‘Waiterless Restaurants’ in New York, Photographed by Berenice Abbott

The urban sprawl of New York caught hold of Berenice Abbott’s imagination and she devoted herself to capturing the ‘fantastic’ contrasts of the rapidly changing city. 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 bought a Century-Universal view camera that used large 8 x 10 inch negatives and required a tripod. This allowed her to take photographs with the high level of detail she desired. She began to conceptualise a project in which she would photograph the city and its changing character.

‘Waiterless restaurants’ became popular during the Depression, serving as many as 800,000 meals in New York and Philadelphia. The automats provided convenient, inexpensive food and Abbott photographed one that was known as the late night haunt of musicians and cabaret-goers. The photograph is Abbott’s alternative view of modern New York life, showing the Deco-style windows receding on sharp diagonals. The fast-food chain quickly replaced the New York automat although the last one did not close until 1991.

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