Jack Manning's photograph titled "Don't Call It Burlesque" looks like it was snapped by a detective in the 1940s: A man stands in the middle of three gloomy shadows, his head slightly turned to the right, looking quite suspect. Almost like a determined pimp, he's standing in front of an advertisement for a girlie show. The look is pre-Giuliani New York, a reminder that not so long ago, Times Square was a sleaze factory.
But Manning had something completely different in mind. "I was trying to capture the color of Times Square," he says. "Despite the crime, it was quite colorful."
Even when it's not in color. Manning will be at Denver's Camera Obscura Gallery on Friday to promote a series of Times photographs from the recently published photography book The Century in Times Square. The touring exhibit includes 45 photographs culled from the newspaper's archives of more than five million prints and many more million negatives and presented in what Manning calls the "old art of black and white." Even though the prints at the gallery are framed, they exhibit that dusted-off, archival feel (the oldest one dates back to 1910), and the light reflects a perplexing copper and silver color, giving the illusion that they were taken with color film. But, Manning says, most people who see the photos don't even realize there's no color: "The impact of the black and white takes over in their minds," he says.
The photos catalogue Times Square in all its changing phases while providing many different views of a single place that symbolizes Americana. One photo shows thousands, perhaps millions of people jammed into the famous square celebrating the end of World War II; they gaze up at a miniature Statue of Liberty like immigrants who have just come off the ship into a new world. Another portrays a man rushing out of a raided strip joint, the brim of his hat hiding his eyes; to the left is a sign explaining that to get in, a person has to be "over 21 and of a mature stature." A billboard that blows actual smoke as a man puffs on a Camel cigarette is one of the collection's more recognizable images -- it appeared in the film Midnight Cowboy. Other photos show theater lights shining on the masses crammed under advertisements for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis or portray the red-light district of the '70s, with its adult theaters and midget movies.
Manning began working for the New York Times in 1964 after freelancing for magazines such as Redbook and Life; he describes a career that has taken him around the world, allowing him to meet people from every stratum of life -- from "kings to washer ladies." Once he was sent to Cuba to capture the elusive Fidel Castro on film. He rushed to a rare Castro press conference but still was unable to get the shot. Castro ended his speech by asking the crowd if everyone was happy. "I'm not," Manning shouted. "And who are you?" Castro asked. "I am with the New York Times," Manning answered, "and I have been trying to get your photo!" Manning says Castro turned sympathetic and immediately posed for the shot.
Castro's regime might not have changed much, but Times Square has been dramatically altered over the years, as this collection shows. In the 1950s, Manning says, it was "a pleasure to walk along the colorful neon signs." And he defends the "Disneyfication" of the modern neighborhood, saying "tourists now have the advantage of not being brutalized."