Indeed, Brooklyn Heights didn’t become a historic district until the 1965, when community groups founded the Brooklyn Heights Association.
Still, Attie’s images are joyous and highly peopled, whether by the “shrill Italian children” of Capote’s essay, dock workers, or even W.E.B Du Bois and his wife, Shirley Graham. “How David Attie found his way to take those portraits on those same rolls of negatives is any anybody’s guess,” laughs Marcia Ely. “It’s a little enclave.” From the aging, elegant woman of old world Brooklyn to the artists, writers, and designers of a new, burgeoning arts community, Brooklyn Heights was a world unto itself.
“My dad never saw himself as a street photographer,” says Eli Attie, “but these images show that he ranks with the very best of them, I think.” Attie was more interested in experimental photographs. A student of Alexey Brodovitch at the New School, he pioneered an innovative negative sandwiching technique that landed him his first professional gig: creating whimsical collages for Breakfast at Tiffany’s; a move that effectively launched his career.
“The story goes that Brodovitch was famously cranky,” says Ely, “and that many of his students were afraid of him. David Attie messed up, and was in a panic that these photographs were not going to work well – the negatives were wrong. He threw his arms up in the air, and said I’m going to do something crazy and combine these negatives.” Brodovitch was so impressed that he introduced the student to Capote. Thus, one can suspect that it was Capote himself, rather than the magazine, who invited David Attie on his Brooklyn tour.
“For me, the whole purpose of this project is to give my father a legacy, because he never really had one,” says Eli. “ My dad was an extraordinarily talented photographer for about 25 years, and managed to shoot some incredibly historic things—Bobby Fischer, just months before he won the world chess championship; The Band, at the very peak of their creativity; Ralph Ellison wandering around Harlem—just remarkable stuff. And yet, because no one lifted a finger to keep his work and his name alive after he died, all of that great art was just sitting in boxes, gathering layers of dust.”
“Truman Capote’s Brooklyn: The Lost Photographs of David Attie” is on display at the Brooklyn Historical Society until Winter 2017.
All photographs taken by David Attie, used with permission from Eli Attie.