30 Rock, Straight Up

September 8, 2012

It’s still an architectural mystery to me how “overwhelming” can manage to convey “human.” Manhattan Art Deco has a brilliant knack for this effect; you see the Empire State or the Chrystler and you think: this crazy behemoth was made by and for people. The building on the left is a personal favorite of the impossible-heroic style: the 70-story RCA Building (now called the GE Building, or 30 Rock). It’s a famous structure that’s very hard to visualize: strangely thin on edge and a full block long, one of its nicknames is “The Slab.” There’s no place you can still see 30 Rock as it appears in the photo (taken right after construction in 1933). If you want to get the long view looking down the approach to the Plaza, you’ll bump into the buildings on the other side of Fifth Avenue before you can take it all in. When you’re within the perfectly arranged space of Rockefeller Center, the tower positively looms.

Unless you have the right gear. The photo below was taken by photographer Nelson Hancock. He used a perspective control lens.

This kind of lens can create an impossible world where receding vertical lines never converge: in this case it might just as well be called a perspective eliminating lens. It’s not the viewpoint of an eye: it’s the viewpoint of geometry. Ideally straight and free of the normal distortions, this is 30 Rock like you’ve never seen it in life, and like you’ve probably never seen it before in a photograph.

For comparison, here’s an image of the Rockefeller Center at its loomingest. This photo is by Samuel Gottscho, who also took the one at the top of this post. Gottscho could be the patron saint of late-blooming local artists. Born in Brooklyn, he was a traveling salesman who took photos on the side. He didn’t become a professional until he was 50, and didn’t do his best work (by his own estimation) until after 70. The Museum of the City of New York has a trove of Gottscho work. See it here.