Oldest Photos of New York City

8 Oldest Photos of New York City Ever Taken

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The Big Apple. The Crossroads of the World. The City that Never Sleeps.

All of these (and probably many more) have become descriptors over the years for New York City, one of the world’s most esteemed and renowned cities. Since its early years, New York has been a hub and a mecca for those seeking more and better, attracting tourists, entrepreneurs, creative types, and immigrants of all ethnicities and nationalities. It’s even been said that “New Yorkers are born all over the country, and then they come to New York City and it hits them: ‘Oh, that’s who I am.’”

With 400 and some years under its belt – some official, some unofficial as an American city – we’re talking all about some of the oldest photographs ever taken of New York. Don’t go anywhere – you’re in for a treat!

8. Untitled

Year taken: 2002
Photographer: Kevin Landers
Famous or no?: No
NYC area: N/A

Untitledphoto source: timeout.com

This unconventional photograph was actualized and captured by photographer Kevin Landers in 2002, showcasing the great number of people living in New York City.

This photo aimed to be a play on the city’s “street photography” that has become a popular genre among New York photographers, but it captured something different than typical street photography. The cigarettes pictured represent the vast multitudes of people who reside in the city, acting as a type of poetry for the NYC population.

Did You Know?

In March, 2021, New York State Legislature introduced a bill that would ban the sale of cigarettes – so the cigarette butts that Landers managed to capture might dwindle quite a bit in the city’s grates in the future!


7. Extremes

Year taken: 1980
Photographer: Leonard Freed
Famous or no?: No
NYC area: N/A

Extremesphoto source: timeout.com

According to The New York Times, if you live in Manhattan and are making more than $790,000 annually, you are the 1%.

In fact, “middle class Manhattan” is becoming more and more of a myth; even with the effects of the pandemic, the cost of (comfortable) living in the city is still very high. That’s why photographer Leonard Freed was inspired to capture the economic extremes of New York.

In his piece, “Extremes,” Freed demonstrates how the city is home to both the 1% and the poorest of the poor. A Gucci shopper can walk right past a homeless man with a cup in his hand, rather than a product worth $1,000+. The disparity is sobering, yet entirely raw and real.

Did You Know?

Leonard Freed (1929 – 2006) made a career out of taking photographs like the one pictured above. He was an American photojournalist who worked both domestically and overseas, capturing social injustice and inequality across continents. He specialized in the African American experience, and also chronicled Jewish discrimination in Germany after reconstruction.


6. V-J Day in Times Square

Year taken: 1945
Photographer: Alfred Eisenstaedt
Famous or no?: Famous
NYC area: Times Square

V-J Day in Times Squarephoto source: Wikipedia

Perhaps one of the most famous photos ever taken, “V-J Day in Times Square” perfectly captures the high spirits and jubilation of American citizens on Victory over Japan Day in 1945.

Captured by Alfred Eisenstaedt, the photograph depicts a young sailor embracing a dental assistant – who is a total stranger to him – on the streets of New York, in Times Square. At the time, the entire population was eagerly awaiting the news for victory to be declared, announcing the end of the war with Japan and thus the end of WWII. This photograph was captured after President Truman made the announcement, leading to celebration all over the country.

“V-J Day in Times Square” has since become iconic, and has even graced the cover of Life magazine.

Did You Know?

Two women claimed to be the woman in “V-J Day in Times Square” in later years – Greta Zimmer Friedman and Edith Shain. Both retold the event with different details; however, it was determined that Shain could not have been the woman in the photograph due to her shorter height of 4’10”.

Contrarily, forensic anthropologists and facial recognition specialists determined that Greta Zimmer Friedman was, indeed, the woman in the famous photograph on V-J Day. She died at 92 years old of age-related complications.


5. New York at Night

Year taken: 1932
Photographer: Berenice Abbott
Famous or no?: No
NYC area: Empire State Building (view)

New York at Nightphoto source: timeout.com

Aerial photographs of New York are undeniably gorgeous – especially night shots!

Taken in 1932 by Berenice Abbott, “New York at Night” captures downtown Manhattan shortly before Christmas with a view from the Empire State Building. The amplified glow of the traffic and street lights below comes from a special developer that Abbott enlisted to create the effect, showing a greater contrast between light and dark.

Did You Know?

Berenice Abbott, an American photographer, began documenting life in New York City through the lens of her camera in 1929. She was famous bird’s-eye and worm’s-eye points-of-view.


4. Lunch Atop a Skyscraper

Year taken: 1932
Photographer: Charles C. Ebbets
Famous or no?: Famous
NYC area: Rockefeller Center

Lunch Atop a Skyscraperphoto source: Wikipedia

One of the most well-known photographs that captures life in New York is “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” taken in September, 1932 by Charles Ebbets. The photo depicts the construction workers who built the RCA Building in Rockefeller Plaza.

Ebbets, a professional photographer at the time, was hired by Rockefeller Center to take this famous photo as PR for the new RCA Building. Though the workers in the photo were real, the scene was apparently staged by Rockefeller Center for promotional purposes.

“Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” appeared in the Sunday edition of the New York Herald Tribune in October, 1932.

Did You Know?

Photographers appreciate night photography for many reasons, among them that the light never changes, scenes become more dramatic, and it is not quite as weather-dependent as daytime photography.


3. Photo #3

Year taken: 1875
Photographer: Unknown
Famous or no?: No
NYC area: Liberty Island

Photo #3photo source: Harper’s Bazaar

The above photo was taken of the Statue of Liberty in the same year that it was built and given to the United States – 1875.

While the photographer is unknown, and the photograph itself isn’t particularly famous, it is one of the oldest taken of the Statue of Liberty, particularly during a time when photography wasn’t a common hobby.

The Statue of Liberty was built by French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi out of sheets of hammered copper, and was erected on modern-day Liberty Island after being gifted to the States.

Did You Know?

The same man who designed the world-famous Eiffel Tower for the 1889 World’s Fair, Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, designed the Statue of Liberty’s steel framework.


2. Broadway & 14th Street

Year taken: 1864
Photographer: Otto Ebbinghaus & Swift
Famous or no?: No
NYC area: Broadway

Broadway & 14th Streetphoto source: timeout.com

This fascinating photo of Broadway & 14th Street was taken in 1864, as New York City was preparing for the Metropolitan Fair. The fair, which became a phenomenon all throughout the north, sprang up originally as a post-war effort to support the Union Army’s men who had been wounded.

Turns out, New York’s 1864 Metropolitan Fair was among the biggest of the north’s fairs, bringing in a whopping $120,000. This photo depicts the set-up process and the surrounding area of the fair that year, and today hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Did You Know?

$120,000 in 1864 amounted to something like $2M in today’s market! Needless to say, the Metropolitan Fair proved to be a smash hit for raising money for Union Army soldiers.


1. Earliest photograph taken

Year taken: 1839
Photographer: Samuel F.B. Morse
Famous or no?: No
NYC area: Unitarian Church

There is no current image available of the oldest photograph ever taken of (or in) New York City.

The research shows that the earliest photograph ever taken of New York City was snapped by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1839 of a Unitarian Church. The image is now lost, according to an official website for New York’s history.

The earliest surviving images of New York are now considered to be Victor Provost’s work, taken around 1853 or 1854. His photos were made from wax paper negatives.

Did You Know?

The photographer who managed to catch the (now lost) earliest photograph of NYC, Samuel F.B. Morse, was also the inventor of the electric telegraph and of Morse Code. He was an American painter and inventor.


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