Art has a way of connecting us with one another—and even, sometimes, with ourselves. Your Art Gallery user Phil Kaufman experienced this for himself sifting through boxes and file cabinets containing nearly five decades’ worth of his late father’s negatives. In the process, he discovered an abundance of extraordinary photos of New York’s past, as well as discovering a lot about his father, and himself.
Tell us about your father, Irving Kaufman.
My father was a professional photographer from the mid-1930s until his death in 1982. He grew up in Brooklyn and started his career with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. His love for his hometown is evident in many of the early photos. He gradually acquired local clients — civic organizations, charities, businesses, etc. Then, in the early 1940s, he moved his studio to midtown Manhattan and, during the booming ’50s, transitioned to publicity and advertising, which he continued for the rest of his life.
What inspired you to finally dig in and bring your father’s work to light?
I never saw any of the early work while my father was alive. I always wanted to explore the thousands of 4 x 5 black and white negatives I had, but they stayed stored away because there was no practical way to review and evaluate them.
Then came digital photography on phones and tablets, with “invert colors” and basic editing capability. That, combined with my retirement, at least gave me a fighting chance to visit, evaluate, and resurrect my father’s work from 80 years earlier.
Then serendipity led me to the Your Art Gallery display at Photoville at Brooklyn Bridge Park last summer (2019). I told them about my father’s photos, and we discussed curating and exhibiting a collection of them on their online platform.
How has this journey been for you—reconnecting with your father through his art?
I’ll share a little story that I think sums it up. A few years back, when I finally started to go through the photos, I selected about a dozen that really stood out to me as being iconic. I had them printed and I framed them to display in my home. When I looked around at these varied and downright beautiful photos, for the first time I really had a feel for the extent of his work and his talent. I was choked up and said out loud, “Dad, why didn’t you tell us how good you were?” Experiences like this have really brought me closer to him.
What have you discovered about your father through his art?
I knew my father to be a commercial photographer, but I didn’t realize the scope of his artistry. I also didn’t realize his love of Brooklyn and Manhattan. The early street scenes are exceptional. Many were obviously done for his own development and pleasure: scenes of empty streets on Sundays; candid shots of people doing interesting things; countless lower Manhattan skyline and Brooklyn Bridge images. These were not done for the Eagle or for any commercial purpose, but they’re among his most impressive works. He continued to do that throughout his life. Most of what he used in his own marketing material and portfolio of samples was from these personal rather than business-generated photographs.
How has Your Art Gallery helped you curate and exhibit your father’s work?
When I started thinking about what to do with my father’s collection, it had never occurred to me that there would be an online platform like Your Art Gallery where I could easily exhibit some of his work. YAG has been very welcoming and supportive, helping me narrow down the thousands of photos I have to the 60 that are currently displayed on the site. Danielle Bruce, the curator I’ve worked with, has been with me all the way, generous with her time and her expertise.
What’s next for your father’s collection?
I plan on continuing to exhibit on Your Art Gallery and reevaluate the collection based on the images that are getting traction. I’ve also recently begun a relationship with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle – bringing my father’s work to today’s version of where they began. I post a group of images on their website each week, with a different theme each time. It’s been a wonderful way to share my father’s work and legacy with the community that was so much a part of him.
What is something that has surprised you through this process?
It has been a joy and a revelation for me to see the world through my father’s eyes. I was familiar with some “special” shots, and I knew of his love for the city. But I didn’t expect so much of his work to overflow with historic and human interest, while also being simply beautiful in its own right. I’m proud of my father like I never could be while he was alive, and that’s both a sad and a wonderful feeling.
We look forward to continuing to support your father’s legacy of iconic photos, Phil!
Collectors and enthusiasts: If you’re in the market for a bit of NYC nostalgia, you can view Irving Kaufman’s art collection here.