Image of boy holding up first during protest

Welcome to the Tamiment Library’s collection of photos from the John Albok Negatives collection! Use the menu at the top of the page to browse photos.

John Albok was born in Munkacs, Hungary (present-day Ukraine), in 1894, the oldest of eleven children. It was there, at age 12, that he began taking photographs with a Kodak Brownie. In one version of the story, he received the camera as a gift, in another, he swapped a pair of binoculars for it. Although Albok wanted to pursue a formal art education, his family was unable to afford it, and at 13 he began an apprenticeship to a master tailor. Four years later, Albok was drafted into the Hungarian army, where, as part of his service, he documented prison and hospital life, using a folding camera and an astigmatic lens. One of the hospital's physicians proposed an exhibition of these photographs, but the exhibit never took place, and the doctor never returned the prints Albok had made of these images. Wartime brought Albok's family tragedy: his father committed suicide and two of his sisters died of starvation. After the war, Albok worked as a tailor and continued to make photographs--mostly of landscapes and townscapes--and decided to emigrate to the United States.

In 1921, at age 27, Albok emigrated to the United States. In 1923, he opened a tailor shop in New York City, at 1392 Madison Avenue at 96th Street. In 1924, he married a fellow Hungarian immigrant, Ilona Kiss. They had one child, a daughter, also named Ilona, born in 1925. The family lived above the shop until Albok's death. Albok pursued photography alongside his trade. For sixty years, using a 5 x 7 view camera and then a twin lens reflex camera, Albok took as his subject people and passersby outside his shop, and New York City life during the Depression, and World War II. Central Park, children, street scenes, and people at leisure were also among his preferred subjects. He also documented political upheaval and labor and left activism in New York throughout these same decades, including many photographs of May Day and Labor Day parades, antiwar demonstrations, and anti-Vietnam War rallies.

These pictures form the critical mass of his photographic work and have been compared to photographs commissioned by the Farm Security Administration. Of his Depression photographs, Albok remarked: "I photographed many poor souls, trying my best to leave them their most precious heritage-their dignity. There was nothing else left." Albok was also well-known as a photographer in the New York's Hungarian community. He documented many of that community's events, from weddings to picnics and political rallies, and specialized in portraiture. He printed and developed his photographs in his tailor shop.

Albok was keenly aware of himself as a photographer with a unique experience, and considered himself an artist. On a wall on building adjacent to his shop, he maintained a large mural with a quotation by James Agee: "Well used, the camera is unique in its power to develop and to delight our ability to see." Under the quotation, in large bold letters, was "John Albok's New York."

Albok held precise ideas about the mutual exclusivity of working to earn a living and being an artist, and the relationship of photography to both. He saw photographers as belonging to four categories: The first category consisted of commercial photographers without the time to develop themselves as artists because of financial and societal constraints. A second category of photographers included those who pursued photography as a hobby, but had little talent, and a third category of photographers were driven by greed. The fourth category, he wrote, included "those who make time and are patient and develop themselves as artists, but don't do it for the money." It was to this category that he believed he himself belonged. While this held true for most of his life, Albok did work as a photographer for several years, when the Depression forced him to temporarily close his tailor shop. In 1938, along with a fellow Hungarian immigrant, a Mr. Kantor, Albok opened a portrait studio that they called the "World's Fair Studio," between Lexington and Park Avenues on 96th Street. With the money he made taking portraits of wealthy Upper East Side clients and their pets, Albok was able to make ends meet and reopen his tailoring business.

Albok eventually garnered critical recognition for his photographs. In 1929, he submitted a portrait of his daughter to the Eastman Kodak Amateur Photo Contest and won. In 1937, he won a weekly photo contest held by the New York Herald Tribune. This brought him to the attention of Grace Mayer, a curator for the Museum of the City of New York, and led to a one-person exhibition, entitled  Faces of the City, at the Museum in 1938. As part of the event, Albok addressed the Rockefeller Center Camera Club, and gave a talk about the "art of photography as it is actually practiced in the United States." Although Albok continued to occasionally exhibit his work from that time forward, he was "rediscovered" by photography critics in the 1980s, when the Museum of the City of New York held a second one-person show for him, titled,  Tailored Images. He did not live to see it; he died of cancer on January 10, 1982, only one day before the opening of the exhibit.

Today, John Albok's work is found not only in the collections of the Museum of the City of New York, but also at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Museum, the New York Historical Society, the Smithsonian, the New York Public Library, and the Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora at Hunter College, as well as in collections in Hungary.

In addition to a number of articles on John Albok's work in art journals and magazines, there are two monographs on Albok's work: Through the Eye of the Needle, and  John Albok: For the Children, both catalogs of exhibitions of his photographs. He was also the subject of two documentary films produced for television:  John Albok's New York, produced by CBS in 1966, and  John Albok, Merchant Tailor, made for Swedish television in 1977.

The collection consists of 433 black and white negatives. These were shot from 1933 through 1968 and document May Day parades from 1933-1938 (a number of which were shot in New York City's traditional gathering place for public protests and demonstrations, Union Square), Labor Day parades from the early 1960s, and demonstrations against the Vietnam War in 1968.

Search these photos by using the search bar or the "Photos" section of this website. Photographs are organized by date. Further information about the John Albok Negatives can be found in collection's finding aid.