Today it’s a bygone era. The economy was on the upswing for Americans, rock ’n’ roll was finding its place in history, and a slice of pizza cost a mere 15 cents.
1950s New York City, with its bright lights never dimming, was bustling with nonstop activity. And whether it was “working stiffs” doing the mundane or the picturesque backdrops offered by city landmarks, Frank Oscar Larson found it all worthy of documentation. He empathized with those on the street and took great pride in trying to tell their stories through his art.
Larson, born in 1896 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to immigrant parents from Sweden, lived most of his adult life in Flushing, moving to a house he bought on Oak Avenue in 1922. He had an affinity with the beauty that surrounded him in his own neighborhood, prompting him to shoot locally often.
He spent his days working at the Empire Trust Company, what’s now known as The Bank of New York Mellon, as an auditor, and eventually became its vice-president. His street photography was a passionate and thorough hobby left for weekends when the city turned into his playground of discovery.
Over the course of the 1950s, he documented life in Chinatown, Times Square, City Island, Central Park, Hell’s Kitchen, Astoria and Flushing, among other places. He had a particular affection for Kissena Park, which was only a few blocks away from his home. In 2009, thousands of Larson’s negatives were found stowed away in the house of Carol Larson, his daughter-in-law, living in Maine. They were untouched, as far as the family could tell, in a box under an easel titled “Lakeville Negatives,” for Lakeville, Conn., where Larson moved four years before his death in 1964.
“I was looking for family photos ... I had no idea I was to discover these street photographs,” said Soren Larson, a television news cameraman, producer and Larson’s grandson — and the person responsible for bringing this project to life. “My father had told me he was an amateur photographer,” he said.
The photographs were anything but amateurish and Larson took it upon himself to go through the thousands of negatives for digital scanning, looking for those diamonds in the rough.
“I don’t want to show photos with just historic value. I want them each to have artistic value, a special quality,” Larson said.
The scanning process wasn’t as tricky an undertaking as one might expect with vintage negatives.
“Once I figured it out, it became routine,” Larson noted. “At first it took me a while, how to look at a negative and decide was it worth something,” he said. “It can take a couple of minutes or a half hour [to scan one negative].”
“I’d glance at them to see what had potential and what didn’t. A couple were damaged [but] generally speaking, I’ve been amazed [at the quality].“
He added, ”The bulk of the discovery is done.”
Happy with what he was unearthing, Larson emailed Tom Finkelpearl, the executive director of the Queens Museum of Art, hoping to show the museum the impressive art his grandfather took such pride in creating.
Finkelpearl got back to Larson, viewed some of the digital prints during a meeting and loved what he saw. The museum decided to put on a photography exhibition of Frank Oscar Larson’s work.
“I don’t think anyone really told [my grandfather] how good he was,” Larson recounted. “He loved going out there, being expressive, creating something. All that work he put into it, finally people can see it.”
Sixty-five photographs and personal effects, including his two Rolleiflex Automat cameras, lenses, filters and light meter make up the photo exhibition “Frank Oscar Larson: 1950s New York Street Stories” on display at the QMA through May 20. A selection of the works will also become part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Soren Larson’s father, the late David Larson, himself an artist (he focused on painting and sculpture), was told by his father to take pride in whatever your craft may be. “There’s something special in doing something well,” Larson said, recounting his late grandfather’s advice.
Jamie, a woman viewing the photo exhibit alone last Friday afternoon, who came to the museum in part to see Larson’s work, marveled at how well his photos stand the test of time.
“I think as a collection, they’re really representative of the feeling of living in New York, not just back when they were taken; even now,” said Jamie, who asked that her last name not be used.
She was equally impressed with the fashions of the era Larson captured, finding the luxuriousness and glamour alluring. “I think women’s fashion of the time is very interesting now, with a very Mad Men-esque quality to it,” she said smiling.
Frank Oscar Larson, listed officially as a disabled American veteran, succumbed unexpectedly to a stroke when visiting his family in Queens to attend the 1964 New York World’s Fair. His passing was a result of complications from being exposed to mustard gas as a soldier in World War I.
Larson’s photographic tale is reminiscent of another artist who shot street photography during the same era, Vivian Maier. Maier’s work in street photography went largely unseen as well, and was only discovered after her death when a historian bought thousands of her negatives at the auction of a repossessed storage locker.
“There might be another one out there,” Larson’s grandson said. “They weren’t after any monetary rewards. He just did it for a different purpose, for himself to see the city, capture something ... that’s what he was after.”
According to his grandson, Larson would be “tickled pink” and so proud to have his photographs on display at the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing, the neighborhood he called his home for 38 years.
“I did it for my granddad,” Larson said proudly. ”Work of this quality deserves to be seen.”
When: Through May 20
Where: Queens Museum of Art, Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Tickets: (718) 592-9700