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“Pictures of the Past” (Staten Island Museum Collection)

Staten Island Ferry leaving Manhattan.

Staten Island Ferry leaving Manhattan.

In early 2007 one of my local institutions, the Staten Island Museum, commissioned me to respond in writing to a set of 49 photographs drawn from its extensive collection. The group consists of Island scenes depicted in lantern slides, commercially produced postcards, amateur photographs, professionally made group portraits, film stills, and assorted other forms. Diane Matyas, Director of Exhibits and Programs at the museum, specifically indicated the goal as the creation of a “virtual exhibition” for the museum’s website that would reflect the richness of the museum’s archives.

Using Powerpoint (I’ve since switched to Keynote), I created a slideshow, ordering the images in rough chronology and captioning them. This gave me the opportunity to mix my knowledge of photography and visual culture with my awareness of Staten Island’s history and development. My commentary, as you’ll see, ranges widely across those subject areas, touching on such diverse areas as mail art and hand-coloring of photographs.

The result, which first went online at the Museum’s website in the fall of ’07, now appears as a QuickTime movie at YouTube, under the title “Staten Island in Photographs.” The introductory text I wrote reads as follows:

“Scholars refer to the physical objects that a society produces as elements of its material culture. They consider those objects of material culture intended to serve the purpose of visual communication as components of that society’s visual culture. Photographs are such artifacts.

“The photographic images and objects in this selection, from the collection of the Staten Island Museum, thus constitute a cross-section of Staten Island’s material culture and its visual culture as well.

“With Staten Island now the fastest-growing borough in New York City, and the fastest-growing county in New York State, the island’s past, as recorded in these pictures, has never been more relevant. Historians, critics, and curators of photography have come to use the term ‘vernacular photography’ to describe everything from amateur snapshots to photo-booth images to commercial studio portraits to newspaper photographs. Admittedly, it’s a catch-all for that vast welter of photographic images and objects that don’t fall easily into the categories of fine art, documentary, photojournalism, scientific/medical imagery, and other specific usages of the medium.

“The images in this selection would all fit into that classification. This does not devalue them in any way. They constitute a mother lode of visual history that we have only begin to mine.”

Tappen Park, Stapleton, Staten Island

Tappen Park, Stapleton, Staten Island

Here’s another of the images in the group, this one a panorama of Tappen Park, just three blocks from our house. My wife and I walked through it yesterday; though recently renovated, it hasn’t changed much at all. The layout’s the same, and some of the same trees still stand.

— A. D. Coleman

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3 comments to “Pictures of the Past” (Staten Island Museum Collection)

  • I could see Staten Island making a great location for a horror movie.

    • Don’t know what evokes “horror movie” for you about this part of New York City, which local homeboys Wu Tang Clan have dubbed “Shaolin.” Highest point on the eastern seaboard, almost three times the size of Manhattan, population still under 500,000, fastest-growing county in New York State, greenest of all the boroughs by far in terms of parks and nature preserves, lowest crime rate in the city, almost entirely residential with a smattering of commercial and light industry . . . Nothing here that inherently seems spine-tingling, unless you automatically associate well-maintained Victorian homes (of which we still have many) with Hollywood chillers.

      The island has served as a setting for movie-making since the early days of film, but only two I know of qualify as “horror movies”: He Knows You’re Alone and Toxic Avenger. The Melanie Griffiths character in Working Girl comes from Staten Island, with a number of that films scenes set here. Parts of The Godfather and Scent of a Woman were made here. And one outtake from the bizarre Diane Arbus biopic Fur, a scene in which she discovers to her delight that she’s not pregnant, got shot at the island’s Snug Harbor Cultural Center.

      Possibly filmmakers know more about scouting locations for genre movies that you (or I) do. Certainly they’ve chosen Manhattan for a horror-film setting far more often than they have Staten Island, despite the fact that, logistically, it’s much harder to film in the crowded inner city than out here in the relative boonies.

      Speaking of which: I see that you represent a real-estate agency specializing in the tonier areas of Manhattan, which your website describes as “the City’s most desirable place to invest in real estate.” Worried about losing our clientele to this more low-key, low-density, bargain-priced option just across the harbor, are we?

  • Diane Matyas

    Hey, A.D.-
    Did you know that the horror movie Wolfen features a shot made on Staten Island’s Stuyvesant Place? Our resident B-Movie expert Ed Johnson has lots of info . . . and the archives of the Staten Island Museum has a more formal Movie list.

    I was watching Sisters — I think that’s the name — and realized it’s all Staten Island . . . and pretty scary (if you fear your siamese twin, that is).

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