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The Last Nostrand Streetcar: Max Hubacher's New York Photography

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Max Hubacher (1900-1989) took a more or less straightforward, no-frills approach to photographing his surroundings. A prolific amateur photographer and local historian, Hubacher documented New York City and its environs with a seemingly objective eye, the typed or handwritten captions on the verso of each photograph often markedly specific in terms of date and location. (Thursday, April 3, 1952, noon. View from a dirt hill at foot of Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, N.Y., reads the back of one image.)

View from the roof of Ex-Lax Inc.
View from the roof of Ex-Lax Inc., 1945

The result is a strikingly candid record of the city during the 1940s–1960s, particularly Hubacher’s photographs of and around the neighborhoods of Downtown and South Brooklyn. His photos of the Brooklyn skyline and Williamsburgh Bank Building—taken from the roof of the Ex-Lax factory in Boerum Hill where he worked as a research chemist—are notable standouts, visual time capsules of an area that has undergone considerable development and transformation in recent years.

Hubacher captured the borough’s ever-changing nature on camera, photographing the demolition of houses near Borough Hall, new construction on Atlantic Avenue, the expansion of Abraham & Straus on Livingston Street, and conversely, nearby Loeser's "Going out of Business" sale. He also photographed the old LIRR terminal on Flatbush Avenue as well as the city’s elevated subway trains and now defunct streetcars, often taking pictures of the same lines and routes over and over again. (As even a cursory glance at Hubacher’s work makes clear, the man really dug trolleys.)

While occasionally Hubacher could be rather playful—his compositions at times idiosyncratic (spectators in Long Island seen from beneath the bleachers), his titles uncharacteristically whimsical (Nostrand Avenue streetcar on the last day of its life)—for the most part he photographed the city as he found it, letting his subject matter speak for itself.

View from the roof of the Ex-Lax factory after sundown
View from the roof of the Ex-Lax factory after sundown, 1945. Image ID: 5817662

Hundreds of Hubacher's New York images—just a fraction of the thousands of photographs belonging to the Milstein Division’s Max Hubacher photographic archive—have recently been digitized and are now available online at NYPL’s Digital Collections site. Below are some highlights:

Brooklyn Bridge on a cold, dreary winter day, 1955
Brooklyn Bridge on a cold, dreary winter day, 1955. Image ID: 5667226
Streetcar on DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y., 1947
Streetcar on DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y., 1947. Image ID: 5817702
Grass fire at Gilgo Beach, Long Island, 1952
Grass fire at Gilgo Beach, Long Island, 1952. Image ID: 5652694
Borough Hall of Brooklyn, 1943
Borough Hall of Brooklyn, 1943. Image ID: 5652650
Old red brick house in downtown Brooklyn, 1952
Old red brick house in downtown Brooklyn, 1952. Image ID: 5667066
Myrtle Ave. Elevated in Brooklyn, NY, 1960
Myrtle Ave. Elevated in Brooklyn, NY, 1960. Image ID: 5667156
Unknown family watching the Firemen's competition at Hewlett, L.I., 1950
Unknown family watching the Firemen's competition at Hewlett, L.I., 1950. Image ID: 5667402
Under the West End subway line, 1954
Under the West End subway line, 1954. Image ID: 5817474
View from the Smith Street subway station, 1952
View from the Smith Street subway station, 1952. Image ID: 5652588

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Fascinating

There is a haunting stillness in his images.

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