One man, Frank Oscar Larson, a photographer who was born in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, but later on moved to Flushing, Queens, was able to capture some of those stories and reveal them in his often personal and intimate shots of regular folk going about their day.
Under the exhibition, “Frank Oscar Larson: 1950s New York Street Stories,” 65 of those shots are now on display at the Queens Museum of Art through May 20.
In every shot, Larson explores and flawlessly captures candid faces walking down the street, young boys shoe shining, two men sitting at a coffee shop, one man unloading keg cans, children playing at Kissena Park, and Queensites lounging around Astoria pool, among many others.
Many of his portrait shots express loneliness, and at times yearning, mixed with simplicity, obliviousness, fun, curiosity in some, and lightheartedness in others. And always in the background is the backdrop of the city, displaying New York's flare and character of the 1950s.
Whether a building, an alleyway, an elevated train line, a pigeon, or a single person, Larson also captures the stillness that can be found in a city behind the bustling cars and shuffling feet.
“I think the strength of his work is in intimate and private moments,” said Louise Weinberg, the exhibition's curator. “You don't feel that there's any sort of barrier or judgement in his portraits.”
The same way Larson portrays a young boy staring out at something beyond the lens on a hot summer day is the same way he manages to portray a homeless man sitting in the street on a cold winter day, looking directly into the camera.
“He also captured singular images of people alone in a group,” Weinberg said, noting the sense of isolation exuded by the individual although part of a group. “He must have related to that feeling in some way, perhaps. They feel melancholy.”
Frank Oscar Larson worked as a banker in Manhattan and lived on Oak Street in Flushing with his wife, Eleanora Friberg and two sons, Franklin and David.
He was born in Greenpoint to Swedish parents in 1896 and served in World War 1 as an artillery man. Upon returning and finishing college, he landed a job at the Empire Trust Company (now Bank of New York Mellon) and worked his way up to become vice president.
Larson died in 1964 as he was on his way to Flushing for the 1964 World's Fair. He suffered a stroke due to a lung problem which he developed from serving in the war after inhaling mustard gas. He passed away within days.
Larson's exhibition is compiled from thousands of negatives discovered in his daughter-in-law's home in 2009. Each photo was noted with the location and date in his own handwriting.
Larson's grandson, Soren, said that he was always the family shutterbug. But it wasn't until 1950 that his passion for photography blossomed. By 1949, when both his sons had left home, he found more free time to walk around and cultivate his photography passion.
Though he owned several cameras, the Rolleiflex brand was his favorite. Also known as “Rollies,” at the time it was the camera most preferred for portraits and was legendary among street photographers.
“It was the kind of camera that was unobtrusive as it hung low; with it he was able to have these really candid shots,” Weinberg said. “And he was unassuming and modest and I think that was part of his ability to get in close.”
Many of the photos also convey a multicultural element, with different races coexisting together.
The exhibition overall is a timepiece, Weinberg says, reflecting the changing culture that the decade brought and a man who was an avid and compassionate observer of the life of the streets.
“Frank Oscar Larson: 1950s New York Street Stories” is on display at the Queens Museum of Art through Sunday, May 20. The Queens Museum of Art is located in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.