Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York

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This article was originally featured in tmrw magazine #22.

A mechanical metropolis, the New York skyline provides a lasting impression to all that have witnessed it. Providing a backdrop to countless TV and film productions it’s a landscape that is burned into our collective consciousness. At one point in time those famed skyscrapers were brand new and New York was changing. That was Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York.

Born in Springfield, Ohio in 1898, Abbott grew up modestly, raised by her single mother. She later enrolled at Ohio State University to study journalism. Within a two-week period Abbott had befriended Sue Jenkins and already become disenchanted with the university system. Obviously the joys of Freshers Fairs and ‘Where’s Wally?’ Nights had yet to become the custom, so it is understandable. Her friend Jenkins soon left the university to move to New York. She encouraged Abbott to join her, even loaning her the $20 train fare needed to get there. On arrival in New York she was adopted by a bohemian demi-monde, which included Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, the pioneering leaders of the Dada movement, the popular artistic movement at the time. During these early years she worked several menial jobs and developed an interest in sculpture. Although she had built up a series of influential connections her sculptures were not proving to be as profitable as she hoped.

Growing tired of New York, she purchased a one-way ticket to Paris in the hope that the French population were happier to open their portefeuilles. They were not. After a year she moved to Berlin before later returning to the French capital, where she had a chance reunion with her old friend Man Ray. He expressed his difficulties finding a good darkroom assistant. Requiring someone without knowledge of photography, one he could shape and mould – the perfect description of Abbott at the time. She was given the job and so began her storied photography career. Initially Abbott had no intention of becoming anything but a good darkroom assistant but as she conducted her tasks she soon found herself enjoying the art of photography. She quickly set off on her own, spending her breaks discovering the photographic techniques which would become synonymous with her work. Paying Man Ray for supplies she soon began to build up clientele that rivalled his. This caused arguments between the pair with Berenice resigning from her post as a result. Financed by donations from the socialites of the time she converted part of her home into a studio and took head shots of local celebrities including Coco Chanel and James Joyce. In Paris her work flourished, but this time was soon to come to an end.

In 1929, after reading of the recent developments back in her homeland, Berenice returned to New York. What she found astounded her. The city had grown tremendously, with its landscape rapidly transformed. Inspired by the photography of the great Eugène Atget, whose work she tirelessly championed, she sought to chronicle the aesthetic evolution of her surroundings. And so began the start of what would become her magnum opus, Changing New York. Seen as an ode to her French hero, for several years she financed the series herself, taking jobs as a photography teacher as well as commercial jobs to get by. But with money tight due to the onset of Great Depression she soon realised she didn’t have the financial capabilities to give her project the conclusion it deserved.

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Dedicated to continuing her chronological crusade she applied and received funding from the Federal Arts Project in the form of a monthly salary of $145, a number of assistants, a secretary and a car. Now working with a team, she was able to devote herself to the project. It soon developed to becoming a sociological study embedded within a modernist aesthetic medium as she documented the city’s changing urban landscape. Focusing primarily on architectural details and shot from at times dizzying perspectives, the images provide a remarkably thorough record of the city at the time. She eschewed the pointlessly pretty in favour of what she described as the “fantastic” contrasts between an old and the new. Like all good things though, this couldn’t go on forever. Fours years and 305 photographs later the FAP funding was depleted and Abbott decided to conclude this chapter of her life, moving into scientific photography.

Berenice Abbot died in 1991, leaving behind an astounding legacy that spanned decades and mediums. Regarded as a feminist icon before that was even a thing she once remarked that "The world doesn't like independent women, why, I don't know, but I don't care". The embodiment of independence, she single-handedly brought Atget’s work to the masses as well as produced what Ralph Steiner described as "the greatest collection of photographs of New York City ever made". A big win for independent women everywhere.

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Daniel Eggleston