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Harlem Postcards | Archive

Apr 1Jun 1, 2021


Throughout the twentieth century, Harlem has been regarded as a beacon of African-American history and culture. Sites such as the Apollo Theater, Abyssinian Baptist Church, and Malcolm X Corner, at 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, serve as popular postcard images that represent significant places and moments in this community.  

Today, Harlem continues to evolve as a center of history and culture. Every day, changes are witnessed by its residents and experienced by tourists and visitors from all over the world. Harlem Postcards, an ongoing project, invites contemporary artists of diverse backgrounds to reflect on Harlem as a site of cultural activity, political vitality, and creative production. 

Harlem Postcards: April 2021 is available as a digital postcard to be downloaded for free and shared. 


Citi. Proud Sponsor of Harlem Postcards. Proud Sponsor of Progress.

Over the next three months, Harlem Postcards honors the importance of photographic documentation across Harlem.

Exploring the role of New York City’s archives as repositories of collective memory, these historic images construct an evolution of Harlem—one that is necessary for understanding its present. Taken over the last 100 years, these color and black-and-white photographs reveal intimate and dynamic moments of congregation, play and conversation that capture the essence of community in public space and the central role it has played in shaping Harlem’s illustrious history.

John Vachon,
Harlem July–August 1949, 1949
Acetate negative, 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ in.
John Vachon for Look magazine. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11813.548

This month’s Harlem Postcard features a photograph from the Museum of the City of New York. Harlem Postcards: April 2021 is organized by Zuna Maza, Curatorial Fellow, Permanent Collection.

John Vachon (1914–1975) entered the world of photography through the Farm Security Administration (FSA), the New Deal agency with a photography program that documented the social conditions of the Great Depression in the United States. At the FSA from 1936 to 1943, Vachon started in an administrative position, and from there began to develop his photography skills through observation of colleagues such as Walker Evans and Ben Shahn. Eventually he became a staff photographer. After stints at Standard Oil and documenting the condition of postwar Poland for the United Nations, in 1947 Vachon joined Look, the mass-circulation biweekly general interest magazine, where he served as a staff photographer until the magazine folded in 1971.

Retaining some of the documentary style he developed during his time with the FSA, Vachon adapted his photographic approach to reflect narrative-focused assignments at Look. This image, one of many taken on assignment in Harlem between July and August 1949, captures children congregating at a local playground. Vachon’s image, while composed with a keen awareness of form—the vertical lines of the public housing building in symmetry with the children and play structure—retains the spontaneity of everyday life. Above all the others, one child gazes out at the photographer, and us, like city strangers making eye contact briefly before going about their day. Vachon’s work, situated somewhere between social documentary and postwar street photography, is a snapshot within the larger narrative of his assignment, and a fleeting moment in Harlem’s history.