Henry Street, New York City Photographed by Berenice Abbott

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Henry Street, New York City Photographed by Berenice Abbott
Berenice Abbott, 'Henry Street', 29 November 1935
Henry Street, New York City Photographed by Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott's project, 'Changing New York', was made as a homage to the city and its inhabitants. But it was also a politically-motivated impeachment against the capitalist expansion that endured in New York despite the misery experienced by millions during the Depression. . 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.

Abbott contrasted the tenements of poor neighbourhood around Henry Street with the towering skyscrapers of the Municipal Building and the Woolworth Building to bring attention to the financial extremes of the city during the Depression. Abbott used a long lens to create the illusion that the skyscrapers were closer than they really were. She used the same effect with the Manhattan Bridge in Pike and Henry Street.

In an effort to improve the impoverished area, the social reformer Jacob Riis built ‘model tenements’ on Henry Street that Abbott also photographed. The tenements on Pike and Henry streets were built to house the fast swelling migrant population. Abbott’s researchers focused on social reform in the Lower East Side and wrote of the legacy of Riis’ canonical book How the Other Half Lives: ‘Whether or not Riis knew it would take the form of government subsidies for low-rent housing, the “other half” is about to get the break he hoped for.’ Riis was a precursor of twentieth-century documentary photographers and sought to show the squalid conditions in which much of the city lived. Although Abbott and Riis similarly critiqued lower class living conditions, whereas Riis would photograph inside the homes of poor families, Abbott always represented the larger scope of the city when addressing social issues. In the 1970s the view from Henry Street was altered entirely by the addition of the World Trade Center to Lower Manhattan.

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