If you’ve ever read an article about New York City in the 1920s or 30s, chances are high you’ve seen his photographs. PL Sperr’s images explore every neighborhood, every bridge and highway and most of the corners of the city,—and yet he remains relatively unknown. There isn’t even a Wikipedia page about him and there is only one article that has been written about him specifically. New York Times mentions him only once for an article about a new mobile app:
“His New York is a city of horse-drawn milk wagons and brooding mansions, snack bar shacks and clamorous shipping docks, fleeting men in straw hats, strangely empty streets and demolition sites destined for skyscrapers like the Woolworth Building.”
Born in December 28, 1889, Percy Loomis Sperr was unable to walk for most of his life because of meningitis, and he had to use crutches to get around. After his son was born in 1920, Sperr moved with his family to New York (Staten Island, to be precise, that he called “the Cinderella of boroughs”) from Ohio. He was hoping to become a writer, and started taking photographs to use them as illustrations for his stories. Sperr took tens of thousands of photos from the late 1920s to the early 1940s.
But Sperr was more successful as a photographer than he was as a writer. Publications asked for his pictures and not stories. He was often invited to many city events of the time as a photographer and gained the honorary title of Official Photographer for the City of New York. But it appears that he was not entirely content with only being known as a photographer. He wrote in 1934, “I am not much of a camera fan. My own interest is rather in the story than in the picture.”
Despite that, Sperr kept taking photographs and documented such decisive city developments as the construction of Lincoln Square, Penn Station, Penny Bridge and the subway system.
It seems that we will not see his exhibition in a museum, or it might take a while until we do, unlike, for instance, Berenice Abbott, whose celebrity only grows. But PL Sperr documented an important part of NYC’s growth and has become one with the city’s history.
Some of PL Sperr’s photos (about 18 thousand) are available on NYPLs web archive. A small portion of them was also used for a website and app OldNYC, which collects old photos of New York City and puts them on an easy to use map.
Ivan Kosnyrev, a contemporary photographer based in NYC, had juxtaposed PL Sperr’s photographs to his own, made of same places but in 2017. Below are the results. Please enjoy: