14 min read

Walking to 1 Million Views of the Crescent Kitchen (or How I Discovered the Photographer Percy Loomis Sperr)

The Sky over Astoria, Queens, December 8th, 2016

What excites me most about making art is the journey and what we can learn along the way. It always starts with a hunch, that internal recognition of a moment or a fleeting idea. As photographers, we rely on this hunch to guide us when making photographs. As artists, this hunch can take us into novel territory if we're open to embracing the doors that open before us.  

This story begins on the night of December 8th, 2016 at around 5pm when I started to have an anxiety attack while watching TV in my Astoria apartment. The attackes had been occuring more frequently that year which I attribute to turning 40, and a persistant form of health anxiety.

As with millions of others, I've lived with anxiety my entire adult life, in particular health anxiety, which runs in my family. When I was a young adult they weren't much of a problem because I felt invincible and could find ways to distract myself.

Over the years, I've went to the emergency room around three times because I felt I might be having a heart attack. In each case, it was thankfully just a bad panic attack followed by a few days of shame and guilt.

In New York, walking was the best medicine. So on this night in 2016, I put on my shoes and headed out into Astoria for a walk. It didn't work. The attack intensified and I felt like this was the big one so to be safe I started walking toward the emergency room at Mt. Sinai on 30th Ave. It was a short walk from my apartment, so I arrived in around 15 minutes.

I sat on a bench across from the hospital contemplating whether I should go in or not. I felt embarrassed. It seemed inconvenient, and too much of a hassle, so I figured if I was having a heart attack, then I was in a good position to arrive at the emergency room as quick as possible. This calculating went on for about 20 minutes. Back and forth, back and forth as I worked on my breathing.

Then it subsided, and I felt fine again, which is normally the case. While I was working on my breathing, I was focused on the diner across the street named the Crescent Kitchen. I watched as people went in and out, and started imagining it as a magical eatery where strange occurrences take place.

On this night, I can report that nothing magical happened, and I wasn't hungry so I didn't go in for a meal. I did however walk by and decided to make a photograph as the juxtaposition with the moon was too enticing to pass up.  

Astoria, Queens, December 8th, 2016

I finished my walk and then went home and slept fine, anxiety under control. From that night on the Crescent Kitchen would forever be a neighborhood landmark significant to my personal narrative.

Over the next few years I would often pass it and think about going in for a meal but I never did. I don't know why for sure but I think part of me wanted to preserve the mystery of what it'd be like to eat inside.

I was more interested in how these type of locations help you build a personal archive of significant places, and how those memories help create new narratives. I felt a new idea was surfacing but wasn't sure what it meant.

In 2019, when Tom Starkweather and I started discussing ideas for a new podcast, one of the ideas I had was to visit specific locations I thought could be portals to a new dimension. We were discussing a lot of different angles at that time and I loved the idea of how a typical diner could be part of a sci-fi narrative involving alternate dimensions and time travel. It never went anywhere. The recordings are on the cutting room floor for now but it served as a catalyst for exploring these ideas further.

Several months passed. A new year arrived, and on a cold day in January, I embarked on a routine walk, not thinking anything about the Crescent Kitchen.


A Walk on January 18th, 2020

I woke up early feeling energetic. I had my standard apple with almond butter and honey along with a glass of green tea. I started the walk at 8:29am, heading south from Sunnyside toward Hunters Point South Park in Long Island City.

On this morning I was carrying the Osmo Pocket with me to experiment making some walking videos. One of my first stops was the Smiling Hogshead Ranch, a cool little community garden on Skillman Ave. There's a very short path that takes you into the garden that I always walked when I took this route. On this day I decided to make a recording.

When I arrived at Hunters Point South Park I took a short break on a bench. This was one of my favorite parks. I visited it frequently, developing a routine around photographing at a few different spots. I have the sketches of a project around these efforts but I'll save that for another day.

On this cold day however, there was a strange salt path that I thought was remarkable. I walked it a few times but the crunching sound make the videos unbearable. It's not the fun type AMSR so instead here's a photograph.

Hunters Point South Park, January 18th, 2020

I continued my walk up Vernon Boulevard until I arrived at Socrates Sculpture Park, another one of my favorite destinations in Queens. For a few months, I was fond of carving out the word 'walk' in dirt at random spots. I thought it might turn into a project but I eventually got bored with it and stopped.

At this stage in the walk, I decided I needed to think about the route back home. On this day, that would take me down 30th Ave in Astoria, and right past the Crescent Kitchen.

I had no plan when I arrived other than to hang out across the street for a few minutes. Perhaps it was the gloomy weather but the vibe on that day was unusual. I thought about going in for a meal again but wasn't hungry enough. I took out the Osmo Pocket and made a video of the intersection. Nothing remarkable happened.

Then I made a photograph with my iPhone. I currently own the iPhone 8 so the camera is a few generations behind in terms of quality but that didn't matter much for this photograph. I decided to upload it to Google Maps to document the visit. I thought nothing of it. I told myself, one photograph and done. It doesn't matter. This is just an experiment.

Crescent Kitchen, January 18th, 2020

I walked the rest of the way home, and that was it. I have made these type of little experiments frequently while out walking. It doesn't cost much and I find that I always learn something. It's like building a chain or a bridge to the next idea.

At some point, the hope is that I'll make a leap into something new. I think this how you evolve as an artist. You make small incremental experiments, add new ideas, mix it all together and see where it takes you. Sometimes it's nowhere special but again, that's just a bridge to the next idea and the next experiment.


One Million Views of the Crescent Kitchen

Over the course of 2020, I uploaded a few more photos to Google Maps as experiments. There was one location where I decided to do it repeatedly. It's called Luminescence. It was created by the artist Nobuho Nagasawa as a permanent installation at Hunters Point South Park.

Every visit I would walk to the same view, make my photo, upload it and then leave. I did this 15 times over the course of the year. You can view these photos here.

Google started sending me messages alerting me to the views. I thought this was interesting. I didn't have a particularly interesting angle on this project other than the ritualistic aspect. But I kept doing it.

Then I started to look at some of the other photos I'd uploaded. Nothing remarkable until I arrived at my photo of the Crescent Kitchen. I noticed it was getting a lot of views. I thought it was odd but given my feelings about the strange vibes at the place, not totally unexpected. What to make of this?

For several months, I forgot about it until I arrived back in Saint Cloud and uploaded a new photo to Google Maps. At that point I realized the photo of the Crescent Kitchen was nearing 1 million views. I laughed to myself because it felt absurd and totally meaningless in the context of my 'serious' art projects.  

However, from a data perspective, this was without a doubt the most viewed photograph I've ever made in my life, and it might be one of the least competent as well.

I loved that contradiction. It also made me think about the people in the photograph, particularly the individual standing in front of the diner looking into their phone. I doubt anyone viewing this photograph is looking closely, and I think given the distance that it's not too intrusive. Still, if I were to go back in time, I'd probably wait until there were no people in the landscape before making the photograph.  

It occurred to me that perhaps I was now the owner of the most famous photograph of the Crescent Kitchen in history. What a privilege!

Of course I have no way of proving this and the only reason this photograph has so many views is because it's the cover photo for the Crescent Kitchen, which is maybe a more popular destination than I imagined, although the reviews are somewhat average. I guess you can judge for yourself. If you're in Astoria, New York, perhaps you want to stop by for a meal and send me a report.

I could have just left it at that but then another idea surfaced. I asked myself, I wonder if there are other photographs of this location, the intersection of 30th Ave and Crescent Street, in the NYC archives somewhere.


The Remarkable Work of Percy Loomis Sperr

Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. "Queens: Crescent Street - 30th Avenue" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1927. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-6f16-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

I turned to the digital collection of photos from the New York Public Library to see what I could find. It didn't take me long to discover there was indeed a photograph from that intersection!

Remarkable.

I love everything about the way this photograph is presented. Of course, you can't really see much but if you look closely, you'll notice there's what looks to be a police officer on the corner and a woman pushing a stroller mid-frame. This view would be in the opposite direction of the Crescent Kitchen which would be just out of the frame on the right.

The photograph was made by Percy Loomis Sperr. According to Wikipedia, he most well known for his street photography from the 1930s and 40s. He worked under contract for the New York Public library and made between 30,000 and 40,000 photographs over the course of three decades.

He made all types of photographs but of course the few others that caught my attention included desire paths. I can't believe it!

These photographs look exactly like the type that I've made while out walking in the New York City green spaces. The echoes make me smile.  

Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. "Queens: Queens Boulevard - Woodhaven Boulevard" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1924 - 1936. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-792b-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. "Queens: 82nd Avenue - Queens Boulevard" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-691c-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Of course, next I had to turn to Google to see what else I could uncover about Loomis Sperr.

The now defunct Outline published a feature in 2019 on his work, including some brilliant now and then photographs by photographer Andrew Beers.

Screenshot from NEW YORK, THEN AND NOW, published in The Outline on October 24, 2019. Photographs by Andrew Beers

The article provides a great overview of his work with a lot of interesting biographical information.

A Phillips auction catalog from 1980 described Sperr as “the official photographer for the City of New York,” adding that “whenever a ceremony took place or a new building was going up where another had been torn down [Sperr] was required to photograph these events.”
Born in Ohio in 1889, Sperr graduated from Oberlin College in 1912 before making his way to New York with plans to become a writer, but the success of his relationship with the library consumed his time and felled those more literary plans, despite a childhood encounter with meningitis that left Sperr often in need of a cane. In his census registration card, on file at the library, Sperr is described physically with just one word: “Lame.”

And this excerpt I thought was beautifully stated.

Sperr would attest that he was more of a storyteller than a documentarian. “My own interest is rather in the story than in the picture,” he once wrote, The story which interests me is one that lends itself to unlimited photography — the tale of the city of New York.” He wrote about the city poetically: “Here is a theme which is big enough and rich enough to challenge your industry, artistic ability and photographic skill. It is full of contrasts and all sorts of lights and shadows. A child of the tenements is lost in a storybrook beside the ash cans at her doorway, and the gulls are wheeling in the billowy wind above our ferryboat.”

The entire article is well produced, and it's a shame The Outline is no longer around as I always enjoyed their design approach to digital media.


The next search result that caught my attention is from a blog called New York Photobooks. How have I not come across this one before? This is starting to feel like I've entered an alternative dimension. New York City is so enormous, with so much cultural production going on that you'll never uncover it all, but there are times when you stumble up on the gems at just the right time.  

The blog post about Sperr's only book called 'Island Scenes' which he self-published.

“Island Scenes” is apparently Sperr’s only publication, printed in 1937, with 130 Staten Island images. While many of his contemporaneous focused on Manhattan – as a symbol of modernity and progress – Sperr, by contrast, chose the bucolic environments of Staten Island – known as the garden borough. The Island’s natural features and ancient houses are the core subject of the photographs in this photobook.
In contrast with other publications of that time, such as Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York, “Island Scenes” documents a relatively untouched area, which resisted the persistent process of modernization in NYC. Sperr documents and describes with detail old colonial houses which stood for more than 250 years. There is for instance a beautiful full page picture of “The Conference House”, one of the most important landmarks of the island. Erected in 1679, it took its name from the conference held there on September 11 in 1776, when the British admiral Lord Howe met with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge, as a last attempt to avoid a war with the colonies.

The entire blog is an amazing resource for photobooks about New York City. The entries go back to 2014 and I am sure you'll discover new books. I couldn't find much about the author, other than their name is Sergio. I am going to follow up to see if I can make contact with them. I imagine once I put the feelers out into the network that someone along the chain will have more details.


There are more Google entries on Loomis Sperr but this where I am leaving the story for now. I am sure I can uncover more about his work and about the Crescent Kitchen. Maybe this is just the first chapter in a longer narrative, or perhaps this will be the end of it. Either way, it has been a learning experience, and confirms my hunch about planting creative seeds to see how they grow in the future.

For me, this is the beauty of using art as a way to explore your curiosities. It's a never ending process, and each step of the way will take you in new directions. Always be ready for the surprises.  

The final piece of the puzzle for me was to make a drawing of the January 18th, 2020 walk. I felt it was appropriate to put a big crescent moon in the middle as a symbol. I imagine as I continue to explore mapmaking and drawing that I'll continue to add in more of these personal landmarks and symbols, building my own language.

Map drawing based on my January 18th, 2020 walk in Queens, New York. Ink on Canson Mix Media paper, 9x12 inches. @Bryan Formhals 2021

I don't know if I'll ever make it back to Astoria. It seems so far away at this point but these walks will always have deep personal meaning for me. If I ever do make it back, I think I'll finally have to eat brunch at the Crescent Kitchen. I am curious what will happen once I finally walk through that front door.

That's it. That's the story. Thanks for reading!


Further Reading


I’m a photographer and consultant from Saint Cloud, Minnesota. This is my newsletter on art, walking, and mindfulness. Each issue, I share new work from my projects and try to make connections between ideas, articles and people that fascinate me.

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