About photobooks – old and new.
Title: Island Scenes
Author: Percy Loomis Sperr
Self-published in 1937
4to: wrappers, unpaginated
Percy Loomis Sperr (1890-1964) compiled more than 30,000 photographs, comprising a detailed portrait of the city” from 1924 through the early 1940s. Known as the Official Photographer of the City of New York, he captured neighborhoods’ life, people and architecture, in all five boroughs. The whole collection was purchased by the NY Public Library, which made them accessible on their website. Researchers and movie directors have often used his photos to create authentic sets for movies, such as ”The Godfather” and ”The Great Gatsby.
“Island Scenes” is apparently Sperr’s only publication, printed in 1937, with 130 Staten Island images. While many of his contemporaneous focused on Manhattan – as a symbol of modernity and progress – Sperr, by contrast, chose the bucolic environments of Staten Island – known as the garden borough. The Island’s natural features and ancient houses are the core subject of the photographs in this photobook.
In contrast with other publications of that time, such as Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York, “Island Scenes” documents a relatively untouched area, which resisted the persistent process of modernization in NYC. Sperr documents and describes with detail old colonial houses which stood for more than 250 years. There is for instance a beautiful full page picture of “The Conference House”, one of the most important landmarks of the island. Erected in 1679, it took its name from the conference held there on September 11 in 1776, when the British admiral Lord Howe met with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge, as a last attempt to avoid a war with the colonies.
Sperr acknowledges, however, the merits of the industrial development on the Island, by including a whole chapter with photos of modern infrastructures – bridges, boardwalks, and official buildings, among others.
Sperr was particularly motivated in publishing “Island Scenes” primarily because he lived there, but also because he genuinely loved the borough. He called Staten Island the Cinderella of boroughs, which took a real prince to appreciate the charm the island had to offer.
Percy L. Sperr was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1889, and migrated to New York around 1924, hoping to find work as a writer and to illustrate his writings with his photographs. But picture-taking soon took precedence. He wrote in 1934, “I am not much of a camera fan. My own interest is rather in the story than in the picture.” Said by the man who may have taken more photos of New York than anyone else.
During World War II his picture-taking declined. A 1943 letter in the library files states: ”Percy Sperr announced that he had gone into the secondhand book and print business on a small scale, specializing in material pertaining to New York. He has an office on Staten Island, near his home.” He opened a used-book store and sold poetry and old comic books, three for a dime. He admitted occasionally drifting off to sleep, ”which isn’t good for business.”