Strange Discoveries

Thursday, September 10, 2020 by Victoria Martens

In New York City one of the first questions that comes up when you meet someone new is, “What do you do for a living?” I reply that I am a photographer at a museum. Sometimes, people ask if I photograph events or exhibitions, and I explain that I mainly work to digitize objects at the Museum of the City of New York. Like most museums, we are only able to show a small percentage of the objects that we have in our collection at any time, so photographing them and sharing the images online is vital to telling the story of our great city. I usually work on large sections of the collection, and for weeks at a time I will focus only on certain photographs or silver tea pots or mid-century dresses. Whatever it is that I am shooting, I try to engage with it. I look for somethingthat I can learn, something to inspire me or simply pique my curiosity.

Sometimes the interesting elements are in the tiny details that are easy to overlook. For example, while I was photographing the papers of notable early New York families I came across an inventory of the possessions of Stephen DeLancey. On this itemized list of his belongings and their worth, I was shocked to see that a chair, a horse, and a slave child were all valued for roughly the same amount of money.  This small detail was a stark reminder of the unsettling truth that not too long ago people could be bought and sold. On a much less serious note, sometimes the little things that I come across can be playful and fun, or express the idiosyncrasies and personalities of their previous owners. While digitizing 40,000 pages of sheet music by Gorge M Cohan, I found jokes and rude little doodles that the musicians entertained themselves with during practice.

Most recently, I began a project to photograph the Museum's theatrical costume designs. The majority of the drawings and paintings are exactly what you would expect—a range of designs from all types of plays and musicals, both on and off Broadway. Attached to many of thesesketches are wonderful swatches of sample fabrics, which give the project a depth and texture that is usually absent from photographs of two-dimensional objects. Mixed within the collection are a few outliers; a few completely surreal and mind-boggling costumes. Taken out of the context of the production, these bizarre designs stand on their own as works of art and pure imagination—perhaps the absence of context makes them all the more entertaining and inspirational!? However you see them, it is my pleasure to share them with you. 

New York City has a rich culture and a past that is full of amazing stories. There is no single object in any museum that is capable of summarizing it all. For that reason I consider it a privilege to get the chance to interact with these amazing objects, and to photograph them so that we can share them with the public. 

By Victoria Martens, Senior Photographer

Join MCNY!

Want free or discounted tickets, special event invites, and more?