Berenice Abbott, Changing New York

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Berenice Abbott, Changing New York
Berenice Abbott, 'Manhattan Bridge, Lower East Side, New York', 1937
Berenice Abbott, Changing New York

The urban sprawl of New York caught hold of Berenice Abbott’s imagination and she devoted herself to capturing the ‘fantastic’ contrasts of the rapidly changing city. She wanted to create ‘an American art’ and was inspired by Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs and their evocation of a moment of American history. She was, however, also aware of the tendency in American art to document progress. Rather than glorifying the technological advancement of the city through the depiction of skyscrapers and monumental construction projects, Abbott sought to expose the extreme contrasts of the city and the tensions that had evolved. She wanted to show the nineteenth and twentieth centuries colliding in a dizzying interplay of cultures.

‘I am an American, who, after eight years’ residence in Europe, came back to America with new eyes. I have just realised America – its extraordinary potentialities, its size, its youth, its unlimited material for the photographic art, its state of flux particularly as applying to the city of New York… I feel keenly the neglect of American material by American artists… America to be interpreted honestly must be approached with love void of sentimentality, and not solely with criticism and irony.’

Abbott bought a Century-Universal view camera that used large 8 x 10 inch negatives and required a tripod. This allowed her to take photographs with the high level of detail she desired. She began to conceptualise a project in which she would photograph the city and its changing character. She sought funding in 1931 from the Museum of the City of New York and then from the New York Historical Society but both turned her down. She survived on freelance magazine work and occasional print sales but became increasingly desperate for funding so that she could pay for materials and the salaries of research assistants for her project. She asked seventy-five wealthy patrons to each part with $250 but she had no success and even received one letter from a Wall Street lawyer, Samuel Untermyer stating ‘with a large part of this population of this City almost starving… projects of this kind can await more auspicious times’.

In February 1935 Abbott applied to New York City’s Emergency Relief Bureau for funding. In her proposal she said that ‘to photograph New York City means to seek to catch in the sensitive and delicate photographic emulsion the spirit of the metropolis, while remaining true to its essential fact, its hurrying tempo, its congested streets, the past jostling the future’. In September the Federal Arts Project (FAP) replaced the agency and Abbott’s application was accepted. Forming part of the Works Progress Administration, the FAP was instigated to provide financial relief for artists. By 1936 it employed 5,000 painters, sculptors, muralists and photographers. Abbott was to be a project supervisor with a monthly salary of $145. She was the only photographer on the programme assigned her own staff.

In April 1936 Abbott started calling the project ‘Changing New York’. It was as much about the old city as the new metropolis and Abbott always had Eugene Atget’s vision of the historic sites of Paris in mind whilst photographing the city. Her interactions with her researchers were often tense and confused as their goals differed. Whereas her researchers thought the project aimed to produce the optimal photographic record of the city, Abbott wanted to ‘aim at realism, but not at the cost of sacrificing all aesthetic factors’. Abbott’s New York photographs show an acute awareness of compositional placing, the spacing of buildings and figures always carefully arranged. Abbott conceptualised the project as a photographic ‘portrait’ of the city and worked with the same fastidious documentary precision as her contemporaries Walker Evans and Dorothea who were also employed under the auspices of the New Deal administration. It is a homage to the city and its inhabitants but also a politically-motivated impeachment against the capitalist expansion that endured in New York despite the misery experienced by millions during the Depression.

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