“To tell the story, completely and instantly,” was how Sam Falk described his mission as a photographer.
A staff photographer at The New York Times from 1925 to 1969 — a turbulent and transformative era in American history — Falk brought a sense of timing, framing and narrative that enriched the visual sensibility of the paper. For just 3 cents, the reading public could see pictures that could have just as easily hung in a museum. In fact, many later would.
“Mr. Falk brings us into even more intimate communion with the city,” wrote one reviewer of “New York: True North,” a book from 1964 featuring Falk’s work. “He has a reporter’s knack of being in the right place at the right moment and an artist’s ability to capitalize on the moment. With equal skill he shares with us a darkling glimpse of some crapshooters caught by police under a streetlamp, a sunny moment while little girls romp beside the lake in Central Park and the concentration of some British diplomats in huddled conference at the United Nations.”
“Sam was a gem,” said Barton Silverman, an award-winning photographer who joined the paper as a photo lab technician in 1962 and worked as a staffer from 1965 to 2014. When Mr. Silverman started, Falk was working for the Sunday department, where he had been since 1951, photographing news features, covers for The New York Times Magazine and portraits of luminaries such as Nina Simone, Marcel Duchamp and Sidney Poitier.
Mr. Silverman remembered Falk as a meticulous photographer and a storyteller who encouraged the younger staff members, explaining: “Everybody respected him. He had carte blanche anywhere he went.”
Kathy Ryan, the current director of photography at the magazine, was working on the 1996 centenary photography issue when she first saw Falk’s work. “I thought, ‘Whoa, who is this Sam Falk?’ He’s a really good photographer. And that was it,” she recalled. Drawing comparisons to such foundational photographers as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt and Bruce Davidson, Ms. Ryan sees in Falk’s work a “total appreciation for the observed moment.”
Falk emigrated to New York from Austria as a child, and was still in high school when he sold his first photograph, a box-camera image of a streak of lightning, to The New York Morning World. After spending a few years working for a commercial photographer, he joined The Times in 1925, just as photojournalism was beginning to come into its own. By the time he retired in 1969, pictures had become an essential way of presenting the news.
Falk and his camera witnessed events from the Lindbergh kidnapping trial to V-E Day observances in Midtown Manhattan. He also shot sports, later stating that such assignments were the best training for a press photographer, to develop a “lightning sense of timing.” Between 1925 and 1964, he had more than 20,000 photographs published in The Times.
Along the way, he decided that the standard camera for newspaper photographers, the 4×5 Speed Graphic, was too cumbersome, and he began to also use a smaller, 35-millimeter camera. (Staff photographers, including Falk, also used a Rolleiflex 120 camera.) In a conversation published in 1955, Falk lamented the bulkiness of a large-format camera: “Occasionally I hear press photographers say, ‘Don’t look at the camera.’ They are trying to get that candid-type picture. But how can you possibly get a candid picture with that thing?” With the 35-millimeter, Mr. Silverman said, “you picked it up and nobody knew when you were making a picture or not.”
Falk was one of the first at the paper to experiment with the 35-millimeter format. In addition to enabling more candid photographs, the 35-millimeter could shoot better in available light. The Times’s photo department didn’t have the equipment to process 35-millimeter film, however, so Falk bought a camera and developing tank with his own money. In an interview with Popular Photography in 1981, he remembered being chided: “Why can’t you leave things alone; everybody else is using the Graphic; why do you have to be different?” Falk’s persistence was not misplaced. The Times eventually converted to 35-millimeter cameras and relied on them for decades.
“Camera-wise, I think that really changed the way a photographer could go out and document,” said Mark Lubell, executive director of the International Center of Photography. “I mean, you could really begin to capture that sort of day-to-day life in a way that technically might not have been possible before. And I think that’s what you see a great deal of in Sam’s work, is the ability to tell a personal story without sort of alerting the subjects.”
In a photograph of dancers taken at a nightclub in 1964, for instance, Falk captured a scene in motion, with moments of velvety definition: the hanging lanterns, the man’s raised arms, the woman’s necklace. The mood is intimate, drawing you closer, and the chasm of time between when Falk pressed the shutter and now is compressed in an instant. You’re there, in the scene.
Todd Heisler, a Times staff photographer since 2006, noted that “great photographers just seem to leave enough room in their frame for serendipity.”
“Being a news photographer for a daily newspaper you have to make images every day,” Mr. Heisler said before discussing Falk specifically. “Whether it was an image of the subway or a construction photo, or anything that’s really mundane, he really made something beautiful out of it. That level of consistency and sophistication is really special for his time.”
Falk’s work is imbued with his love of New York, from his row of silhouettes framed against a blazing neon movie marquee, to his view of passengers at the old Pennsylvania Station. As he once put it, “There is nothing equal to the adventure of discovering something different in ever-changing New York City.”
It’s something Ms. Ryan sees in his work. When asked what she would assign Falk today, she responded: “Something that he could fall deeply in love with. A subject that you could see his tremendous fondness for. Because my favorite pictures are ones like this one of papers going on the truck outside the Times building. Or the ones that he did of couples in love. The ones that he did where you can just see that he’s completely enamored of New York City.”
This love of the city and its people may have inspired Falk, in 1948, to find the owner of some lost negatives. Falk had bought a camera at an auction for property lost on the subway, only to discover it contained exposed film. It showed a couple’s wedding day, at a church on East 13th Street. In one of the photos, a license plate number was visible, and Falk used it to track down the camera’s owner — a professional photographer and friend of the couple — and returned the developed negatives. More than a year after getting married, the happy couple, Peter and Mary Kichura, finally saw their wedding photos.
Falk died in 1991, at the age of 90, but even during his lifetime his work was repeatedly honored by galleries and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian Institution, which devoted a solo exhibition to his photographs that ran for more than a year. In 1952, Falk received a citation from the City of New York, for his contributions to the “furtherance of the best aspects of life in this metropolis and advancement of the good will of its people.”
The previous year, Falk had gone to Flushing, Queens, and positioned himself poolside to capture the Aquazanies, an acrobatic diving troupe. In the photograph, the divers hurtle like rag dolls toward the water below. The diving board juts out from the edge of the picture, the backdrop is an expanse of sky, but the focus is on the figures — always falling, never landing — suspended in everlasting motion.