Studio: Stan Douglas | David Zwirner

Since the late 1980s, photography has been a central focus of Stan Douglas’s practice. Penn Station’s Half Century (2021) represents Douglas’s most ambitious exploration of the medium to date. Made with a hybrid of CG and staged photography, the series examines how history manifests in specific places and transitional moments in society.

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This body of work was commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund on the occasion of the dedication of New York City’s new Moynihan Train Hall. The series looks at the life of the city’s original Pennsylvania Station—from the time of its inauguration in 1910 to its eventual demolition in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden—through nine vignettes arranged into four thematic panels for the new train hall, and also editioned individually as photographs.


These historical scenes were re-created by Douglas over a four-day shoot in Vancouver, during which over four hundred actors were scanned and re-dressed in one of five hundred unique period costumes, before being posed digitally. The architectural elements were created through an intensive CG post-production process carried out by an Emmy-nominated visual effects studio.

A behind the scenes photograph featuring an in progress work by Stan Douglas, dated 2020

Stan Douglas on set at the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, 2020. Photo by Evaan Kheraj

Stan Douglas on set at the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, 2020. Photo by Evaan Kheraj

“When I saw the documentation they sent about the project, they showed me images of the old Penn Station. I remembered Killer’s Kiss by Stanley Kubrick. One of the opening scenes for it was set in the concourses of Penn Station, and I immediately imagined depicting everyday life of that place using both CG and live action, and I just went for it.”


—Stan Douglas

A photograph by Stan Douglas titled 2 March 1914, dated 2021.

Stan Douglas

2 March 1914, 2021
Digital chromogenic print mounted on Dibond aluminum

68 x 118 1/2 inches (172.7 x 301 cm)

On the evening of Sunday, March 1, 1914, a severe snowstorm blanketed New York City, grinding rail traffic to a halt and leaving scores of travelers stuck at Penn Station, a travel hub that connected many destinations. Among those stranded were a large number of vaudeville performers, who typically transferred venues on Sundays and Mondays before beginning a new week of shows. Before the introduction of silent feature films in 1915, live performance was the primary source of mass entertainment for many Americans.

 

Noticing the talent in the room, comedian Bert Williams organized an impromptu show for the small gathered audience that featured a number of the marquee names of the day, including Florenz Troupe, jugglers Joseph and Mary Blank, and popular duos Kate Elinore and Sam Williams and Joseph Howard and Mabel McCane. In this tableau, a band of saxophonists (The Six Brown Brothers) performs at the top of the stairs while acrobats go through their routines on the first landing. On the lower level, other performers watch, nap, eat, or wait their turn.

A photograph by Stan Douglas titled 1 March 1914, dated 2021.

Stan Douglas

1 March 1914, 2021
Digital chromogenic print mounted on Dibond aluminum

68 x 118 1/2 inches (172.7 x 301 cm)

To select the individual moments for re-creation, Douglas enlisted a researcher to comb through thousands of newspaper and periodical stories and pull out those that mentioned Penn Station, which were eventually narrowed down to the final group of nine single days taking place between 1914 and 1957.

An image of actors on set at the PNE Agrodome in 2020. Photo by Evaan Kheraj

Actors on set at the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, 2020. Photos by Evaan Kheraj

Actors on set at the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, 2020. Photos by Evaan Kheraj

An image of actors on set at the PNE Agrodome in 2020. Photo by Evaan Kheraj

Actors on set at the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, 2020. Photos by Evaan Kheraj

Actors on set at the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, 2020. Photos by Evaan Kheraj

An image of actors on set at the PNE Agrodome in 2020. Photo by Evaan Kheraj

Actors on set at the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, 2020. Photos by Evaan Kheraj

Actors on set at the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, 2020. Photos by Evaan Kheraj

One panel, a diptych, features two distinct moments that occurred at the station’s stairwell on April 22, 1924, and August 7, 1934, respectively. In the first tableau, crowds flood the station to witness the capture of Celia Cooney who, with her husband, was a bank robber and petty thief. Her fashionable dress earned her the nickname the “Bobbed Hair Bandit” and she developed a cult following.

A photograph by Stan Douglas titled 22 April 1924, dated 2021.

Stan Douglas

22 April 1924, 2021
Digital chromogenic print mounted on Dibond aluminum
68 x 118 1/2 inches (172.7 x 301 cm)
 
A behind the scenes photograph featuring an in progress work by Stan Douglas, dated 2020

Actors on set at the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, 2020. Photo by Stan Douglas

Actors on set at the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, 2020. Photo by Stan Douglas

An archival image featuring Celia Cooney

Celia Cooney, 1924. Photo by New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Celia Cooney, 1924. Photo by New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images

The liberation of Angelo Herndon, a Black labor organizer, is depicted in the adjacent photograph. Herndon was arrested for the possession of Communist literature and eventually convicted for insurrection under a little-known Reconstruction-era statute.

 

He served two years before he was released on $15,000 bail, collected from supporters through small donations. On arriving in New York, the martyred Herndon was greeted by thousands of well-wishers.

A photograph by Stan Douglas titled 7 August 1934, dated 2021.

Stan Douglas

7 August 1934, 2021
Digital chromogenic print mounted on Dibond aluminum

68 x 118 1/2 inches (172.7 x 301 cm)

 

A behind the scenes photograph featuring an in progress work by Stan Douglas, dated 2020

Actors on set at the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, 2020. Photo by Stan Douglas

Actors on set at the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, 2020. Photo by Stan Douglas

A behind the scenes photograph featuring an in progress work by Stan Douglas, dated 2020

Stan Douglas on set at the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, 2020. Photo by Evaan Kheraj

Stan Douglas on set at the PNE Agrodome, Vancouver, 2020. Photo by Evaan Kheraj

“There’s a general tendency in my work where I try to look at transitional moments in history where something crucial happens in terms of the development of the society. Usually some kind of rupture is my interest.”


—Stan Douglas

View the full selection of photographs from Penn Station’s Half Century


Douglas’s third panel consists of three depictions of the waiting room in Penn Station at daybreak on June 20—the summer solstice—in different years spread across its half century of operation. On that day in 1930, visitors would have seen a state-of-the-art
trimotor airplane positioned centrally within the space as a promotion for TWA’s new service that offered a route between New York and Los Angeles consisting of a combination of rail and air travel.

An archival photograph of a trimotor airplane inside Penn Station, dated 1929

Ford Tri-Motor “City of New York” in Penn Station, 1929. Photo by Bettina Wilson. Photo courtesy TWA Museum

Ford Tri-Motor “City of New York” in Penn Station, 1929. Photo by Bettina Wilson. Photo courtesy TWA Museum

A photograph by Stan Douglas titled 20 June 1930, dated 2021.

Stan Douglas

20 June 1930, 2021
Digital chromogenic print mounted on Dibond aluminum
68 x 78 3/4 inches (172.7 x 200 cm)
 
Front and back of photograph of Amelia Earhart christening the Ford Tri-Motor “City of New York” at Penn Station, dated 1929

Front and back of photograph of Amelia Earhart christening the Ford Tri-Motor “City of New York” at Penn Station, 1929. Both images courtesy TWA Museum

Front and back of photograph of Amelia Earhart christening the Ford Tri-Motor “City of New York” at Penn Station, 1929. Both images courtesy TWA Museum

An archival image featuring WPA cutouts in Penn Station

From left: Raymond Loewy’s WPA mural at Penn Station, 1945. Photo © Raymond Loewy Associates, courtesy the Hagley Museum and Library; 1943 news article clipping from The New York Times archives.

From left: Raymond Loewy’s WPA mural at Penn Station, 1945. Photo © Raymond Loewy Associates, courtesy the Hagley Museum and Library; 1943 news article clipping from The New York Times archives.

As a publicity stunt, the plane had been christened in 1929 by “famed aviatrix” Amelia Earhart. Absent the airplane, in 1944, the station featured six oversized cutouts, each approximately forty by twenty-five feet, that symbolized the railroad’s contribution to the war effort. Organized by industrial designer Raymond Loewy and funded by the Works Progress Administration, the cutouts depicted a conductor, a “red-cap” porter, an engineer, a soldier, a sailor, and a marine.

A photograph by Stan Douglas titled 20 June 1944, dated 2021.

Stan Douglas

20 June 1944, 2021
Digital chromogenic print mounted on Dibond aluminum

68 x 78 3/4 inches (172.7 x 200 cm)

 
A photograph by Stan Douglas, dated 2020

Stan Douglas, 20 June 1957, 2021 (detail)

Stan Douglas, 20 June 1957, 2021 (detail)

A photograph of an electronic ticket window in Pennsylvania Station, dated 1957

Electronic ticket window in Penn Station, 1957. Photo by Phil Greitzer/New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Electronic ticket window in Penn Station, 1957. Photo by Phil Greitzer/New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Finally, in 1957—only a few years before the original station’s demolition—the waiting room featured a new, modern ticket booth modeled after the aesthetic of LaGuardia Airport. Intended to streamline the ticketing process, in actuality the kiosk created confusion, in some ways marking the final ascendance of air travel over rail that contributed to the station’s demise.

A photograph by Stan Douglas titled 20 June 1957, dated 2021.

Stan Douglas

20 June 1957, 2021
Digital chromogenic print mounted on Dibond aluminum

68 x 78 3/4 inches (172.7 x 200 cm)

 

“The station itself had as much of a profound effect on the psychogeography of New York City as it had on the physical one.”

 

—Stan Douglas

In the final mural, Douglas pays homage to Penn Station as it was in the early 1940s, when it served as a hub for mobilized soldiers traveling for training and deployment. Because of the hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women wishing their loved ones tearful goodbyes before heading overseas, the station held an iconic position in the war-time imagination.

A photograph by Stan Douglas titled 10 November 1941, dated 2021.

Stan Douglas

10 November 1941, 2021
Digital chromogenic print mounted on Dibond aluminum

68 x 118 1/2 inches (172.7 x 301 cm)

 

A composite image featuring a Couple in Penn Station sharing farewell kiss, along with Robert Walker and Judy Garland as Corporal Joe Allen and Alice Mayberry in MGM’s The Clock

From left: Couple in Penn Station sharing a farewell kiss, 1943. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images; Robert Walker and Judy Garland as Corporal Joe Allen and Alice Mayberry in Vincente Minnelli's The Clock (1945). Photo by Mary Evans/AF Archive

From left: Couple in Penn Station sharing a farewell kiss, 1943. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images; Robert Walker and Judy Garland as Corporal Joe Allen and Alice Mayberry in Vincente Minnelli's The Clock (1945). Photo by Mary Evans/AF Archive

The station’s iconic architecture had become so enmeshed in the cultural zeitgeist that it featured heavily in the plot of the 1945 Vincente Minnelli film The Clock, starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker. For the film, a replica of Penn Station’s waiting room was built on an MGM soundstage in Los Angeles, which Douglas has re-created here, littered with props, lighting equipment, and a handful of production staff.

A photograph by Stan Douglas titled 10 November 1941, dated 2021.

Stan Douglas

15 September 1944, 2021
Digital chromogenic print mounted on Dibond aluminum

68 x 118 1/2 inches (172.7 x 301 cm)

 

“My visual model was Bruegel the Elder, whose paintings often depict the scenes happening simultaneously in the same space. So it wouldn’t happen necessarily chronologically simultaneously, but he depicts them so you see the social relations in a single image.”

 

—Stan Douglas

An archival image featuring the MGM soundstage in Los Angeles recreation of Penn Station

Penn Station scene at MGM Studios, set from Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock (1945)

Penn Station scene at MGM Studios, set from Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock (1945)

By combining traditional cinematic techniques with new technologies, Douglas has expanded the experiential space of photography in Penn Station’s Half Century. As Douglas notes, the span of half a century provided a large time frame to look at how Penn Station, as a social space, affected people’s lives in New York City and beyond.

An installation photo featuring works by Stan Douglas, dated 2021

Installation views of Stan Douglas’s, Penn Station’s Half Century, 2020. Commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund for Moynihan Train Hall. Photos by Nicholas Knight

Installation views of Stan Douglas’s, Penn Station’s Half Century, 2020. Commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund for Moynihan Train Hall. Photos by Nicholas Knight

An installation photo featuring works by Stan Douglas, dated 2021

Installation views of Stan Douglas’s, Penn Station’s Half Century, 2020. Commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund for Moynihan Train Hall. Photos by Nicholas Knight

Installation views of Stan Douglas’s, Penn Station’s Half Century, 2020. Commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund for Moynihan Train Hall. Photos by Nicholas Knight

An installation photo featuring works by Stan Douglas, dated 2021

Installation views of Stan Douglas’s, Penn Station’s Half Century, 2020. Commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund for Moynihan Train Hall. Photos by Nicholas Knight

Installation views of Stan Douglas’s, Penn Station’s Half Century, 2020. Commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund for Moynihan Train Hall. Photos by Nicholas Knight

Read more about Penn Station’s Half Century in The New York Times

 

 

Stan Douglas’s Penn Station’s Half Century was commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund, 
a testament to New York State’s ongoing prioritization of art in public transit spaces.


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