Berenice Abbott: A Portrait of the City

Leaving her successful career as a portrait photographer in Paris behind, Berenice Abbott arrived in New York in 1929. She found New York in the midst of its second great building boom but only months after her return, the stock market crashed and the United States began to spiral into the Great Depression. The urban sprawl of New York caught hold of 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 Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs and their evocation of a moment in American history. She was, however, also aware of the tendency in American art to document progress. Rather than glorifying the 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.

In February 1935 Abbott applied to New York City’s Emergency Relief Bureau for funding for a project which would become known as Changing New York. 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 and by 1936 it employed 5,000 artists. Abbott was the only photographer on the programme assigned her own staff. She conceptualised the project as a photographic ‘portrait’ of the city and worked with the same fastidious documentary precision of her contemporaries Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, also employed under the auspices of the New Deal administration.

The historic significance and artistic merit of Abbott’s New York photographs from the 1930s has made them the work for which she is best remembered. Fifth Avenue Houses is an exercise in scale as Abbott grappled with New York’s urban sprawl. Abbott documents the residential buildings which were typical of New York’s early architectural style, preserving them against the rapidly increasing landscape of skyscrapers which were to take over Lower Manhattan. The composition of the photograph is meticulously arranged to provide scale and atmosphere of the city surroundings. Changing New York was the first of several series that Abbott would produce during her career that would document the American landscape.

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