For a long time the life of Julius Wilcox, one of the outstanding photographers whose collections are housed here in Brooklyn Public Library, was something of an enigma. Exactly how his album of original cyanotypes came to us is not known, and until recently, precious little could be discovered about his life. But now, thanks to www.ancestry.com and the remarkable compilation of New York State newspapers online at www.fultonhistory.com, the outlines of his life and background are beginning to take shape.
468 of Wilcox's images are available online via the library's catalog here. (Click on the thumbnails to open a larger image in a new window.) Although they are shown on the web site in black and white, the originals are actually cyanotypes, a format I wrote about in the very first post of this blog. Wilcox's work dates from the 1880s and 1890s and his subjects are mainly in Manhattan, although he himself lived in Brooklyn for much of his adult life. His photographs fall into at least two distinct categories. The city was going through a period of rapid development which Wilcox captured in his photographs of notable new buildings--mansions, churches and apartment buildings--and of old buildings sometimes in the very process of demolition. These well-executed photographs sometimes border on the humdrum, but some of them such as the image of the Old Sugarhouse Prison preserve lost corners of the city for our eyes. The cyanotypes are adhered to a paper backing and all are captioned in Wilcox's flowing hand.
More interesting to me are his images of human subjects, particularly of the working class and their haunts. Every bit as vibrant as the work of Jacob Riis, these photographs speak of hard lives, of tragedy and perseverance, of madness, imprisonment, drunkenness and death as well as the efforts of social reformers to create a more hopeful world. The new Riverside tenement buildings on Columbia Street capture his interest, as do the 16-year old boys penned up in the Tombs, the cadavers in the morgue split open from stem to stern, and the unfortunate inmate of Blackwell's Island, Johnny, who seems to have thought he was a horse. And if you have a spare moment, look at his photographs of the People's Palace, the lodging houses, the "perpetual wash" flying in tenement backyards.
A series of photographs of Sister Irene's Foundling Home speaks of a well-meaning but rigid regime; shoeless waifs play craps on the sidewalk; a child leans against a bar drinking at midnight; and sweatshop workers sit in a pool of light worthy of a painting by Georges Delatour.
Julius Wilcox was born in Vermont in 1837, the son of Amon Wilcox, who was engaged in the tin hardware and stove trade. The family lived in Middlebury and Julius attended Middlebury College, joining the Delta Upsilon fraternity there in 1858. The Utica Daily Observer notes satirically in 1866 that "Julius Wilcox, formerly of the Utica Herald, is the 'special recorder of fashions and society' for the New York Evening Gazette, the new daily. When W. was in Utica he was so modest and near-sighted that he couldn't tell a bonnet from a hoop-skirt..." Wilcox would have been 29 when he made the move. The few articles we have found by Wilcox indicate a scattershot practical intelligence. He investigates the making of pencils, the craft of fretwork, the building of pianos, he writes impassioned letters to the editor about the state of the roads, with "potholes the size of an alderman's head." In the 1890s he became a partner in a bicycle business. Either by writing or through business acumen, he seems to have attained a certain level of financial security, spending the years after the death of his wife in lodgings on Columbia Heights. When he died in 1924 at the age of 87 he left $45,000 to two nieces, and, most likely, his album of photographs to Brooklyn Public Library.