In 1911, when Swedish film studio Svenska Biografteatern needed footage for its burgeoning newsreel business, it sent a team of cameramen off to cities around the world. With an eye toward assembling short travelogues for theatergoers back home, they visited places like Paris, Monte Carlo, and Venice. When they reached New York City, they had plenty of outdoor scenes to shoot: things like ferries shuffling commuters between New Jersey and Manhattan, ladies brandishing sun umbrellas in Herald Square, and a wealthy family being chauffeured down Broadway in a motorcar. When the crew made in for a close-up, the family’s little daughter let out a big, bored yawn.
Today, thanks to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the nine minutes of black and white footage the Swedes captured that day still crackles with clarity. In 2017, MoMA restored their film from the original nitrate print and presented it as part of an exhibition. Dubbed simply “New York 1911,” the silent images are flush with sound. There’s waves slapping ships in New York Harbor, the 6th Avenue Elevated Train squealing toward 34th Street, and shoe shine boys patting down customers near City Hall. In other words, this is one of those silent films that generates a heap of noise.
During one segment on the Brooklyn Bridge, the camera caught dozens of passers-by as they walked along the pedestrian promenade. In the distance, lower Manhattan was a bit overexposed, but the specter of the old Singer Building (1908-1969) still towered above the smoky happenings. Then, suddenly, two figures went rollicking in and out of frame. Onscreen for less than three seconds, they’re indelible after appearing because of the way they just bounced along holding hands. And when they suddenly sensed the Swedes’ big contraption following them, they tossed off these broad, giddy grins. Check out these frames of them below:
So what do you see? Maybe it’s two kids goofing around, a father seizing his son’s hand to keep him moving across the bridge, or some actors trying to shock the cameramen with unusual behavior. For me, though, it’s a young, same-sex couple doing the unthinkable out in public back then: just being themselves. And if the tint of the film rendered the scene correctly, it might be a same-sex, interracial couple. If so, what a find! But the images are both intriguing and forever inscrutable — mementos of the ordinary lived and long forgotten. What do you make of them?
Screenshots by Rick Stachura.
Images taken from the film “New York 1911” by Svenska Biografteatern, 1911. Courtesy of the New York Museum of Modern Art.