Brooklyn Boro

My father’s early Brooklyn photos are a treasure I didn’t know existed

April 24, 2020 Phil Kaufman
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My father, Irving Kaufman, loved New York. Or at least, as I knew him, he loved Manhattan. But before he loved Manhattan, he loved Brooklyn. And after he loved Manhattan, he still loved Brooklyn.

He was a photographer. His love showed in his photographs. What he loved most, for its own sake, no strings attached, was Brooklyn, then Manhattan: the streets, the stores, the people, the buildings, the skylines, stark urban beauty. Outdoors, where the city could show off. That love is most evident in his early work – mid 1930s through the war years — some for the Eagle, some for local clients, most for his own exploration and growth, all on his own terms.

The local clients during those early years were Brooklyn schools, hospitals, civic groups, charities, business groups. He covered a steady stream of meetings, dinners and public events that didn’t often lend themselves to aesthetics. Yet a lot of the work has much the same character, attention, affection and devotion that showed so strongly in the independent, creative work he did for the Eagle or for his own joy.

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Inevitably, he moved his studio to Manhattan to join the boom years of commercial photography. His work centered on advertisements in magazines or commercial publications. He also photographed charity events or institutional meetings and dinners. He took portraits or covered appearances by “important” people in business, public affairs, entertainment. Always excellent. Always professional. Always appreciated. Often whimsical, creative, distinctive. “Photography that tells is photography that sells” was a motto he used to advertise himself. He meant it and he delivered on it.

I see extraordinary love and beauty in most of his early work. Of necessity those qualities come along less often later, but I still see them, sometimes even stronger, throughout his almost 50 professional years. But maybe that’s just me. I’m his son, after all. I’m biased.

But I haven’t been biased for long. I never saw any of the early work I’ve just described while my father was alive. The thousands of 4 x 5 black and white negatives stayed stored away in file cabinets and boxes in garages for decades after he died. There was no practical way to review and evaluate them.

Then came digital photography on phones and tablets, with “invert colors” and basic editing capabilities. Still a daunting task, but now his retired son at least had a fighting chance to visit, evaluate, and resurrect his father’s work from 80 years earlier.

It has been a joy for me to see the world through my father’s eyes. I was familiar with some “special” shots, and I knew of his love for the city. But that didn’t prepare me for the scope and artistry of what I uncovered. These early works overflow with historic and human interest and are simply beautiful in their own right. I hope you agree.

An index of Kaufman’s Brooklyn posts may be found here.

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  1. Brian McManus

    Great photos. My dad took color home movies after coming back from WWll. He had hundreds of reels stored in our basement that sadly were all destroyed when Hurricane Donna hit in the early sixties. Your father was quite talented, thank you

  2. Cuenca-curious

    Your father’s photographs are, indeed, imbued with his love of his city … it’s palpable and his photos resonate within me with my own deep love of the city. Your words are also filled with love for your father and a great tribute to him as a man and a photographer.

  3. I like reliving some areas of my youth growing up in Brooklyn. The recent photos of cows and the 4H reminded me that when I was about 10 years old, in the early 50’s, we had farms on Flatlands Avenue between Utica and Ralph Avenues, near the city incinerator. We used to take bike rides in the area. While I live 2500 miles away, it brings back great memories!

  4. John Woelfling

    To Phil:
    I am an architect working on one of the projects that you explained was photographed extensively by your father during the project’s original construction. We are performing an adaptive reuse of the building to convert it to affordable senior housing and might find the original building’s construction photos invaluable. Let me know if you would be interested in talking about the project and how we could get access to the photos. BTW: I hope my son appreciates his father’s work after I am gone as lovingly as you have yours.
    email contact: [email protected]