem to me to diminish the usefulness of their photos in this context. For every picture chosen to go up on this post, several hundred other pictures were viewed in thumbnail, considered and rejected. If for whatever reason you don't find these particular pictures suitable to the occasion, what can I say? Is ingratitude just a nagging form of picky and grumpy with you, or what? I can never figure out what motivates bloggers whose comments are consistently nitpicky. Personally I'd rather visit and comment on blogs and posts I actually enjoy. But that's just me, I guess.

4. Best reason of all: look closely at those Google image pages you've linked to, and you will note that many of those photos are copyright. Somebody owns or claims to own exclusive rights. For example, when you see "Getty Images" stamped on a photo (as on one of the Rudy shots on Google Images), the message is: hands off. If you were in the business of maintaining an image blog with proper attributions you would understand this. I avoid copyright images. In these FSA posts I am using public domain images. They are free for use.

I would never think to consider a Google image page as an image source. Google owns my blog and their bots come regularly to make off with the images. The pictures then go up on Google images, people pick them up and re-use them without the license-specified attributions, often on "commercial" blogs. When that happens it's a big problem for the photographers and a small problem for me. Sometimes I "lose" images because the photographers legitimately object to the piratization by non-attributing users, and react by withdrawing their images from public domain. Which is a loss for everybody.

I spend thirty to forty hours a week on photo-searching. Google Images is the last place I would ever look. In my view it's for idiots.

In any case, I am perfectly happy with the images I use, and the way I use them. And so, apparently, are the thousands of scavengers who are even at this moment grabbing up the scraps.

TC said...

Oh, well... once burnt, twice foolish. It must be the old age that does it.

Here is an example of a post on which I have used two of my favourite Rudy Burckhardt street photos. (These two images, by the way, are included on that Google page you sent along.)

I have posted other Denby poems, and again with those, deliberately chose NOT to use Burckhardt images. (See above under "obvious".) The Burckhardt photos I have used have been used with poems NOT written by Edwin. And the Edwin poems I have posted have been accompanied, again deliberately, by images NOT made by Rudy. In case you're actually interested, here is an example.

(And by the way, Curtis, if you expect people to look into your links, I should think your experience with blogging would have allowed you by this point to figure out the simple codes for enabling them. It's just a small courtesy thing, of course.)

Curtis Faville said...
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Curtis Faville said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Curtis Faville said...

Gosh, Tom, I didn't mean to provoke you!

It was a simple, probably dumb, question. I don't ransack your archive every time I read an entry. I just comment whenever the spirit moves me. I wasn't being argumentative.

I don't use links much on my blog, I don't think people use them much. Maybe they do--how would I know?

About pictures: You post hundreds (thousands?) of photos, which you seem to use as prompts for many, if not most of your text entries. I try to make my images serve my text, not the other way around. That's just a personal preference. Only once has Google removed a post of mine, and I was never able to find out why they had--presumably I'd "borrowed" someone's color photograph of the California Central Valley, but it might have been because I insulted a conservative district court judge (in that same entry) for guarding the interests of corporate ranchers. The system for locating the originating complainant is really hard to navigate; have you ever had this problem yourself? I find that copyrighted images often (but not always) are blocked from download, so they can't be used anyway. Also, I suspect that a lot of ostensibly "copyright free" images do really belong to someone, but they aren't willing to go to the trouble to have them removed when they're used without permission or acknowledgment (I think it takes a fee contract to do that).

I agree about the Denby-Burckhardt connection. On the other hand, I'm not sure Denby is really a very "visual" poet, actually. I always dig his verbal dexterity--he can make rhyme and meter seem very relaxed and natural. Back in the 1970's, I was very influenced by his writing.

I like your blog, but maybe I shouldn't comment on it. I like interactions of all kinds in my own comment boxes, even obstreperous ones, but not everyone likes idle talk, as I should remember.

BTW, did you have the opportunity to read Bob's and my essays in the Collected Eigner yet? What did you think?

My wife is a cancer survivor, by the way. Another friend's wife is undergoing both chemo and radiation for "3.4 Stage" breast cancer.

Best Wishes,


TC said...


No problem. Testy day here, as I suppose you may have guessed. The wife in surgery, no sleep, the cats scratching at the walls, work going on in the street and so let's start again.

Images evaporate from my posts quite often, it's an ongoing headache. Together with the spam, it certainly reduces to mere fantasy the idea that a blog can simply maintain itself. I've had images evaporate when people who had placed them in Commons (public domain) changed their minds and withdrew them, for whatever cause. This can perhaps be traced back to the re-use via Google Images.

The image traffic is intense. There are for example two particular pictures, a black panther and a melanistic jaguar, that over the past two years seem to be getting thousands of hits from some kind of mystic Mayan cult sites. There's also a picture of Mickey Mouse and a mug shot of James Brown that have been looked at at least five thousand times more often than the text of any individual post.

The lookers come from everywhere on planet Earth.

This is my role in life. I am the sucker who hunts down surprising pictures so that Google, having done no searching at all (by humans, that is), can then manage them as a"content" upon which to mount advertising.

You can't win in this racket if you're on our side, I mean the outside, of it.

Anonymous said...

"seeing the real history of one's country unfolded before one's eyes are apparently not enough"

I find that amazing considering the quality of the work, but understand your comments about the lack of "entertainment value" in many of the images.

Tuesday was the annual back-to-school "Academic Evening" at my daughter Jane's school. It was a better experience than usual, but I worry a lot about the way she is being taught history. Obviously, teaching, like everything else, involves editing, but they seem to be editing all of the history out of history and simply leaving opinions about history in. It's like being taught by pundits, rather than scholars. This is reflected both in the topics covered in the syllabus and the teacher's statement that 8th grade history will be taught "topically" and non-chronologically. So I guess Jane will be learning "effect and cause", rather than "cause and effect". I made it through the entire evening without even a glass of wine. As I sit here now, I wonder why? It would have helped.

TC said...


You've hit on the dismaying point. Recent history, to me, cries out for a reconsideration of the past, and what lessons it might contain for us. By the past I mean the facts of what happened, not anyone's opinions about those facts. Pictures can be angled and framed, but there is a level of evidence that is clear beyond falsification. Experience in the present of the recurrence of history in the form of certain kinds of avoidable hardship and suffering might well suggest that a study of past experience could yield relevant insight as to a possible response in the present. Then again, despair over the realistic possibility of such a response coming to pass in this country in real time at a level of public responsibility strangles such a thought almost before one can get it out of one's mind, into the dark night.