About photobooks – old and new.
Title: Manhattan Magic
Author: Mario Bucovich
Published most likely by Bucovich himself, in 1937, and printed by Beck Engraving Company in Philadelphia
4to: 95 pp, with 85 photographs printed in Beck sheet-fed gravure, photographically illustrated softcovers, spiral-bound
The title and beautiful covers are imbued with mysticism, letting the reader anticipate a collection of artistic photographs in line with the pictorialism style of the previous decades. The poetic description written by Bucovich in the foreword, accentuates this anticipation: “One night last winter, high up on the roof of Rockefeller Centre, I saw a sky full of glimmering stars. But this sky happened o be below my point of vantage. Thousands and thousands of lighted windows where myriads of people were busy had reversed, so it seemed, the laws of nature. There was little attraction in the old conventional sky and but a few stars were left visible above me.”
However, the following pages couldn’t be farther from such mysticism. The photographs present exactly the opposite – an attempt to privilege authenticity and clarity, rather than spirituality and creativity. Without denying his passion for New York, Bucovich is more in line with the modernist approach to photography in vogue at that time, exploring the authenticity and the documentary virtues of the medium.
The subjects photographed are examples of the modern life in the city and the industrial world – skyscrapers, city traffic and automobiles, the hustle and bustle, and the city at night, the one that never sleeps. Today, these pictures look all cliché and without soul. But at that time, they may have been perceived as a straightforward description and fair glorification of New York, which had just bounced back from the great depression.
This photobook mirrors well the devotion and fascination for the grandiosity of New York City in Bucovich’s mind, for whom NYC is a symbol of modernity and freedom, where anyone can thrive to succeed. But the grandiosity of the city can also be overwhelming for the conservative mind. Bucovich tells the story of this French artist who “has not dared to face the power of Manhattan…He landed late at night, missing the world famous skyline. The next morning he was taken to the Brooklyn shore and shown this incredible panorama. For a long time he contemplated the unique view. Then, without saying a word. He dragged his friend away, refused to do any more sight-seeing, and left the country the same evening on the next boat. Perhaps the shock to his traditional artistic ideas so flagrantly violated in the composition of this magic city was too much for him.”
The photographs themselves in part match the admiring and naïf perspective described in the foreword. They are artless, but straightforward, documenting the flamboyant city’s skyscrapers, bridges, main avenues and squares. People are mainly part of the city décor, minuscule passersby in front of the tall and overpowering buildings. Contrarily to Berenice Abbott, who published “Changing New York” around the same time, Bucovich does not express any nostalgic attachment to the old NY. He admires and embraces without ambiguity the modernist era in NYC. The prints in Beck sheet fed gravure offer rich reproductions with very dense charcoal blacks.
Aside this work on New York, Mario Bucovich had alrady published other books in similar style. One of Berlin (Berlin, Das Gesicht Der Stadt [Berlin, Portrait of a City]) and another one of Paris with a forward by Paul Morand and the collaboration of Germaine Krull. He moved to New York during the 1930s where he worked for a publishing house on 41st Street. In his American period he published two photographic essays: Washington D.C. City Beautiful, and this one, Manhattan Magic.