Visions of the Dream City offers a new way
to explore the urban landscape.
At its core are 110 photographic images of New York, created
by reference photographers from Hollywood
studios in the years between 1930 and 1975, culled from the
Lillian Michelson Research Library, one of the last
of the great studio reference collections in Los Angeles.
Throughout this era, the studios regularly sent photographers
to New York to document various parts of the city, usually
to help art and scenic departments accurately recreate its
interiors and exteriors on the studio lot. Seen today, these
images not only provide a compelling portrait of mid-20th
century New York, but reveal the imaginative ways in which
filmmakers interpreted (and manipulated) the real city in
order to create a mythic version of it onscreen.
These techniques are brought to life within this site through
a series of special interactive features, which animate the
panoramic and matched
day-and-night views taken by studio photographers.
Another special feature offers an innovative means of understanding
the urban landscape, by allowing each building, landscape,
or feature to tell its “story.” Rolling a mouse
over the image activates a hidden layer of information: historical
anecdotes, architectural criticism, and literary citations
about each significant structure or element in the view.
By accessing this otherwise invisible “field”
of information, the city’s streetscapes and skylines
are experienced not only as striking visual artifacts, but
as rich repositories of history and meaning, whose physical
character (impressive enough in its own right) has been immeasurably
enriched across the decades by layers of literary, historical,
and cultural significance.
The images in Visions
of the Dream City are drawn from the Lillian Michelson
Reference Library in Los Angeles, one of the last surviving
examples of the enormous reference libraries once found on every
studio lot in Hollywood. Comprising thousands of books, articles,
drawings and stills, these libraries provided screenwriters,
art directors, costume designers and other production staff
with a wealth of images and information about the settings,
clothing, and customs of places all around the world –
and throughout recorded history.
Probably no place on the planet was better documented than New
York, which was photographed year after year, decade after decade
– at times for a specific film in production, at other
times to supplement the general collection.
Typically employing large-format cameras, and taking extremely
long exposures (for superior sharpness and depth-of-field),
studio photographers created an urban panorama notable for its
startling clarity as well as astonishing breadth. It encompassed
everything from distant skyline views to details of streets,
sidewalks and interiors, providing a remarkable (and largely
unknown) photographic record of the city across the 20th century.
Types of Reference Photographs :
Views of streetfronts, shops or interiors were typically
taken at the request of the art department as reference
for interior sets constructed inside sound stages, or
large-scale exterior standing sets on the studio backlot.
Backing Reference Views
Images of the overall skyline, or of upper floors and
roofs, were usually commissioned by the scenic department
as the basis for huge “scenic backing” paintings,
to recreate views of the city as they would appear through
the windows or doors of an interior set on a sound stage.
Studio photographers sometimes
shot precisely matched day and night shots of
the same vista, in order to prepare a pair of backings
– one used for a daytime scene, the other for a
night scene, as seen through the same apartment or office
To guide the layout of skyline or street “cycloramas”
– curved scenic backings a hundred feet long, or
more – photographers prepared composite views, carefully
swivelling their camera to take two or three shots from
the same vantage point, which were then aligned side by
side to create expansive panoramic images.