Photographer John Collier, Jr., spent one day in Amsterdam but his pictures painted a lasting portrait of an American mill town just two months before the nation was thrust into World War II.
A traveling photographer for the federal government’s Farm Securities Administration, Collier visited Amsterdam on Oct, 15, 1941.
Collier took pictures of barge and boat traffic at Lock 11 on the Mohawk River/Barge Canal. He documented the passage of an oil tanker, the Providence Socony, and a trio of wooden barges, pulled by a tugboat through Lock 11. He photographed what he called a yacht, by today’s standards a rather modest boat called Gypsy.
Collier took many pictures in downtown Amsterdam, providing a glimpse of the downtown some of us still remember, even if the details are less ideal than we recall.
In one photo, three older women are talking near the long gone S.S. Kresge 5 &10 cents store on East Main. A younger woman is to the side looking in her open purse. All are wearing hats and coats. A man passing by has a fedora on his head. His shirtsleeves are rolled up and his head is down. No one is smiling. There are parking meters and flags on the street. The flags may be leftovers from the recent Columbus Day parade.
Two older men face each other in front of a store window in another photo. They wear fedoras and rumpled sport coats. The man facing us has a cane and wears a sweater. His shoes are scuffed. The other man gazes suspiciously down the street.
In a picture Collier captioned “after school,” three young men and a young woman are talking. The young woman is wearing saddle shoes and bobby sox. One youth, identified as James Musella, wears a sweater with a “G” for Gloversville High School. He and a young man in a leather jacket carry bowling balls.
Family members identify the man in the leather jacket as Albert Basileo, who became a Navy seaman in the war. He lived until 1997.
In a Collier picture that has been published often, two men in suits join two other men less formally attired in crossing Church Street in front of the White Tower restaurant, then at the corner of Church and East Main streets
It was raining when Collier photographed two women and one man walking near the Strand, a movie theater on the south side of East Main Street. The photo has a film noir feel to it. The movie advertised on the Strand’s marquee is Mickey Rooney in “Life Begins for Andy Hardy.”
The Strand was across from St. Mary’s Church. Previously the theater was known as the Lyceum. In 1949 it became the Mohawk.
Photographer Collier was born in 1913 in Sparkill, New York in Rockland County. His father, John Collier Sr., was U.S. commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945.
Injured in an auto accident at age 8, John Collier, Jr. had learning disabilities. Having trouble in school, he was apprenticed to a painter whose wife was a photographer.
When the federal photo project that brought him to Amsterdam ended in 1943, Collier served in the U.S. Merchant Marine. He went on to use photography as a tool in anthropology, the study of human cultures. He became a professor at San Francisco State University. He died in 1992 in Costa Rica.
Thousands of Collier’s photos are archived at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Many of his photos are on the website of the Library of Congress.
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]