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Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York

“The camera alone can catch
the swift surfaces of the
cities today and speaks a
language intelligible to all.”

Berenice Abbott

The work of Greenwich Village photographer Berenice Abbott (July 17, 1898-December 9, 1991) stands as an important bridge between the photographic circles and cultural hubs of Paris and New York. Born in Springfield, Ohio, Abbott moved to Greenwich Village in 1918, meeting and making vital connections with seminal artists of her age. She quickly made friends with some of those involved with the Provincetown Playhouse and was introduced to the inner circle of artists, dancers, poets, and other intellectuals who lived and worked in the Village. She found herself at the center of the contemporary artistic movements then flourishing in the neighborhood. Friendships from that period, included fellow artists Man Ray and  Marcel Duchamp, leaders of the American avant-garde, both of whom were living in the Village at the time, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her relationships with these artists would be life-long, as would Abbott’s relationship with Greenwich Village. The life she led in our neighborhoods was seminal to who she was to become, as well as intrinsic to her work.

Photograph of Berenice Abbott by Walker Evans, Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1921, Abbott moved to Paris and become Man Ray’s studio assistant. Under his tutelage, she would master the art and science of photography.

Berenice Abbott, Washington Square North, 1936

In January 1929, after eight years in Europe, Abbott boarded an ocean liner to New York City for what was meant to be a short visit. Upon arrival, she was struck by the rapid transformation of the built landscape and saw the city as ripe with photographic potential. “When I saw New York again, and stood in the dirty slush, I felt that here was the thing I had been wanting to do all my life,” she recalled. “Old New York is fast disappearing,” Abbott observed. “At almost any point on Manhattan Island, the sweep of one’s vision can take in the dramatic contrasts of the old and the new and the bold foreshadowing of the future. This dynamic quality should be caught and recorded immediately in a documentary interpretation of New York City. The city is in the making and unless this transition is crystalized now in permanent form, it will be forever lost…. The camera alone can catch the swift surfaces of the cities today and speaks a language intelligible to all.”

Berenice Abbott, 14-16 Gay Street

On the eve of the Great Depression, she began a series of documentary photographs of the city that, with the support of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project from 1935 to 1939, debuted in 1939 as the traveling exhibition and publication Changing New York.

With a handheld camera, Abbott traversed the city, photographing its skyscrapers, bridges, elevated trains, and neighborhood street life. She pasted these “tiny photographic notes” into a standard black-page album, arranging them by subject and locale.

Consisting of 266 small black-and-white prints arranged on thirty-two pages, Abbott’s New York album marks a key turning point in her career—from her portrait work in Paris to the urban documentation that became one of her lasting legacies.

From 1935 to 1965, Berenice Abbott and art critic Elizabeth McCausland (1899-1965) lived and worked in two flats they shared on the fourth floor of the loft building at 50 Commerce Street.

Currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is Berenice Abbott’s New York Album, 1929. The exhibition, made possible by The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc. and on view until September 4, 2023, presents a selection of unbound pages from Changing New York, shedding new light on the creative process of one of the great photographic artists of the twentieth century.

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