A Skyline Is Born—Lapham’s Quarterly

A history of filmmakers retelling the story of New York’s architecture.

In 1921 painter and photographer Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand made what is often considered the first American avant-garde film, Manhatta. The film cycles through a typical day in industrial New York City. The camera lingers at eye level, documenting commuters hurrying off the ferry and the bottleneck crowds before its gaze rises upward, hovering a story or two off the ground to capture the stomachs of skyscrapers. Manhattan’s skyline, featured prominently throughout the fast-paced ten-minute documentary, is periodically interrupted by quotes from Walt Whitman’s 1855 poem “Leaves of Grass,” which fill the screen with text, similar to that of silent films, as the nocturnal city skyline flickers in the background.

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