From 1931 to 1935, Alfred Cook, a footman to the Frick family, documented the transformation of the Frick’s Gilded Age mansion into a public art gallery and research center in a series of evocative “progress photographs.” Cook was well suited to the task of recording all aspects of the conversion of the mansion and the construction of a new building for the Frick Art Reference Library, as he had trained with Library photographers Ira W. Martin and Thurman Rotan and at the time was attempting to launch a career in photography.
The albums of Cook’s photographs were cleaned and restored in the late 1990s by artist Adam Putnam, who worked as a book conservator at the Library for several years before pursuing graduate studies at Yale University. Twenty years later, he revisited this assignment with his publication ASMR4, Vol. 5 – Alfred Cook: Archival Photographs from The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library. ASMR4 is a quarterly publication co-edited by Putnam and photographers Katie Murray, Victoria Sambunaris, and Dan Torop, and this volume inaugurates a four-part series sponsored by the journal that explores the unexpected and overlooked.
Cook’s haunting images are certainly appropriate to this project. Due to the Great Depression, Cook was unable to support himself as a photographer and continued to work at The Frick Collection in a variety of roles, including night watchman, until 1936. The scores of black-and-white photographs preserved by The Frick Collection’s Archives, which are available through The Frick Digital Collections, are his only known works. The series is an invaluable resource for art and architectural historians as well as a fascinating achievement in its own right. As Putnam observes, “[Cook’s] images reveal a lexicon of strange and curious subjects: dark hallways, empty rooms, and most notably, light fixtures.” They invoke a lost world of Gilded Age splendor, defamiliarizing this well-known public institution and providing a fresh perspective on its history.
Alfred Cook (act. 1931–1935), Lighting Fixture, Helen Clay Frick's Bathroom, Former Frick Residence, New York, New York, July 20, 1933. Silver gelatin print. Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives