Paul Strand and the painter and photographer Charles Sheeler collaborated on a short film in 1921 titled Manhatta. The idea for the film came about when Sheeler showed Strand his new DeBrie movie camera, and Strand said he wanted to make a film about New York in motion. Strand, a New York native and noted still photographer, had studied photography with Lewis Hine at the Ethical Culture School and then came to be associated with Alfred Stieglitz's 291 Gallery. As a photographer he was attracted to the aesthetics of the machine as well as to watching his fellow New Yorkers as they moved about the city. Sheeler often carefully painted the geometries of the urban landscape in the style known as Precisionist, and so the two shared a similar vision for the work.
("After Manhatta," Wall Street, 2008," morning, July 30, 2008, with a Nikon E2500 QuickTime feature. Walking Off the Big Apple.)
Manhatta is considered one of the first avant-garde films in the United States. Depicting life in lower Manhattan from sunrise to sundown, the seven-minute film meditates on the industrial urban landscape. The film is interspersed with title cards from selected passages from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Several versions, usually with different selected soundtracks, are available for viewing on You Tube. Here's one:
Strand and Sheeler created the film by compiling several different steady focused clips of locations in the financial district and seaport. For the one on Wall Street, the filmmakers revisited the exact location for Strand's now iconic still image of the street from 1915. The still photograph shows the looming dark rectangular windows of the Morgan Guaranty Trust Building with people walking along the street below. In the photograph, shot during the winter, the low sun casts long shadows of the workers along the sidewalk. The moving image clip of Wall Street from Manhatta is a bit brighter.
Inspired by the original film, I walked down to Wall Street this morning as people were arriving for work just to see if I could set up Strand's frame. Using the still photograph from 1915 as my reference, I made the brief QuickTime movie you see before you. Dominated by the angles of the House of Morgan, the clip is quite close to the original. Of course, when I got back home, I turned the color information into black and white. Now I am inspired to find other locations and to make my own Manhatta.
For more about Paul Strand's stint as a newsreel stringer, please read the most compatible post at the Orphan Film Symposium blog.
For more about Paul Strand's career as a filmmaker see my blog post titled "Photographers in Motion" over at Reframe. This is enough to make it Paul Strand Week here at WOTBA!