Berenice Abbott: The City That Never Sleeps

Berenice Abbott arrived in New York in 1929, leaving her career as a portrait photographer in Paris. 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 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.

In February 1935 Abbott applied to New York City’s Emergency Relief Bureau for funding for a project which would became 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 nancial 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 as 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. Night View, New York has become an iconic image of the city. Taken from a window on one of the top floors of the Empire State Building, Abbott wanted to capture the city in darkness before the office lights were turned off. Using an exposure time of fifteen minutes on her large format camera, the photograph captures the frenetic energy of the city in a formalist study of the geometric shapes created by the Manhattan skyscrapers. The image shows the influence of the formalism of the f/64 group, headed up by Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham, and their meticulous compositional arrangements.

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