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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

The streets of New York, with their clamor, bustle and snap, are on display in a slightly quieter place - The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. An exhibition of black-and-white photographs taken from 1938 through 1958 show a raw, edgy city.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg prepared this report.

Unidentified Woman: Attention passengers, please watch your step. Beware of the gap when entering and exiting the train. Thank you.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Grand Central Station, a blur of people moving intently, their faces blank. Paul Himmel's 1947 photo could have been taken yesterday except for the men's fedora hats, commuters streaking through rush hour.

Ms. SARAH GREENOUGH (Curator, National Gallery of Art): It has that sense of the sort of nervous energy, the vitality, the frenzied pace of New York.

STAMBERG: The city was a magnet for photographers, especially after World War II. National Gallery curator Sarah Greenough says the crowded streets were full of opportunity, but 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 - someone strolls past in the night.

Ms. GREENOUGH: It's a completely anonymous form, but in that way really does express that sense of anonymity, the isolation of the urban environment.

STAMBERG: But there's also the magic of it. This takes me back to nights at Birdland, staying there until it closed and walking home through that mist, and it was also the magic city I was walking through.

Ms. GREENOUGH: Yeah, no absolutely. I mean with the mist, it makes it almost like an otherworldly scene.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

STAMBERG: Jazz influenced some of the photographers in this exhibit - at the National Gallery through January 15th, by the way. Jazz clubs flourished in New York in the '40s and '50s. The improvisation of the music echoes in these pictures.

Ms. GREENOUGH: Taking a situation and almost instinctively realizing its potential and then sort of running with it. And you see that in a lot of the photographs where they seem to have been caught on the fly without any premeditation.

STAMBERG: This was a different kind of picture taking. 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, 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.

Ms. GREENOUGH: That sense of constant experimentation, trying to capture not literal record of New York but one's sense, one's experience of working within that environment and doing absolutely anything in the dark room and the camera in order to recreate that very personal response.

STAMBERG: The wow picture in the show may just be William Klein's 1955 shot taken on 42nd Street outside the Selwyn Theater. Gleaming with dark blacks, 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.

Ms. FRAN TRACHTENBERG (Photo Historian): What's fascinating is it's totally disposable. The marquee of the theater is in the top bar of the image and it says Kirk Douglas, The Racers. But if we come back next week, it's going to be a different movie. The foreground of the picture is a beautiful waxed automobile, and cascading down its back is the reflection of all the stores on the side street. There, it's almost like they're tattoos of light. They just disappear. And the people that we see walking down the street are also randomly there at a 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.

STAMBERG: Walker Evans collected quick moments surreptitiously. Starting in 1938, he took his 35-milimeter camera down into the New York subways to capture subjects, in his words, in naked repose. Curator Sarah Greenough tells how he did it.

Ms. GREENOUGH: Evans wanted to photograph people without them being aware that their pictures were being taken. So working mainly in the winter - so that he could wear a very heavy coat - he hung his camera around his neck and placed it so that the lens would poke out between the buttons of his coat. And he strung a cable release down his sleeve.

STAMBERG: Then, Evans sat in the subway car riding from stop to stop, waiting for the right moments.

Ms. GREENOUGH: And then without raising the camera to his eye, without adjusting his focus, without setting any of the settings or the shutter speed, he would click his picture.

STAMBERG: An important photography teacher of the day, Alexi Brodovich(ph), always sent his students onto the streets of New York with this instruction: astonish me. Walker Evans, that American photo pioneer, put it differently. Stare, Evans said. It is the way to educate your eye and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something; you are not here long.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of Music)

AMOS: You can see some of the New York photos at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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