A new collection by Louis Stettner focuses on the travelers themselves—not just the iconic architecture.
Photographers who captured New York’s old Penn Station sometimes got so wrapped up in the glory and grandeur of its Doric columns and vaulted ceilings that they forgot about the actual travelers passing through. Louis Stettner makes no such omission in his new book, Penn Station, New York, published by Thames & Hudson. To him, the people were the whole point.
And so readers find in this collection a young girl in a party dress, carefully stepping onto dots of light collecting on the station floor, strictly enforcing the rules of game she herself invented. And three uniformed sailors, in various stages of fatigue, slouching against a stately wall. And a commuter pressing an open palm to his bald head while contemplating maybe a busted deal, or a broken marriage, or the inconsequential nature of it all—the mystery is part of the beauty.
“What makes these pictures unforgettable is that they are studies of extremely private states in an overwhelmingly public place,” writes Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, in the book’s introduction. “In what was then the biggest and noisiest place in town, we find the elegance of absolute solitude.”
Stettner, born in 1922 and raised in Brooklyn, says he started taking pictures when he was a teenager and has never stopped. He spent his postwar years shuffling between Paris and New York, settling in the Parisian suburban of Saint-Ouen in 1990 but keeping a New York apartment until 2014. He shot most of the images that make up Penn Station, New York, with a basic Leica M3 camera back in 1958—five years before the icon’s destruction.
“It was a wonderful period to go through the station,” he tells CityLab. “People saw me—mind you, I was in the dark, so most of the time they didn’t see me—but if they saw me they’d smile and be happy. After the war, there was a wonderful spirit of camaraderie. Civilians had beaten fascism. People trusted each more. People were still enjoying peace. It was a wonderful feeling.”
What compelled you to do this series back in 1958?
I’m a photographer, dedicated to interpreting the world around me, particularly my fellow human beings. It seemed an ideal place. People stop. They were traveling. I could study them and relate to them. People seem to pause and get in touch with themselves.
It was my interpretation, for better or worse. There is a little misconception sometimes. Penn Station—that’s the name, but it’s not simply an architectural study. That’s almost a framework. A point of reference.
Right. It becomes very clear that this is more about the people than the station.
Train buffs say, “It’s not this, or that.” That’s not my primary interest. It was a wonderful place. It gave people dignity and grace. It was almost like a stage.
I say this in all modesty—it’s very similar to Shakespeare. The play, the plot, was sort of a structure in which he could express his poetry. Same way with photography as an art form. People relate immediately to reality; photography is reality. Within that reality my work was to bring out poetry. The inner profound meaning of things around us.
So you found poetry in the movement of the people through the station.
Yes. It started out with this girl. Here she was, playing with circles. It wasn’t just circles of light—it was something much more.
It’s meant as a poem, really, that whole book. It’s not just pictures printed. There’s soul.
Many of the pictures are out of focus. Was that a consequence of the motion, or was there another reason?
It’s whatever works well emotionally. It’s a very dark area, and you can’t get very high shutter speeds. But if the form and shapes come out, it works just as well. Like Impressionism. So as long as it works, if it has emotional force and significance, being out of focus is fine.
To get the feeling of the station, there was a lot of dark shadows. You need a fairly big book to get that feeling for it. The book is not just big to be a coffee table book. It needs that for the photographs to come across. If you look at the shadows there’s always detail in there.
This is like picking a favorite child, but do you have any favorites of the images you included?
The most significant one is called, I think, “Odd Man In” or “Odd Man Out.” It’s a man without a hat. He’s surrounded by men with hats reading the newspaper. It shows a lot about modern society, where everyone has to conform. People now go around in jeans or anything they like. People then—everyday office workers, all of them were dressed exactly alike. With the hat. They’re reading the same newspaper. And there’s this man in the middle looking lost and confused, who has no hat. And the look on his face—I think that is one of the strongest picture of the whole book. It shows a lot about modern society, where people have to go through an everyday routine.
There seems to be a great appetite today for photos of the old Penn Station. Why do you think that’s the case?
I’d say it’s a justified nostalgia. People who have never felt that probably don’t realize what was taken away from them. It was a wonderful period to go through the station. I brought up the shadows: it created all the mystery and adventure. It gave your everyday life a certain dignity and grace.
Present Penn Station is horrible. People scamper. There’s no place to sit. They’re cooped up like chickens. There’s no place to stand. It’s almost hard to understand. It’s really a form of legislative insanity.
Were you still in New York when the station was torn down?
I went to Europe. I came back and it was no longer there. I was told there was demonstrations, but it didn’t do any good. It was a big loss. I was glad I did what I did when I did it. So at least there is some record of it. Not in terms of the physical, but what it did to people.
You were saying the new Penn Station is like a chicken coop, but even within that kind of setting, wouldn’t you be able to capture emotion in people?
You can literally find God in a dentist’s waiting office. You would have to stay there four or five years.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.