A photographic archive of the New York City Fire Department from the 1900s to the present is now on display in the Dr. M.T. Geoffrey Yeh Art Gallery of Sun Yet Sen Hall.
The gallery hosted an opening reception of the exhibit, “Images from the FDNY Photo Unit,” on Feb. 10. The display is a collection of snapshots taken by the FDNY Photo Unit, a group consisting of city firefighters, civilians and professional photographers who chronicle memorials, fires and other significant events in the history of the FDNY through pictures.
Some moments captured on film in the exhibit include pictures from the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the recent landing of Flight 1549 in the Hudson River and other pictures from the early 20th century.
The exhibit will be available for viewing until March 7.Ben Cotton, a former photographer and archivist for the FDNY Photo Unit, helped organize the exhibit and said he felt it was important to give the average person a glimpse of the world through the eyes of a firefighter.
“I wanted them to see how far we’ve come along from when the FDNY first started,” said Cotton, who is also a retired FDNY firefighter. “When [firefighters] first started, they were wearing rubber coats. Today, we’re completely covered from top to bottom in special gear.”
“It’s a great way to really see our history and take a look at New York City history as well.”
According to Belenna Lauto, associate professor of Photography in the Department of Fine Arts at St. John’s, the exhibit’s conception began years ago during a conversation with Cotton, a friend of her’s for almost 25 years. The pair spent a year and a half looking through more than years of negatives, which Cotton believes is a result of a picture being taken everyday since the Photo Unit was first created more than 50 years ago.
Even before the group’s inception, the Photo Unit also has about 80 years of glass and large format negatives that were taken. Many of the photos on display at Sun Yat Sen Hall are large digital contact sheets that were scanned from many of these glass negatives.
“I think the negatives really show a nostalgic look of New York and are my favorite of the pictures I helped pick for the exhibit,” said Lauto. “But, what you have to remember is that this is just a small percentage of the numerous images the Photo Unit has on file, some which date back to 1859.”
Students said the older photographs left the biggest impression on them as well.
“Of all the images I’ve seen, the ones that really struck me were the black and white ones,” said freshman Justin Lau. “They make me think about what it must have been like for firefighters back then and made me really appreciate everything we have now that helps fight fires.”
Lauto said she hopes students who visit the gallery not only note the history behind each photograph, but also their significance today as well.
“Even back then disasters were being dealt with, whether they were big or small, people had to deal with tragedy and that is still happening today,” she said. “Photographers then and now put themselves in the line of duty to bring us snapshots of important events and that’s what these pictures represent — important snapshots of our history that we will look back on and remember.”