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Inventing Modernism – Baldwin Coolidge – Rooftops with Wires and Smokestacks -American Museum of Photography

Inventing Modernism – Baldwin Coolidge – Rooftops with Wires and Smokestacks -American Museum of Photography

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Baldwin Coolidge [Boston, Massachusetts, 1845 – 1928]: Untitled (Industrial rooftop study)
Albumen print cabinet card (image size: 4″ x 5-1/4″), before 1891

A veteran of the Civil War, Coolidge established himself as a photographer in Boston around 1879. Directory listings show he was at the 154 Tremont Street address beginning in 1881. Between 1881 and 1886 he was listed as an artist at this address, and from 1883 through 1890 he was listed as a photographer.

Coolidge was noted for his city views of Boston and neighboring communities, and for his maritime scenes. He left thousands of his glass negatives — and a long-preserved sample of his Civil War rations — to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now called Historic New England.

This particular image is strikingly different from the photographer’s usual compositions. It is presented on a printed mount in the cabinet card format (card size 4 ¼ by 6 ½ inches), introduced in 1866 and primarily utilized for portraits. Its resolutely modern approach, concentrating on wires and rooftops and wisps of industrial smoke merging with the clouds, seems like a time-warp when viewed alongside other cabinet cards.

Yet here it is: no symmetry, no figures carefully posed to show the scale of city buildings or to add balance to the scene. Instead, we are shown what seems to be a commentary on the future, when factories operate without human intervention and when a web of wires knits the world together.

And consider this: at the time Baldwin Coolidge made this photograph, there were no automobiles in the streets of Boston, and no subway rumbling beneath those streets. Had this picture included the traffic that went by these same buildings, we would see that all of the vehicles were being pulled by horses.

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