In the 1930s Bernard Kraus opened the Raven Book Shop, located on Fourth Avenue amid New York City’s famous “book row.” The private libraries that he bought up sometimes came with boxes of photographs, which would be displayed in stands set up on the street, selling for a nickel apiece. In 1955, Kraus moved around the corner to a 12th-floor loft at 752 Broadway. With an inventory of 40,000 books, he did a brisk business supplying university libraries, and several times a year he’d send out a catalogue. His ten-year-old son Jeffrey would paste on the labels.
Since the move to the loft, the photographic ephemera had been packed up in boxes and forgotten – until one day 16-year-old Jeffrey started nosing around in the back room, discovered the stacks of photos and was instantly captivated. He subsequently read a book about stereoviews: The cards with the double image once filled a basket in every parlor, giving their owners a small thrill when they were placed in the stereoscope and a three-dimensional view popped up like an apparition. The younger Kraus started going to flea markets, and eventually he was invited to collectors’ homes. “From the late 1960s to 1979” – during which time he attended college and then grad school at Brooklyn College, where he ended up teaching Psychology and Statistics – “I was learning,” said the New Paltz resident.
The collection eventually grew to encompass not just thousands of stereoviews, but also cartes de visite (visiting cards printed with the holder’s photograph, introduced in the 1850s), daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes and larger photographic prints called boudoir cards. In the late 1980s, Kraus began to sell and buy up rarer items, and in 1996 he created his website, www.antiquephotographics.com, which ultimately enabled him to buy and sell his images all over the globe.
Today, Kraus is the world’s leading dealer of stereoviews. His clients include museums, many with a regional focus; for example, the Drake Well Museum in Pennsylvania bought his images of oil wells in the Keystone State. He also sells and consults to libraries (including the Library of Congress, to which he just sold a collection of Civil War stereoviews as well as a set of photographs of the 1877 Railroad War), film and television production companies (“Miramax wanted something for Gangs of New York”) and such seminal cultural media figures as Ric Burns, who, Kraus said, “spent five years at my house” researching his definitive collection of New York City stereoviews while working on his famous documentary about the Big Apple.
Despite the preeminence of his collection, Kraus is technically a hobbyist, given that he also works full-time as executive director of AIDS-Related Community Services, a non-profit based in Hawthorne. (He got the job after he and his family moved to the mid-Hudson Valley in the late 1980s.) But his passion for antique photos is evident the minute you walk through the door of his suburban-style house: Original circus posters hang on the walls, along with a 1930s Kodak promotional piece showing a man jumping a lasso (still in its original frame) and Timothy O’Sullivan’s finely toned 1860 photo of an Arizona canyon. Indian clubs – popular physical fitness devices, resembling bowling pins, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that had their origins in India – are displayed in an original rack in the hall, as well as on shelves throughout the house.
Two unusual oak stereoscopes – each chest-high, freestanding device was designed to hold 200 stereoviews, which could be viewed consecutively with a turn of the handle – stand in opposite corners, and in every room there are various-sized oak cabinets, redolent of musty libraries and drab offices painted by Edward Hopper. Kraus’s collection is securely stored in a bank vault, and his comprehensive reference library of books fills his office.
His many specialties include the Civil War, New York City views, ballooning, African Americans, Native Americans, Walt Whitman, scenes of the Hudson Valley and oddities, from portraits of hermitlike characters to dancing bears to organ grinders to freaks. Kraus has all the images from his collection scanned, and he shows me cartes de visite of bearded ladies, Jo-Jo the Russian Dog-Faced Boy (a man with a hirsute face), Isaac Sprague the Living Skeleton, Siamese twins and a repulsively racist depiction of a large-bosomed African-American woman titled “the Zula Queen.” Many of the images were by Charles Eisenmann, who habituated the Barnum & Bailey Circus in New York City. Kraus said that while the individuals were obviously horribly exploited, many also were paid relatively well.
Many of Kraus’s daguerreotypes, tintypes and ambrotypes are each framed in gilt set in a red velvet-lined case. Most are portraits, although there’s a rare daguerreotype of several New York State infantrymen. Daguerreotypes, dating from the 1840s, were printed on silver-covered pieces of copper, Kraus explained; each is a one-of-a-kind image. Ambrotypes, which were printed on glass, date from the 1850s, while tintypes date from the 1860s and are the most common of the three.
His collection includes post-mortem images, mostly of children, and daguerreotypes of daguerreotypes. The most popular collectibles are images of the West – the earlier the better, he said.
A particular favorite of his is the series of New York City views taken by brothers E. and H. T. Anthony from the 1850s to the 1880s, including sad images of orphans in the Home for the Friendless Asylum, located at 32 East 30th Street. “Probably some of these kids were orphaned in the Civil War,” noted Kraus, marveling at the somber arrangement of small children amid the cavernous, shadowy rooms. Other gems are “photographica”: rare behind-the-scenes photos of the photographers and their crews at work. Kraus also showed his most recent acquisition: a series of delicately tinted stereoviews of Japan from the 1860s, whose marvelous images included topless geishas and samurai striking menacing poses.
Kraus’s website includes a “bargain finds” section. A “curved mount” stereoview, for example, sells for a lot less than a “flat mount.” The former has an arched upper border and was mass-produced by big companies starting in the 1880s, eventually pushing out the more quality-driven photographer/entrepreneurs who made the flat mounts. By the 1930s, the demand for stereoviews was decreasing, although the double images were sold into the 1950s. In Kraus’s house, the stereoview regains its fascination, and one could well spend a good part of a lifetime poring over his images and reimagining the past.