Frank Oscar Larson: 1950s New York Street Stories
The streets of New York City provide an unparalleled opportunity for photographer to hone develop their craft. This most photogenic of urban cityscapes brims with maddening activity, wildly diverse populations, vitality, life, commerce and art, with Times Square at its locus. A plethora of captivating images, both selected and happenstance, occur in candid photography of the streets of the 1950s.
The lust for previously unknown photographers whose newly undiscovered found treasures range from the recent alleged Ansel Adams “discovery” of glass negatives to the actual find of over 115,000 unpublished negatives by a Chicago nanny, Vivian Maier, who is posthumously regarded with books, films and exhibitions since their discovery by a real estate agent at an auction in 2007.
Frank Oscar Larson (1896-1964) was born in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, of Swedish immigrant parents who moved to New York in the early 1890s, and settling in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where a thriving Swedish community formed, drawn to the promise of work in manufacturing. His father, John Larson, was a foreman at the famed Hecla Iron Works, known for its creation of iron and bronze architectural ornamentation.
Larson served as an artillery man in World War I, and upon his return, completed his college education. Taking a position with the Empire Trust Company (now Bank of New York Mellon), he worked his way up through the ranks to become an auditor and vice-president for the bank where he worked for forty years.
Frank married Eleanora Friberg, also a first-generation Swedish immigrant whose father also worked at Hecla Iron Works as a pattern maker. They moved to Oak Avenue in Flushing, Queens, where they raised two boys, Franklin and David, and lived until his retirement from the company in 1960, when Frank and Eleanora moved to Lakeville, Connecticut.
On a visit to New York City in 1964 to see the World’s Fair, Frank suffered a stroke and died days later. During his service in the Army in France in World War I, he had inhaled mustard gas and permanently damaged his lungs, causing his health to deteriorate in his later years.
Frank had a number of hobbies which provided for him a creative outlet and a much needed relief from his 9 to 5 banking job. He played the violin, carved wooden sculptures and was an avid photographer. Photographs dating back to the 1920’s attest to the fact that he was always the family shutterbug, But it was in the early 1950’s that Frank’s passion for photography blossomed. By 1949 both of his sons had left home, and perhaps this new situation, no longer having kids at home freed him up on the weekends to delve into photography with a passion.
For the next 16 years he took thousands of photographs, mostly with a medium-format Rolleiflex camera. On weekends in the early 1950’s he would leave home early in the morning on photographic expeditions to exotic places like the Bowery, Chinatown or Times Square, or to less exotic places like Central Park, the Cloisters or nearby Kissena Park.
His vacations with Eleanora to Maine, New Hampshire and Florida also provided new and interesting subjects for the lens.
Frank developed and printed all his photos in a darkroom in his basement, and entered some of them in local amateur photographic competitions where he won some awards for his work.
Later in life, from about 1949 on when his children left home, Larson went out on the weekends producing several thousand photographic negatives, all of which were developed and sometimes printed in his basement darkroom (but never published in his lifetime). Some he entered in local photography contests where he won awards though he never sought out further art world affirmation, content to be able to take the photographs and share them with his family. He was an avid and accomplished photographer who eloquently documented the 1950s New York City — Chinatown, the Bowery, Hell’s Kitchen, Flushing, City Island, Times Square, Central Park and much more.
Frank Larson operated at a time when there were virtually no barriers between photographic subject and the picture taker. The unique qualities of Times Square provided an unpatrolled opportunity for candid photographs of the greatest intimacy and immediacy. Flooded with ambient light from thousands of incandescent bulbs illuminating each theater marquee and advertising sign, the use of flash proved unnecessary. These countless numbers of bulbs captured fresh portraits that are simply not possible today.
This exhibition is compiled from negatives recently discovered by his youngest son’s widow in an old cardboard box 45 years after Mr. Larson’s death, as well as family photographs and Larson’s own camera equipment – a Rolleiflex Automat Model 4 camera using 2-1/4 x 2-1/4” medium format film, light meter and filters.
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