Photo Histories
The Photographers' History of Photography

TITLE: Changing New York
BY: Berenice Abbott
PUBLISHED: 1939, E.P.Dutton, New York
SIZE: 285×220 mm

Changing New York

Inspired by Eugène Atget’s thirty year documentation of disappearing Paris, Berenice Abbot photographed the architecture of New York during the city’s building boom of the 1930s. Although compromised the resulting book remains a landmark publication in the history of American documentary photography.

Uselfishly Berenice Abbott used her position in American photography to promote the work of those she admired.

She played an important role advocating the work of Lewis Hine and Mathew Brady who she saw as precursors of modern documentary photography. Her main advocacy, though, was for the Frenchman Eugène Atget who she met in Paris shortly before his death.

Berenice Abbott devoted her time to many photographic causes. These included sitting on the advisory board of the influential, but ill-fated New York Photo League with Paul Strand and Margaret Bourke-White, and teaching for 24 years at the progressive New School in Greenwich Village, where she was instrumental in establishing one of the first photography departments at an American university.

Born in Springfield, Ohio in 1898, Berenice Abbott moved to New York in 1918. She settled in Greenwich Village where she established herself as a sculptor. Her work was admired by Marcel Duchamp who introduced her to Man Ray.

In 1921 Abbott joined the bohemian exodus for Paris, at the time centre of the avant-garde and where Man Ray had established a thriving photographic studio in the district of Montparnasse. Wanting a helper who knew nothing of photography Man Ray offered Abbott the job of darkroom assistant.

Although starting as a complete novice it wasn’t long before the assistant was as successful as the master, and artistic Parisians asked to be photographed, not just by Man Ray, but by Berenice Abbott as well.

With his solarisation and dark room creativity, Man Ray saw himself as a Surrealist. Abbot opted for an objective style which, perhaps, even then shows the influence of the old man who survived by selling prints from a first floor room a few doors down la rue Campagne-Première from Man Ray’s fashionable studio.

The discovery of Eugène Atget is credited to number of artists including Man Ray, Giorgio de Chirico and Berenice Abbott. However it was Abbott who had the most lasting influence on his legacy, not least because she took much of Atget’s work to New York after his death.

For three decades, Eugène Atget had documented Paris as the last vestiges of pre-Haussmann architecture in the city was demolished (the defeat and persecution of the Communards in 1871 was said to have been swift because Haussmann’s wide avenues made barricades ineffective. Medieval architecture was problematic for the Third Republic).

By ignoring the popular soft romantic pictorialism favoured in early twentieth century, Atget was to become one of the precurosrs of the modern movement in photography. Not that that was his intention. His primary objective was to record in pragmatic detail the architecture of old Paris before it vanished for good, an enterprise he financed by selling his prints as “Documents pour Artists” – reference prints for artists, libraries and museums.

But it was Berenice Abbott who recognised the artistic significance in Atget’s life work. When he died in 1927 she borrowed a sizeable amount of money to buy many of his negatives and prints from his actor friend André Calmette, who had inherired them from the photographer.

Changing New York ? On 1st February 2008 New York photojournalist Olya Evanitsky stood where Berenice Abbott had stood exactly seventy years earlier to photograph what was the Glass-brick and Brownstone Fronts of 209-211 East 48th Street . Although number 211 (centre right) still stands as it did in 1938, 209 has been remodelled, and 207 (far left) is now a tower block watched by security cameras, Olya says February days in Manhattan are probably as wet and overcast as they have always been.

Abbott enjoyed a more high profile career than Atget as a successful portraitist in the French capital. But after eight years in Europe she decided to return to New York (who’s materialism she had originally fled) just as the skyscraper boom was transforming the nineteenth century port into an Art Deco metropolis.

Money was available for artists and the burgeoning economy was drawing them back to the city. On her return to New York City, Berenice Abbott brought with her 20 crates containing 1,400 of Atget’s glass plate negatives, 7,800 of his prints, and a new way of seeing the urban landscape.

“America to be interpreted honestly must be approached with love void of sentimentality,” declared Abbott who with renewed enthusiasm for her homeland pointed out that American artists had neglected American subjects.

But her idea of documenting New York in the way Atget had documented Paris foundered. The stock market crash came in October 1929 and years were to pass before she got the hoped for financial support. Atget had walked the streets of Paris with a hand cart and sold prints to survive, Abbott did not choose such an option.

Nor to her credit did she wish to compromise to solicit the support of Alfred Steiglitz, then the controlling deity of the American photographic world. When Steiglitz sniffed at Atget’s prints, Abbot responded by describing Steiglitz’s work as “small, dull photographs of clouds.”

Still struggling for support for her own work, Berenice Abbott began teaching at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village. The school was founded in 1919 as a progressive alternative to traditional college education. Abbott was to teach there for nearly a quarter of a century, retiring in 1958.

In the summer of 1934 Abbott worked with the architectural historian Henry Russell Hitchcock for six weeks broadening her understanding of American architecture and refining her documentary style of photography. Four years earlier she had started using a large format 10×8 inch view camera, a device cumbersom enough to almost guarantee the elimination of sentimentality.

In October 1934 she had a major one-artist exhibition New York Photographs by Berenice Abbott at the Museum of the City of New York. Criticism was positive with the most perceptive review coming from the art critic of the Springfield Republican a progressive Massachusetts newspaper. Elizabeth McCausland not only praised Abbott’s self-control in the handling of the big city theme but identified the paradox of modern documentary photography – that restraint enhances expressiveness.

Finally the backing Abbott had been seeking for so long was secured from two sources – the the Museum of the City of New York, where her work had been exhibited, and the Federal Art Project (FAP). The FAP was a department of the Works Progress Administration which provided public employment for the unemployed as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal solution to the Great Depression.

Under the FAP program art works were produced which were then loaned to schools, libraries and galleries to educate, and to encourage appreciation of the nation’s art. Of course it also provided employment for artists.

Suddnenly Abbot found herself assigned her own staff of assistants and researchers. Although this was to prove problematic at times, she now had funding to support her great project. She was even provided with a 1930 Ford Roadster to get her and her equipment, and her assistants, around the city.

In October 1937 Berenice Abbott had a second exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, this time with 111 images – twice the size of her previous show. This was followed by a six page feature in Life magazine published on January 3rd 1938. Entitled A Woman Photographs the Face of a Changing City the piece featured a small photograph of Abbot in a dark woolly hat and a half page image plus five full page reproductions, among which is a photograph of the window of Mandaro’s Cheese Store at 276 Bleeker Street, which is pure Atget.

Growing conservatism in the late 1930s led Congress to make savage cut backs in the FAP budget, but as the project’s fortunes crumbled Abbott’s rose. The art historian Beaumont Newhall, who had written the catalogue for the seminal MoMA exhibition Photography 1839-1937, had become a keen advocate of her work. Then, anticipation of the New York World’s Fair in 1939 brought about a mini publishing boom in the city and a publisher was found for Abbott’s document of the changing city.

Only Abbott’s FAP images could be used in the book. The text and design was given to Elizabeth McCausland, the sympathetic critic of Abbott’s work and with whom she now lived in Greenwich Village. But the publishers, E.P. Dutton rejected much of McCausland’s more esoteric input and opted for the feel of a conventional city guide book.

The picture editing of the book brought Abbot’s 305 chosen images down to 100. Conventional photographs of the Rockerfeller Centre replaced offbeat shots of street lights and barber shops. Then at the last minute three more images were cut, leaving the book with 97 photographs.

However, Dutton, who had not consulted on the final layout seemed content to hand the cover design to Abbott who put the title and author’s name over the blow up of a wall that was one of the rejected images. Changing New York was published in April 1939. At the same time an exhibition of Abbott’s work opened at the Federal Art Gallery.

In 1943 with the war ensuring there was enough employment, the Federal Art Project was closed down, and all of Abbott’s negatives were placed in the archive of the Museum of the City of New York.

In 1968 Berenice Abbott sold her entire collection of Eugène Atget’s work to the Museum of Modern Art (which in 2002 made $20 million selling surplus Atget prints over the internet to fund new purchases). A further two major projects dominated her later life – the demonstration of scientific principles and a chronicle of Route 1, the road that runs from Florida to Maine (which today, not without irony, is lined with traffic cameras).

When Elizabeth McCausland died in 1965 Abbot moved from the Greenwich Village loft they had shared for 30 years to Main, where she died in 1991, at the age of 93.

Inspired by constructivist forms and a love of man-made structures and functional objects like petrol pumps and shop front advertisements, Berenice Abbott in Changing New York rejected the human form for what mankind had created. She believed that through photographing these objects she could say as much about humanity as she could by recording the lines on a person’s face.

• The Changing New York archive is housed at The Museum of the City of New York.

• The article A Fantastic Passion for New York by Bonnie Yochelson, which was on the MCNY web site, provided much useful information for this review.

New York in the Thirties as photographed by Berenice Abbott (1973) from Dover Publications, uses Abbott’s original images beautifully and features one of her finest photographs on the cover.

Changing New York was photographed at Christie’s, London in May 2007. Photograph © 2008 Olya Evanitsky. Text © 2007 Graham Harrison.

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