Above: Lou Stoumen, Times Square in the Rain, 1940, Gelatin Silver Print
Linda Ganus’ Music and Art: Collaborating in Early Modern Europe and America class visited LUAG a few weeks ago for a class project. Their assignment was to choose one of the objects in the exhibition “Object as Subject” and write a short essay that includes both a description of the object’s formal qualities and the student’s personal response to the object. Below is a reflection on Lou Stoumen’s Times Square in the Rain made by a first-year student Alden Cope.
Times Square in the Rain
As a native New Yorker, I try to avoid walking through Times Square as much as possible. It’s crowded, it smells, and is generally a major headache waiting to happen. However, seeing Lou Stoumen’s 1940 photograph of a rainy, yet utterly recognizable, Times Square conjured up a form of homesickness I had never felt. Suddenly I wanted to walk up Broadway and fight my way through a sea of tourists to get as close to the iconic Coca-Cola advertisement as I could get. The more I thought about it, the more I began to realize how much I missed the city, not for my family or friends, but for the city. I was not expecting to have such a strong reaction to a photograph as I had while looking at Stoumen’s work, but it was a surprise that I have thought about every day since.
Taken in black and white, there is an undeniably placid and nostalgic tone about this image. The streets are not crowded and there is little traffic, the scene as a whole looks significantly less busy as any popular image of modern Times Square. The calming tone of the piece is further set by the weather, as the rain adds a soothing element to the image. Through this tone, Stoumen inspires within viewers a sense of longing sentimentalism, a sudden urge to walk the streets at that time with the gentle rain falling. When paired with the bygone rooftop ads for Camels, Chevrolet, and Planter’s Peanuts, this sentimentalism only grows stronger, extending into nostalgia.
This nostalgic tone is the heart of what makes Stoumen’s work so interesting to a modern viewer such as I. I am so accustomed to seeing Times Square in its contemporary actuality: a bustling, dirty, smelly, and bothersome stretch of blocks along New York’s busiest avenue. Viewing this seventy-five-year-old representation of the same place provides such an incredibly stark contrast. The black-and-whiteness of the photo takes away the neon flashing lights, bright yellow taxi cabs, and brightly lit office windows. Rather than giving the viewer these and many more reasons to avoid Times Square, Stoumen has given them a pleasant image of the Times Square of old, thus incubating a desire to experience it for themselves.
Times Square in the Rain is the perfect example of a piece that promotes the romantic quality of New York City. Growing up there, I felt separated from this view. To this day, I occasionally cringe internally when people say how cool it is to grow up in the city because I have a feeling of what they have in mind… pictures like this, of New York’s glory days, however this is by no means a criticism of Stoumen’s photograph as there are countless other works that achieve the same end by also creating this sense of nostalgia, and while they cannot be taken out of the identity of the city, they must not be mistaken for the whole of its character.