Saturday, January 5, 2013

A View from the RCA Building

Cambridge, January 5, 2013

In 1934 Samuel Gottscho took a shot of New York that seems to encapsulate the 20th century city in one image: the skyscraper, photography and electric light.

It's a night view up high from the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center.  The photo is framed by the 77-story Chrysler Building completed in 1930 and the 102-story Empire State Building competed in 1931 (left and right respectively.)  With his camera atop the just completed 70-story RCA Building, Gottscho draws this perfect triangle, gathering within a half-mile radius three of the tallest buildings ever built, as if saying that Midtown Manhattan had become the center of the world.

The lens points southeast, so the grid of Manhattan appears at an angle, speeding the lines of the streets and underscoring the tridimensional nature of the tall buildings rising above the 19th century fabric.  Manhattan is rendered as a dynamic two-point perspective (really a three-point perspective since the camera is looking down) while in the distance, the streets of Brooklyn vanish tamely to a single point.  In the foreground, Fifth Avenue cuts the frame as a diagonal gush of light racing downtown.  The buildings seem to free themselves from their weight, letting their outlines blend with the dark background.  Instead, the city reappears, almost immaterial, as an enormous swarm of brightly illuminated rectangles bursting into the night sky.

Gottscho knew his stuff.

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