Walter Chandoha: City Streets
Numbers don’t lie. And the numbers for Walter Chandoha add up to an enviably successful freelance career: Four-plus decades in the business. More than 300 magazine covers. Thousands of advertisements for hundreds of companies. More than 200,000 stock images of animals and gardens, his twin specialties. But Chandoha’s comparatively small number of vintage New York City photographs—about 200 all told—hold the greatest fascination from a fine art perspective. Made without commercial imperatives from the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, they catch the city’s street life with and a graphic elegance and power reminiscent of the famous New York Photo League photographers, although Chandoha was never affiliated with that organization.
Walter Chandoha (photo: Paula Chandoha Amaral)
Let's start at the beginning.
I was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1920.
How did you become interested in photography, and what formal training, if any, did you have?
I was initially self-taught while attending high school by reading books and magazines on photography at the local library. I also got help and advice at the Lens Club of Bayonne from more knowledgeable members and from lectures and demonstrations by visiting experts. One of these lecturers was J. Ghislain Lootens, who was a friend of Leon de Vos, a New York City commercial photographer who was looking for an apprentice with some skills in developing and printing. By this time (I was now out of high school), I was a fairly good printer and some of my pictures were winning camera club competitions. Lootens thought I had promise and suggested that I show some of my work to de Vos in his New York studio. He liked what he saw, and I got the job—at 12 dollars a week! I was ecstatic.
Did your environment influence your photographic development in any way?
Not my home environment, although my immigrant Ukrainian parents were supportive of my efforts. They even allowed me to convert our cellar coal bin to a darkroom when they converted to gas heat. However, my work environment influenced my photographic development immensely. I perfected my skills at black-and-white printing under de Vos’ sharp eye. So much so that after six months of working with him I was making carbros. These color prints require very critical black-and-white precision printing to ultimately convert the images to color. And I learned how to light a picture both in the studio and on location. To this day my trademark backlit cat and dog studio pictures and my best garden photographs have their origins way back in Leon’s studio.
Did you know right away what kind of photography you wanted to do?
No. I enjoyed and tried everything—still lifes, portraits, animals, people, scenics and, because I worked there, New York City scenes.
Was it important for you to develop a distinctive personal style?
No. I probably did not have a personal style until many years later as a freelancer; backlighting sort of became my trademark. Initially, I was unaware I was using backlight, but because the pictures looked better with it, I used it more and more. Later, when I was freelancing, I realized most of my published cover pictures were strongly backlit, so I then consciously tried to get it in my pictures whenever the subject warranted it.
3rd Ave. el curve
Although you’re perhaps best known in fine art circles for your New York street photos, I understand that garden and animal photography are closer to your heart.
They are. These have been my co-specialties in all the years I have been freelancing. But let’s go back a bit to my apprenticeship with de Vos. I worked with him for about two years. We shot a wide range of subjects: product still lifes, models, location work in offices and factories. We used strobes, flash bulbs and hot lights (incandescent) for illumination, depending on the assignment. It was a superb learning job, but even after a couple of years, still at learners’ wages. So I made a change. I next worked for a commercial portrait chain headquartered in Newark, New Jersey. I also worked in their Camden and Trenton studios. I did mostly head-and-shoulder portraits, plus location work at high schools and colleges—yearbook-type pictures of sports teams, various clubs, plays and other stage events and architectural exteriors of their buildings.
Then came WW2. I was drafted into the Army. Because of my photography experience I was immediately assigned to The Fort Dix Post as a press photographer. Assignments on this weekly newspaper were the usual flash on camera (Speed Graphic) newspaper stuff: personalities, spot news, cheesecake, picture stories. After about a year on the paper I finally got some basic training in Louisiana and then was shipped out to New Guinea, where I was assigned to a Signal Corps combat photo unit. Then Borneo, Leyte and, later, Luzon in the Phillipines. I flew into Japan with the first units of the 11th Airborne prior to the peace signing on the USS Missouri in August 1945. I continued doing press work in Japan until my discharge from the Army in early 1946.
Boys cooling off
I enrolled in the NYU School of Commerce, thanks to the GI bill, and majored in marketing. Did the four-year degree course in three years by taking extra credits and attending summer sessions. I got married between semesters in January 1949 and got my degree in the fall of that year along with the first of six kids. A brand new degree, a brand new kid, and no job! I panicked. So rather than face starvation I took a job again with a college yearbook outfit, was sent to an Ohio college and hated it, even though the money was good.
But again, let’s go back. While in college I augmented my GI Bill subsistence allowance by shooting weddings and entering photo contests and sometimes winning cash prizes. And during one winter I found a homeless cat in the snow, gave her a home and sometimes used her (and later her kittens) as a model. Most of the winning pictures I entered in contests were of cats and kittens. In addition to entering contests with my cat pictures I made feature picture stories involving cats and sometimes sold them to New York newspapers. These efforts were so successful that once in a while I got requests for cat pictures from magazines and ad agencies. More of my stuff was published, and I was getting a minor reputation as a cat photographer. Then I made my big decision—I quit the job I didn’t enjoy, drove home and started freelancing as a specialist in cat photography. We starved for two years, were happy and although I did not realize it at the time, we were building a stock picture file that is still yielding today, some 50 years later.
Horse cop, Coney Island
Ironically, many of my NYC photographs were made when I was a student at NYU. There was no thought of making the pictures to preserve the present for the future. I just enjoyed creating pictures and parts of New York appealed to me, so I made pictures. Had I realized how much New York would change I would have cut more of my NYU classes and made more pictures.
What do you enjoy most about taking photographs?
Even today with digital images I marvel at the magic of photography. To look at a subject, visualize its potential in your mind, then squeeze out an exposure and capture what you’ve seen to be preserved forever—on film or digitally—is instant gratification.
Does it provide you with emotional or intellectual satisfaction?
Sometimes with both.
5 cent subway
The New York pictures were taken decades ago. Do you still feel a connection to this work?
Very much so. Especially now that many of the images are scanned and minute nuances in the original negatives can be emphasized or subdued.
Have you done similar work since?
Yes. A few years ago while at a garden writers’ symposium in Toronto I made pictures of many of the buildings there in black-and-white 35mm. And rather than make individual prints of each frame I made a 16x20 enlarged contact sheet of each roll. Looks great. Another ongoing project is in Puerto Rico documenting the use of brilliant colors painted on both private homes and public buildings.
What years do your New York photos encompass?
Mostly 1946 to the mid-’50s.
Did you look at the work of other New York street photographers at that time?
All the time.
Did you get to know any of them?
No I didn't know any of them. Living about 60 miles from New York City limited my opportunities to meet them.
What was your take on the members of the New York Photo League?
I always felt they were far above me. They were big names. They were the movers and shakers in photography. I was an upstart, trying to eke out a living doing my thing with animal photography.
How many street images did you make back then?
My NYC pictures? I’d say 100 to 200. I’m still searching through my negatives for forgotten images.
Did you have any particular challenges in getting the kinds of pictures you wanted?
Mostly waiting for the right light or weather, especially for some of the night shots. Fog is a great picture enhancer.
Did you have an underlying conception for these images?
Mostly deciding whether to include a person or people in the shot, then waiting until they were properly positioned.
El through city canyons
I find this work very incisive and engaged with the rhythms of the city, yet at the same time it feels somewhat emotionally detached. People are often photographed from behind, or at a distance, or even out of focus. Is it fair to say that you utilized the city’s inhabitants primarily from a graphic rather than emotional perspective?
Sometimes, but in some of my New York pictures people are dominant elements.
Put another way, were you more inspired by the physical character of the city rather than its inhabitants? I’m thinking of the picture of the El train dwarfed by the concrete canyons, which really emphasizes the city’s outsized sense of scale.
You don’t focus so much on the hustle bustle nature of the city as on its quieter, more muted moments. Is it fair to say your perspective is more in line with someone like Berenice Abbott, say, than a Sid Grossman?
I have long admired Abbot’s work, but never saw much of Grossman’s.
I also note an emphasis on means of transportation: taxis, buses, trains, ships, even a policeman’s horse. Why this fascination with modes of urban transport?
I was unaware of the transportation angle in these pictures, but now that you brought it to my attention, maybe it can be exploited.
Subway entry at Macy's
What do you think these photographs tell us about New York in the late 40s/early 50s?
Mostly that NYC is constantly changing. I realize that now that I don’t visit the city too often. I see something today that is picture-worthy, make a mental note to bring a camera next time I visit. Next time may be two or three months, and when I go there to make the picture, what I saw has been torn down.
If you were to photograph urban New York today, would you approach it any differently?
I still make NYC pix and I still look for the right light at the right time of the day or the right weather conditions. One of my to-do projects in is to re-shoot my 1940s-’50s pictures from the same vantage point of each shot.
What relationship do these vintage photos have to your other work?
They are entirely different. The NYC pix have never been a major project; they were a “busman’s holiday” sort of a thing. Flashback: When I made the choice in late 1949 to freelance I concentrated on cats using a 4X5 SPEED GRAPHIC and a 21/4 Rolleiflex. Many years later these were replaced with Hasselblads and Super D Graflexes. My “studio” was every room of our three-room apartment in Astoria, a subway ride from Manhattan. A pair of strobes was the extent of my lighting equipment. My late wife was my partner, my assistant, my secretary, my creative director. Without her I could not have succeeded. We struggled in Astoria for a little over a year; our second baby’s arrival prompted a move to larger quarters. We bought a three-bedroom house in Huntington, Long Island, where we lived for 10 years.
Penn Station cabs
At the promptings of some editors I expanded my photography to include dogs, then farm and zoo animals, still mostly in black and white, but toward the end of the 1950s magazines were going to all color, as was my shooting. Initially, one of the bedrooms was used as a proper studio, but the arrival of two more kids required that bedroom, so an even more proper studio was added to the Long Island house where we lived until 1960. The impending birth of our fifth child necessitated still another move. Buy now I was fairly well known for my animal photography—primarily cats and dogs—and getting good assignments from magazines and ad agencies. So we decided we’d move to a farm, which we found in New Jersey. A barn on the property was eventually converted to a proper studio.
Cat and dog photography requires an animal handler; my wife Maria was my handler and assistant. Sadly, she died in 1992. Without her, I had to give up my cat and dog photography in the studio. Flashback: With a bunch of kids and the uncertainty of freelancing income, I grew berries and vegetables to feed my family when nothing was coming in, i.e., no accounts receivables and nothing on the horizon. Even when finances improved I continued to grow edibles organically to feed us. With lots of solid experience in growing stuff I got published with both text and pix in various publications, including many stories in the New York Times. So after Maria died I did more and more garden writing and photography. So much so that now most of my photography is of gardens and to a much lesser degree of animals.
Queen Elizabeth I docking
(My profile of Walter Chandoha appeared in issue 57 of B&W. Be sure to visit his website to compare his personal and professional portfolios: http://chandohaphotography.com/about.html.)