Captured Moments from the Streets of New York

Subway Portrait, 1938, by Walker Evans Courtesy National Gallery of Art hide caption

Watch a slideshow of photos from the exhibit.
itoggle caption Courtesy National Gallery of Art
Outside the Selwyn Theater on New York's 42nd Street, 1955. i i

Outside the Selwyn Theater on New York's 42nd Street, 1955. William Klein/Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery hide caption

itoggle caption William Klein/Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery
Outside the Selwyn Theater on New York's 42nd Street, 1955.

Outside the Selwyn Theater on New York's 42nd Street, 1955.

William Klein/Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

The streets of New York — with their clamor, hustle and snap — are captured in an exhibition of photographs in Washington, D.C. At the National Gallery of Art, black-and-white pictures by Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt and others, taken from 1938 through 1958, show a raw, edgy city.

New York was a magnet for photographers — especially after World War II. National Gallery curator Sarah Greenough says the crowded streets were full of opportunity.

But they were lonely, too. In Louis Stettner's 1952 picture, "Times Square," steam billows from a manhole as someone — you can only see his feet and the bottom of his overcoat — strolls past in the night.

"It's a completely anonymous form, but in that way really does express that sense of anonymity, the isolation of the urban environment," Greenough says .

Jazz influenced some of the photographers in the exhibit, and the improvisation of the music echoes in the pictures.

"Taking a situation and almost instinctively realizing its potential and then sort of running with it — you see that in a lot of the photos, where they seem to have been caught on the fly, without any premeditation," Greenough says.

Many of the photographers had day jobs with fashion magazines or ad agencies. But on their own time, they were breaking rules.

They rejected photojournalism and had no interest in telling stories, or in documenting the city. Instead, with their small cameras, and using natural light, these shooters wanted to show how the brawling, gritty, bristling city made them feel.

One of the most dazzling photos on display is William Klein's 1955 shot, taken on 42nd Street outside the Selwyn Theater. Gleaming with dark blacks and vivid whites, it's like an Astaire-Rogers movie set, but the dancing's replaced by a different kind of dazzle.

Photo historian Fran Trachtenberg loves this fleeting city moment.

"We could never recreate this image. If you weren't there the second it was taken, it's gone. And that's what this show is all about — the moment that you see it," she says.

The exhibit runs at the National Gallery until Jan. 15.

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