A comparison of images taken by three mid-century Philadelphia photographers shows more than stylistic differences between their large bodies of work. The images reveal disparate interpretations of the relationship between people and the urban surroundings. Lawrence S. Williams (1917-2016), Jacob Stelman (1905-1974) and John W. Mosley (1907-1969) each took thousands of photographs across the middle decades of the 20th century. Their divergent portrayals of the city reflect the subjective views of the photographers as well as the social group for which they produced their images.
The mid-20th century was a time of enormous change for Philadelphia. An entrenched political machine gave way to a reform movement led by Mayors Joseph Clark and Richardson Dilworth. Urban renewal efforts orchestrated by renowned city planner Edmund Bacon were meant to transform the city into “…an unmatched expression of the vitality of American technology and culture,” said Bacon in an article from 1959. These changes took place as national attention moved from the horrors of a second World War to the anxiety of the Cold War to the divisiveness of the Vietnam War. Racial segregation and the struggle for civil rights continued across the country, while mortgage subsidies and roadway construction enabled widespread white, suburban migration.
Philadelphia’s version of urban renewal was hailed in a 1964 Time magazine cover story as, “the most thoughtfully planned, thoroughly rounded, skillfully coordinated of all the big-city programs in the U.S.” The ideas driving the plans were decidedly modern and were intended to promote urban harmony through physical design. As Bacon wrote for the Journal of American Institute of Planners, “The true role of design in the city should be to create an environment conducive to a continuous flow of harmonic space experiences on the part of every individual who resides within it.”
Lawrence S. Williams arrived in Philadelphia in 1945 after serving as a correspondent for the United States War Department. He began working as a freelance photographer in 1951 and was hired by Bacon to document the city’s transformations, including demolition of Broad Street Station, removal of the elevated tracks that divided Center City, and the construction of Penn Center. This brought Williams in contact with Vincent Kling, the master planner of the project and architect of eight of its buildings. He was soon photographing all the firm’s work. Further commissions included photographing the buildings of lauded modernist architects like Mies van der Rohe and I. M. Pei.
As the official photographer of the city’s modernization, Williams was in constant search for the all-encompassing view, which meant blocking traffic, climbing rooftops, and flying helicopters over the city. He was fond of saying, “You don’t ask permission first, you just do it.” His images reflect Bacon’s vision to create “powerful lines of movement” that would connect the city and unite the populace. Lawrence’s photographs are a valuable record of the city’s transformation, and their broad views reflect the centralized perspective and privileged position of the modernist planner.
This photograph of Penn Center from the Masonic Temple roof is a striking portrayal of urban modernization. The recently completed Two Penn Center occupies the middle of the frame and the steel grid of Six Penn Center rises ethereally in the background. Framing these structures are the darkly ornate masses of City Hall and the Masonic Temple. The image emphasizes the promised progress from the dark past to a bright future. The building forms are the focus rather than the streetscape. As Williams once stated, “I don’t photograph people, I photograph things.”
Bacon’s “lines of movement” are more apparent in Williams’s later aerial photo of the completed Penn Center, shot from City Hall’s tower. The buildings stand with geometric clarity, and the pedestrian plaza between them is accentuated by strong, perspectival lines. The structures are clearly defined objects which recall Le Corbusier’s famous dictum that “Architecture is the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.”
Unfortunately, the emptiness of the plaza seen in the photo is an indicator of the project’s failure to achieve Bacon’s goals. Before a space can unite people through movement, it needs to attract them, and Penn Center falls short in that regard. Based on the modernist precept that pedestrians and vehicles must be separated, shops and people were pushed below the surface into Bacon’s innovative, but unexciting underground concourse. The open spaces above remain largely inactive, and very little harmonizing can occur in empty plazas.
A futurist eye is apparent in Williams’s twilight shot of the iconic Philadelphia Hospitality Center, currently undergoing a drawn-out restoration process and eventually to reopen as a circular restaurant. Except for a barely noticeable figure, people are absent from the scene. The illuminated disc hovers above the transparent walls like a suspended spacecraft, and City Hall’s tower just manages to moor the image to its location. This is a compelling portrait of the city’s implied future: geometric clarity and harmonic calm without congestion, strife, or people.
In contrast, the photographs of Jacob Stelman focus on the hectic commercial streets that were hidden from Williams’s views. Stelman’s clients were the merchants and business owners who depended on the public to purchase their goods, and his photographs present a very different view of the mid-century city. Stelman documented the powers of attraction exerted by the stores. He did not simplify his views or obscure their inconsistencies. His photographs capture all the messiness and contradictory messages of the urban streetscape.
Here is Center City as the region’s retail capital. The signage is bold and forcefully communicative. Bacon’s intended harmony is absent as pedestrians stride along disbursed paths responding individually to the diffusion of messages. The complexity of this movement did not correspond to modern planning principles and the forces of urban renewal sought to reshape downtowns across the country and sweep such scenes away.
The wrongs of the traditional city would be apparent to any modernist planner observing this image. Pedestrians and cars perilously occupy the same space, and the trolley tracks indicate other potential dangers. The sidewalks are crowded with people, and over-scaled signage adorns antiquated architecture. With promises of a brighter future, these buildings were torn down to make way for Bacon’s urban shopping mall.
The Gallery at Market East opened in 1977, but never quite managed to perform as hoped. It was closed in 2015 and was extensively reconfigured to open the interior to the street, which is once again considered an appropriate place for pedestrians. Unfortunately, the reopening was short lived due to the pandemic, and the success of its new configuration is yet to be determined.
Not every mid-century, urban observer disliked the traditional street. Philadelphia’s sign-emblazoned corridors were an inspiration to Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, whose work challenged the principles of modernism. They considered the tenets of modern architecture too simplistic for contemporary life. “Complex programs and settings require complex combinations of media. They suggest an architecture of bold communication rather than one of subtle expression,” Venturi once wrote. Stelman’s emphasis on signage and the complexity of human interaction corresponds to the concerns of post-modernism, which denounced the formal purity that was Bacon’s goal and Williams’s pursuit.
Stelman’s photograph of the Horn and Hardart automat at Reading Terminal show the city at night when architecture dissolves and the illuminated signage defines the setting. People gather within the pools of light, and the terminal’s great edifice is only noticeable because of the two glowing windows of a late-night worker. Despite Le Corbusier convictions, the “correct” play of geometric masses has no relevance to city nightlife. Media is the only message.
The photographs of John W. Mosely offer a different commentary about the relation between people and the urban surroundings during these decades. Mosley moved to Philadelphia from North Carolina in 1934 and soon established his professional reputation. He became the official photographer of the Pyramid Club, “the epitome of African-American cultural, social and civic life,” according to historian and curator Charles L. Blockson.
In addition to shooting nearly every famous African American who visited the city—artists, athletes, politicians, musicians, and literary figures–Mosley documented the everyday lives of Philadelphians. Working within the confines of institutionalized segregation, Mosley was the go-to photographer for Philadelphia’s Black middle-class. Gloria Still, the photographer’s sister-in-law, once said, “If you had an anniversary or something, you had to call him. If you had a picture by Mosley, you had something,”
Although Mosley lived in West Philadelphia, he had a darkroom and studio at the Christian Street YMCA. This was the city’s first YMCA for African Americans and was in the center of what is now known as Black Doctors’ Row because of the many African American professionals who lived on Christian Street. Mosley seems to have photographed every event at the Y, from banquets to badminton tournaments. One example is his 1945 portrait of a group of leading citizens in front of the building’s stepped brick facade. Over his 30-year career, Mosley recorded the long struggle for civil rights and photographed events from New York to Washington for newspapers with a Black readership like the Philadelphia Tribune, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Baltimore Afro American. In 1965, Mosley documented the seven-month protest to open “whites only” Girard College to Black students. His photos portray large crowds cheering the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cecil B. Moore.
In this image Mosley shifted the two civil rights leaders left of center, allowing the columns of Founders Hall to frame the event. Four layers are visible in the composition: the heads of individuals in the foreground, the waving hands of the crowd in the middle, the dark-suited civil rights leaders, and the Arcadian setting of the classical campus beyond. The people are Mosley’s focus, the streets are a field of contention, and the buildings convey complex associations.
The classical architecture of Founders Hall represents the ideals of democracy as well as the contradictory reality of segregation. The stone wall enclosing the school stood as a poignant symbol of exclusion and inequality to the primarily Black working-class neighborhood surrounding it. As Cecil B. Moore declared in a 1965 speech, “It seems that our country is in a conspiracy to keep these walls erect as a barrier to full fruition to American citizenship.”
Mosley captured a different atmosphere in this image. Rain is falling, and the crowd has dispersed except for a small group maintaining the protest. The low angle of the shot and the long reflections in the wet pavement emphasize the height of the individuals. The umbrella highlights the chanting youth in the foreground, and the photograph catches his companions at mid-clap. The rows of barricades tell of the departed crowds, and at the very back behind the iron fence are the watchful police.
The photo’s skillful timing and composition draw us into the moment and express the character of the protesters within the broader struggle for equality. Mosley’s photographs convey the individual and collective efforts of the protest. The buildings form the background, but provide an essential context for the images. The architecture represents both the barriers of oppression and the societal benefits that are central to the struggle for civil rights.
The photographs reviewed in this essay display contrasting narratives of mid-century Philadelphia. They document the modernist dreams, the vibrant streets, and the contentious struggles that occupied the times. These views were contemporaneous and contradictory. They served to reinforce contrasting conceptions of the urban environment. The photographs are not objective portrayals of a singular reality. They are portraits of subjective truth shared within the photographers’ professional and social groups. The images of Williams, Stelman, and Mosley offer us glimpses into contrasting worlds and an appreciation for the complexity of meaning held within the city’s architecture.