New York in the 1950s was quite a different city from what it is today. Women wore hats and gloves. Movies cost 50 cents. Judy Garland’s name lit up marquee signs that today have been replaced with Lady Gaga’s. The once simple details of daily life have become a nostalgic portrait of the past, which were partly preserved by the time’s growing gaggle of amateur photographers.

Frank Oscar Larson was one such amateur photographer who keenly observed life on the streets, and whose work was recently discovered in a forgotten cardboard box in his daughter-in-law’s house in Maine.

The Queens Museum of Art currently has Larson’s work on display in their exhibition, Frank Oscar Larson: 1950s New York Street Stories.

“The root of the word amateur is French and it means, really, to love,” said Louise Weinberg, the exhibition’s curator. “[Larson] was very impassioned about photography. He was operating at a time in the 50s when people didn’t think, ‘I’m going to be a great artist.’ There was no Warhol. They weren’t looking for the blast of fame or the 15 minutes. [Larson] just loved what he was doing.”

Larson grew up in Flushing, Queens as the son of two Swedish immigrants. As an adult, he worked at the Empire Trust Company as a banker. Once both of his sons moved away from home, Larson bought a Rolleiflex Automat (one of the popular cameras of the day), and began to spend his weekends photographing the streets of New York City.

Though he never pursued a career in photography, he was known as the family shutterbug and passed his love of the arts on to his sons (one of whom later became an artist).

“I think he probably was very good at putting people at ease,” said Soren Larson, Frank Oscar’s grandson. “My mother, who remembers him, says that he was a very gentle guy; soft-spoken, thoughtful, a very decent guy.”

Larson continued to hone his craft over the next 20 years, categorizing his negatives in white envelopes with the location and date written on the back.

Fifty-five years later, Soren Larson began digging through an old cardboard box containing 100 envelopes full of negatives, looking for old family photographs.

“I’m really interested in family history and pictures of my father as a young boy or a young man was something I would have liked to have had,” Larson said. “So I brought [the box] down to New York.”

Larson soon realized that his grandfather had a natural talent for photography and had captured more than just family portraits.

“I knew that my grandfather was an amateur photographer — my father talked about it once in a while,” Larson said, “but I don’t think that he, or anyone in the family, realized the scope of how much he did.”

After scanning some of his favorites and posting them on a website dedicated to his grandfather’s work, Larson sent an email to the curatorial department at the Queens Museum of Art.

“I saw the images, and read the email, and said I would like to curate this show because they look pretty incredible,” Weinberg said.

Eight months later, Weinberg and Larson finished composing a collection of Frank Oscar’s best images and now have them on display at the museum, along with some of his memorabilia.

“For me it’s really interesting to dig a little bit more and write about these images and reveal a little bit more information to the public,” Weinberg said. “At the same time, I think the beautiful thing about these photographs is you don’t need any explanation. They really move people in a very profound way.”

“We don’t have anything written down as to what were his goals, what was his philosophy, what was he trying to do,” Larson said. “I just have to look at what he did and speculate.”

Discovering cardboard boxes full of great photography has become a fairly common story in recent years. Vivian Maier (an amateur photographer whose work was discovered in a storage unit) and the Mexican Suitcase (the lost negatives of Robert Capa that captured images of the Spanish Civil War) are both prime examples of this phenomenon.

“The wonderful revelation of Larson’s story is this trove of 2,000 negatives that had sat for 55 years in a box and were discovered, and are now kind of going viral all over the web,” Weinberg said. “People are really picking up on it.”

Weinberg believes that even with modern access to digital technology, people still turn to the past: thus the widespread interest in Larson’s photography.

“Digitally there are so many types of cameras available,” Weinberg said, “so many abilities and possibilities in terms of size and density. Then you see this whole backlash of people going back to retro.”

The nature of photography has changed along with the technology; in the 1950s, photographers could more freely photograph people and landmarks without fear of overstepping individual or political boundaries. This freedom is seen throughout Larson’s work, which fearlessly embraces its subjects.

“When you look at [Larson’s] photos you feel no barrier,” Weinberg said. “It’s permeable. Nobody is reacting to him. You see one or two people looking at the camera in a couple of shots, but other than that, nobody is getting in his face and stopping him from taking the photograph. Today, it’s a whole different story.”

Like Vivian Maier and the Mexican Suitcase, Larson’s photography is not only appealing because of the era it captures and the subsequent nostalgia it evokes; Larson was highly gifted at capturing transcendent human moments found on the photographic streets of New York.

“He wasn’t the kind of guy who would just film a historic building,” Larson said. “Everything had a person in it or some human element. Someone once said that he had a sympathetic eye and I think that’s quite true. You could tell that there was a sympathetic quality between him and the subject.”

Above all, however, Larson’s work proves that he loved what he did.

“You see that he was just a normal guy who liked to do something,” Larson said. “He had a passion for this hobby. And I think that’s important; that things that you do, if you put enough effort and enough love into something, it’ll get recognized.”

Visit the Frank Oscar Larson: 1950s New York Street Stories exhibition at the Queens Museum of Art until May 20. For more information, visit

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