In 1648 the Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam initiated the first
“Fire Ordinance”, but many civil, political and scientific advances
had to occur before the FDNY Photo Unit was established just over
three centuries later. Today, the Photo Unit has a remarkable
collection of glass and large format negatives spanning about
eighty years before its inception. These images provide us with a
nostalgic view of New York and intriguing documents of tragedies
that took place between 1869-1906, and through the first half of
the nineteenth century. The earliest work portrays New York during
the same time period that the two most famous social-documentary
photographers, Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, would photograph early
immigrants and the compelling challenges of work and housing they
faced. This was the same period that Edison would light a small
part of lower Manhattan with the first power plant in America. It
is also this period that industry powered the economy while, in
many ways, impoverished the human spirit. In these early years
photographers challenged us to think about the “other side”. By
presenting eye-witnessed documents, our eyes were opened to the
realities and dangers of progress. The glass negatives, as does the
entire body of work from the FDNY Photo Unit lure us with their
beauty – and then we are hit with the reality of what the images
are actually about.
Photography, since 1839, has served society to remind us that
many things that we choose to ignore, do, in fact exist. Many
powerful social-documentary works in the mid 19th century changed
the way we looked at New York, our society and at one another; and
the collection from the FDNY Photo Unit is no exception. These
photographers who placed and continue to place their lives on the
line every time they set out to document a disaster in the city as
well as many other places throughout the United States, bring to us
some of the most poignant documentations of our time. They focus
our minds and senses. We are astounded by the beauty of the
hypnotic colors and at the same time stifled by the shock of
reality. It is with these thoughts of history, images and human
response in mind that we can consider the work before us.
Organized somewhat chronologically, the exhibit begins with
large digital contact sheets made from the scanned collection of
glass negatives owned by the FDNY Photo Unit. With the earliest of
these images traced to 1869, we are drawn to the daily struggles of
our city on its way to becoming a “great metropolis”. The selection
of 8x10 black and white prints come from 4x5 negatives. Many of
these are the original works of the first photographers that formed
the Photo Unit. Trained as firefighters first, these photographers
documented their experiences from a personal perspective as
firefighters while being loyal to their “civil assignments”. Of
these I paid particular attention to the scenes of catastrophes as
civilian gathered to watch. Nothing has changed in the decades that
followed, but these, with the well-dressed New Yorkers as
on-lookers, were reminiscent of film stills from the 1950’s
as well as the crime scene photography by Arthur Fellig (Weegee).
In our contemporary society, our perception of the world is often
quite controlled, and limited, by the images that are presented to
us. This is also something to carefully contemplate. How do our own
experiences allow us to understand, ponder, or dismiss these
As we move to the FDNY Photo Unit’s most recent work, we are
presented with emergency situations, some as in the great tragedy
of 9-11 that bring out both the worst and best of humanity. The
first of these recent images is both beautiful and horrifying.
Framed by a fallen structure, the distant scene of destruction is
mesmerizing. The remains, surrounded by a halo of sky, has been
transformed by hope, yet the destruction it portrays seems, at the
same time, so very hopeless. Gomez’s image from Jessup Avenue
portrays nothing short of a burning inferno, visually captivating
and psychologically challenging.
In 2005 the FDNY went to New Orleans to help with the
devastation that Katrina had left behind. The image made by
photographer, Ben Cotten, is beautifully poetic as the FDNY jacket
hangs on the fire truck of the New Orleans Fire Department. This
image is the embodiment of the collaboration of so many that have
aided the families affected by natural disasters. Another favorite
is Barron’s, Burning Building in Harlem, which is reminiscent of
the photographs of Roy De Carava. The isolated figure walking while
the smoke is rising in the distance can be seen as a metaphor for
survival – something New Yorkers are famous for since the first
settlers formed New Amsterdam.
The exhibit is filled with images that lure us, those that
provoke nostalgic memories, those that give us hope, and many that
leave us hopeless. But it is, after all, these types of emotions
that define our humanity, and these powerful documents of the
events that surround our everyday existence also serve as a tribute
to the human spirit.
January 27 - March 7, 2009
Tuesday, February 10, 2009, 4:30 - 6:30 p.m.
Dr. M.T. Geoffrey Yeh Art Gallery
Sun Yat Sen Hall
St. John’s University
8000 Utopia Parkway
Tuesday – Thursday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Friday: 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Saturday: 12 p.m. – 5 p.m.
Belenna Lauto, Associate Professor of Photography, St. John’s
University; Benjamin Cotton, former photographer and archivist from
the FDNY Photo Unit.
St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
FDNY (New York City Fire Department)
City of New York (Office of the Mayor)
This exhibition is free of charge and accessible to the
handicapped. For more information call (718) 990-7476.
Media are requested to contact Dominic Scianna, Assistant V.P.
for Media Relations at St. John’s University to schedule any
interviews by calling (718) 990-6185 or e-mail inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.