The Lost City

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We used to have rubber-band fights sometimes. A Saturday-afternoon visit to his office was one of my favorite treats. Irving Browning’s office was like no one else’s. He was the founder and owner of Camera Mart, a motion-picture-equipment rental and supply company But there was little in his office about cinematography unless it was the row of antique movie cameras that lined a high shelf running around the walls. No, Irving’s office was, rather, an eclectic museum. Prominent on the wall to the left as you entered was an original Mutoscope, Charlie Chaplin flickering forever in its interior darkness. Stacked against it was an ever-changing assortment of antique weaponry from almost any historical epoch you could name, but especially from the American past. Remington bronzes loomed out of the semidarkness (there never seemed to be lights on; the office was always lit by natural daylight). Hanging on the wall behind his desk among a number of prints was a framed arrow labeled, “The Arrow That Killed Custer.” Even then I don’t think I believed it.

Irving wasn’t a well-educated man, I am told, but he certainly was fascinated by history, all history, and was never too busy to talk about it to a ten-year-old boy. Even better, nothing in his office was untouchable, and nothing gave him more pleasure than sharing his collection with others.

Irving died in 1961, and my father and his partners took over Camera Mart.

It wasn’t until nearly thirty years later that I learned about Irving Browning, the photographer. A small 1989 exhibit of his photographs at the New-York Historical Society took me completely by surprise. The quality and variety of his work were astonishing. Even more astonishing was the information from my father when, following the exhibit, I started to question him about Irving’s career as a photographer, many of his original negatives, I learned, were still in storage at Camera Mart.

On a March day I trundled home with eight cartons of collapsing cardboard, shrouded in three decades of dust. Inside, in a state of terrible neglect and deterioration, were some thirty-five cases of material. Prints and negatives tumbled out literally by the thousands, an unparalleled photographic history of a vanished New York.

Taken between 1918 and 1938, Irving’s photographs captured a city even then gargantuan, but somehow less intimidating. It was a city of proportion and scale, built and occupied by people not yet too small for their surroundings.

Irving seemed to have been everywhere and interested in everything. Down in gaping excavations where men with jackhammers were carving out the foundations for a future Rockefeller Center. Precariously perched on the cables of a George Washington Bridge whose roadway hangs truncated in empty space, stretching toward the Palisades. Up in the girders of an unfinished Empire State Building, the very emblem of the city it would soon crown. He documented the construction of these and other New York landmarks by men in overalls and caps, with wooden toolboxes and pencil stubs stuck behind their ears, men who built a city wielding hammers and trowels, with never a printout or a calculator to be seen.

Irving’s New York is filled with people nonchalantly aware of their responsibility to the city in which they lived. Businessman, window shopper, street peddler, they all move well dressed and dignified across a cityscape punctuated with dirigibles and double-decker buses. Sunlight slants down to Sixth Avenue through the slats of the El’s tracks, and even the shantytown inhabitants of the Depression-era Hoovervilles wear suits and hats.

It is a city that seems to bristle with humanity and optimism. I find myself liking the nameless minions who populate those streets. You have the feeling that they would never litter, or play the radio too loud. On the streets of Irving’s New York, people pay five cents for a glimpse through a telescope of the “world’s tallest building,” wrangle piles of skyscraper steel with heavy cables and gloved hands, buy their papers from newsboys, have their shoes shined by bootblacks, and line up in droves for the premieres of “alltalking” motion pictures. They ride the “Iron Steamer” out to Coney Island in the summer while harpists and violinists play on deck. Musicians in dinner jackets broadcast live big-band music from under striped awnings on the roof of the Municipal Building. It is a city in which blurred ghosts flit across the December sidewalks of Times Square on a snowy night, and several inches of snow accumulate without a tire track.

Irving was fascinated from the beginning with cinematography. Over the years the packets of motion-picture negative clips in his archives became increasingly numerous. It is clear that he carried his moving and still cameras simultaneously. Some of his films still exist, and the compositions are identical. By the late thirties he seems to have abandoned stills entirely for moving images. It was a loss to New York; it would have been wonderful to share the exuberant postwar years with him as seen through his remarkable camera.

Irving showed me my first copy of American Heritage in the late fifties. I think he would be pleased to know that he, too, has found a place of his own in that heritage and in the history of the city he obviously loved so well.