I STILL DON’T HAVE A CAMERA. I was all set to go to B&H this 93-degree morning (it’s the New York City camera store for professionals and regular folk alike). Turns out they were closed for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.
Radio Row on Cortlandt Street, near the World Trade Center site
Meanwhile, in the course of researching “best cameras for bloggers,” I read a New York Times article that led me to A Continuous Lean, a blog “about things” by Michael Williams. A few weeks back, he posted a group of Berenice Abbott’s black-and-white photographs from a Depression-era series called “Changing New York,” funded by the Federal Art Project.
It’s invaluable documentation, to be sure, and it’s an almost unbearably nostalgic look back at New York City in the days when the Empire State Building was new and, despite the ‘homeless huts’ (on Mercer Street, yet!), almost anything seemed possible.
Oyster houses under the Manhattan Bridge (and I guess those are oyster shells!)
The collection is in the New York Public Library archives, and can be seen online in its entirety. Some can be viewed, with descriptions, as a slideshow on Flickr. Many of Abbott’s images are famous, like the ones showing slanting rays of light penetrating the dusty interior of the old Penn Station, and the window of a bakery in Little Italy with loaves of still-warm bread fogging up the glass. But beyond the iconic, much-published images, there are many that were new to me (when I looked through all 300+ of them), and revelatory.
Maybe I relate to Abbott because she didn’t take many pictures of people. She loved the monumentality of skyscrapers, the shadows cast by bridges and elevated train tracks, the etched facades of a row of brownstones late in the day, the jumble of merchandise in store windows, the brashness of advertising signs.
I suddenly thought, hey, I want those on my blog, too! Who needs a camera?
Fifth Avenue and 44th Street
Hester Street, Lower East Side
Talman Street (which no longer exists) between Jay and Bridge Streets, Brooklyn
Read about Abbott’s Bohemian life below:
Photographer Berenice Abbott proposed Changing New York, her grand project to document New York City, to the Federal Art Project (FAP) in 1935. The FAP was a Depression-era government program for unemployed artists and workers in related fields such as advertising, graphic design, illustration, photofinishing, and publishing. A changing staff of more than a dozen participated as darkroom printers, field assistants, researchers and clerks on this and other photographic efforts. Abbott’s efforts resulted in a book in 1939, in advance of the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow NY, with 97 illustrations and text by Abbott’s fellow WPA employee (and life companion), art critic Elizabeth McCausland (1899-1965). At the project’s conclusion, the FAP distributed complete sets of Abbott’s final 302 images to high schools, libraries and other public institutions in the metropolitan area, plus the State Library in Albany. Throughout the project, exhibitions of the work took place in New York and elsewhere. After decades of lapse, the founding of the National Endowment of the Arts in 1965 revived the FAP’s ideals .
Abbott was born and raised in Ohio where she endured an erratic family life. In 1918, after two semesters at Ohio State University, she left to join friends associated with the Provincetown Players, in Greenwich Village. There she met Djuna Barnes, Kenneth Burke, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Little Review editors Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, and other influential modernists. From 1919-1921, while studying sculpture, Abbott supported herself as an artist’s model, posing for photographers Nikolas Muray and Man Ray. She also met Marcel Duchamp, and participated in Dadaist publications.
Abbott moved to Paris in 1921, where she continued to study sculpture (and in Berlin), and to support herself by modeling. During 1923-1926, she worked as Man Ray’s darkroom assistant (he had also relocated to Paris) and tried portrait photography at his suggestion. Abbott’s first solo exhibition, in 1926, launched her career. In 1928 she rescued and began to promote Eugène Atget’s photographic work, calling his thirty years of Parisian streetscapes and related studies “realism unadorned. ”
In 1929 Abbott took a new artistic direction to tackle the scope (if not the scale) of Atget’s achievement in New York City. During 1929-38, she photographed urban material culture and the built environment of New York, documenting the old before it was torn down and recording new construction. From 1934-58, she also taught photography at the New School. During 1935-39, Abbott worked as a “supervisor” for the Federal Art Project to create Changing New York (her free-lance work and New School teaching commitment made her ineligible for unemployment relief) .
From 1939-60, Abbott photographed scientific subjects, concluding with her notable illustrations for the MIT-originated Physical Sciences Study Committee’s revolutionary high school physics course. In 1954, she photographed along the length of US 1; the work never found a publisher. In 1968, Abbott sold the Atget archive to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and moved permanently to her home in central Maine (bought in 1956 and restored over several decades) .
1970 saw Abbott’s first major retrospective exhibition, at the Museum of Modern Art. Her first retrospective portfolio appeared in 1976, and she received the International Center of Photography’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989. She died at home in Monson, Maine in December 1991 .