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.

Common Types of Reference Photographs :

Set Reference Views

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.

Scenic 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.

Day-and-Night Matched Shots

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 window.

Composite Panoramic Views

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.