Visions of Lost New York

Highlighting the photography of a young Stanley Kubrick, a new book and exhibit from Look magazine’s archives recaptures the glamour and grit of the postwar city. VIEW OUR GALLERY

12.31.09 4:54 PM ET

When it comes to midcentury photo magazines, Look (1937-71) has always played second fiddle to Life (1936-72; 1978-2000), both in circulation and in legacy. But a new book and museum exhibition shines a light on Look’s incredible archives and speaks to this also-ran’s strong suit: artful and deeply personal coverage of New York City.

Only in New York: Photographs from Look Magazine, recently out from the Monacelli Press with an accompanying exhibition on view at the Museum of the City of New York through April 10, 2010, covers New York’s postwar cultural and industrial boom. It offers evidence that the city wasn’t always the superpower it is today, juxtaposing the “macro” with the “micro,” growing affluence with outerborough poverty, and much-heralded multiculturalism with rarely acknowledged segregation.

Click Image to View Our Gallery of Photographs from Look Magazine

Both the book and exhibition reflect not only nostalgia but also a layered (and somewhat critical) retelling of late 20th-century America. Broadway producer Mike Todd—Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband—is a modern-day Colossus, robed and lounging on the terrace of his Manhattan penthouse; the scene at the Palladium nightclub is at once enticing and foreboding, with powerful-looking men clutching young women who should have known better; bohemian art students join their would-be patrons at the 1952 Art Students League of New York gala; strangers avoid eye contact on the subway; Harlem kids jump a towering chain-link fence; Brooklyn tough guys have a smoke; and crowds gather to watch the installation of a then-risqué (a lady in a bra!) billboard on Fifth Avenue.

What makes these images especially compelling is the crop of young and hungry Look staffers behind them—career photojournalists whose man-on-the-scene approach recalls a time when every city had shutterbugs on its “beat,” long before terms like “citizen journalism” entered the lexicon. The most recognizable of the lot: Stanley Kubrick. The Bronx-born director started working for Look right out of high school and served on its staff for five years. Kubrick’s images (and there are a lot of them) often confront the private vs. public conundrum that feels unique to New York—couples embracing on fire escapes and park benches; boxers bludgeoned after a fight; and a self-portrait in which the young, unibrowed photographer stares blankly into a dressing room mirror, holding his camera beneath his chin as the showgirl seated in front of him touches up her makeup before taking the stage.

Look is where Kubrick sharpened his very discerning eye. And while his subjects were fairly consistent with those of his colleagues, something about Kubrick’s compositions sets him apart. Yes, there’s always an instinct to draw parallels, but it’s hard not to compare the auteur’s ominous shots of upper-echelon New York City nightlife to Jack Torrance’s well-heeled hallucinations at the Overlook Hotel.

Save for Kubrick, the boldface names are fairly minimal here—Angela Lansbury spends a night on the town with Mad Men’s Robert Morse, Jackie Robinson a few years after he broke into the majors—with Life’s movie stars giving way to Look’s local heroes and personalities. It speaks to the “make it here, make it anywhere” mantra—a localized take on the American Dream. As gossip maven, magazine publisher, and perennial party hostess Elsa Maxwell (photographed in her jammies for Look by Maurice Terrell in 1946) so aptly put it: “Not bad, for a short, fat, homely piano player from Keokuk, Iowa, with no money or background, who decided to become a legend and did just that.”

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Rachel Wolff is a New York-based writer and editor who has covered art for New York, ARTnews, and Manhattan.