This one photograph is considered the most famous image of New York’s master commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981). The New York Times describes the scene. Robert Moses, “chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority — just one of his many titles — standing on a red I-beam suspended over the East River, arms on his hips, a roll of drawings in his hand: the master builder at work. Behind him, on the opposite shore, is the United Nations complex — just one of the hundreds of city-altering projects Mr. Moses captained between the 1920s and 1960s, decades in which, having consolidated political power through a genius for writing legislation, he shaped New York City.”
The scene was captured by famed photographer Arnold Newman (1918-2006) on a sunny Thursday afternoon in June 1959. Context shows that the photograph was taken on Roosevelt Island’s southern shore. By the late 1950s, Roosevelt Island was still known as Welfare Island and contained many more hospitals and prisons than exist today. The Smallpox Hospital had been empty for only a few years and stood with greater strength and grace. We’re pleased to share the image with you today.
Where did the red I-beam come from? An interview by Getty Images with Mr. Newman reveals how this incredible image was captured.
Excerpt from Getty Images Behind the Lens interview with Arnold Newman:
Getty Images: You photographed Robert Moses a couple of times. Can you talk about your background with Moses?
Arnold Newman: Robert Moses was a wealthy man who more or less went into politics. He wanted to rebuild New York City. He started building roads to make it easier for traffic. What he didn't envision was the fact that the more roads and bridges and things he built, the more people bought cars and made the roads even more crowded.
Down the block from where we live is Tavern on the Green and a playground where all the families on our block played with their kids. Moses decided that Tavern on the Green needed more parking space. He was going to bring in bulldozers and knock all the trees down so he could build a parking lot alongside the playground. My wife and I were very involved in a well-publicized protest that contributed to Moses backing down.
After that, I was asked to photograph him by Holiday magazine.
Getty Images: Did he know you'd been involved in the protest?
Arnold Newman: No. I was introduced to him as Arnold Newman, but he didn't make the connection.
Getty Images: Did your personal feelings about the changes he was making to New York affect the way you photographed him?
Arnold Newman: No, not really. But I did want to show him as the builder of New York. I had the idea exactly as you see it. And he was very happy with it.
We got a huge aluminum I-beam and put big heavy weights on one end so it would be sturdy. The "connector" at the end is an Arnold Newman fake. I got a big piece of cardboard and some clay and I very carefully made it to look that way, then painted it the same color we painted the I-beam. Moses is only about two-and-a-half feet off the ground and about 12 feet from the East River -- it was the angle. And it's just a single shot, un-fake. People say, "Wow, you did a great job on the computer," and I say that computers weren't invented until later.
A few years later I photographed Robert Moses in his apartment. When I arrived he said, "Oh, you're the Arnold Newman that took that picture. I'm delighted you're here." And over his fireplace is a print of the portrait I did.
At the end of the session, I said, "You know, Mr. Moses, you really don't remember me. I'm the Arnold Newman of the fight over Tavern on the Green." His face went deep red. He said, "Sit down." And for 30 minutes he tried to argue with me. I didn't argue back. I just said, "We did what we thought was right for our neighborhood and for the children." But I enjoyed watching him get upset.