Documenting “The City That Never Sleeps”

New York City, ‘the city that never sleeps’ as it is famously called, has been lensed by countless photographers over the years, but it is through Berenice Abbott’s documentary approach that some of the best known photographs of the city were created. Abbott, born in Ohio in 1898, is considered one of the central figures in the development of documentary style photography, and one of the crucial names in recording the architecture and citizens of New York City during the early 20th century.

From New York to Paris

In the earlier years of her artistic career, Berenice Abbott studied sculpture in New York City, and it was later when she moved to Paris in 1921 that she was introduced to photography. While in Paris, Abbott became the studio assistant to Man Ray, who wanted someone with no previous knowledge of the medium. Mastering photography and printing techniques while working as an assistant, she quickly grew her own clientele, taking portraits of artists, writers and aristocrats, including James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Cocteau and Peggy Guggenheim.

Abbott and Atget

During this period, she was introduced to the French photographer Eugene Atget, and was struck by the artist’s documentative photographs of Paris’ urban landscape as it was being torn down to make room for the modernization of Paris by Haussmann. After Atget’s death, Abbott bought most of Atget’s negatives and prints, bringing them back to New York upon her return in 1929, which she continuously promoted throughout her life time.

Modernizing Manhattan

Arriving back to New York in 1929, Abbott was struck by the rapid transformation the city was going through.

“At almost any point on Manhattan Island’’ observed Abbott, ‘the sweep of one’s vision can take in the dramatic contrasts of the old and the new and the bold foreshadowing of the future. This dynamic quality should be caught and recorded immediately in a documentary interpretation of New York City. The city is in the making and unless this transition is crystallized now in permanent form, it will be forever lost…. The camera alone can catch the swift surfaces of the cities today and speaks a language intelligible to all.”

Changing New York

New York was in a very difficult state, as the city and the entire country was struggling with what is now known as The Great Depression. From 1929 onwards, Abbott began independently working on a series documenting the city, its architecture and citizens, which later received funding from The Federal Art Project. Between the years 1935 through 1939, Abbott directed her focus solely on this project which resulted in around 300 black and white photographs titled Changing New York. Her work presented the transformation in aesthetically interesting ways to present the essence of the city, and is considered to be one of the monumental achievements of 20th-century photography, with its dramatic depiction of New York City.

Berenice Abbott, New York Stock Exchange
Berenice Abbott, New York Stock Exchange, 1933, Silver Gelatin Photograph

New York Stock Exchange

New York Stock Exchange (executed in 1933, printed later) was one of the photographs that belonged to the Changing New York project. The black and white photograph shows the New York Stock Exchange building in Manhattan from a diagonal, wide view, with the sun lighting up the building. As the photograph is taken from afar, the viewer is able to get a sense of the grandeur of the architecture, and its scale to the pedestrians, creating the sense that the building is towering over the passer by. By using light at a certain angle, Abbott creates the illusion of constant change which allude to the fast pace of the city, a city which she describes as ‘… of incredible contrasts, of stone needles and skyscrapers, the city that is never the same, but always changing.’

Strategic Scaling

The way Abbott explores composition in this photograph and its elements through lines, proportion and distance also creates a certain dramatism within the scene. She leaves the bottom of the photograph blurred, guiding the viewer’s eye towards the central subject; the stock exchange building which appears to have a larger-than-life effect. Such strategic scaling can also be seen as a symbol of New York and the power it held at a time of great transformation when the photograph was taken. Spotlighting the Stock Exchange building, Abbott quite metaphorically underlines the idea of money, and its weight and force over society. New York was the financial capital of the country.

The Straight Photography Movement

Abbott’s Changing New York series is also a key example of the straight photography movement. The movement stressed the importance of photographs being unmanipulated both in its subject matter and developing processes. Abbott believed that a modern day invention, such as the camera should be used to document the very century it was invented in, and therefore document the times. In Photographers on Photography : A Critical Anthology by Nathan Lyons, Abbott elaborates on the idea saying;

‘Like every other means of expression, photography, if it is to be utterly honest and direct, should be related to the life of the times – the pulse of today…The photograph… to merit serious consideration, must be directly connected with the world we live in.’

Her photographs of New York, were, in fact, directly connected to the times. They portrayed scenes of a modern city, a growing metropolis through Abbott’s realist vision.

A Realist Record and a Work of Art

Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York series still remains as some of the best known photographs of the city of the 20th century. A master in documentation, Abbott was one of the very first artists to introduce the idea of how a photograph could be used as both a realist record, and also a work of art. Her crystalline black and white images became an ode to the city which the artist spent the majority of her life living in. Terminating the project in 1939, Abbott moved on to explore different subjects, of which science photography played a large role.

After Changing New York

She also partook in academic work, where she taught photography at The New School for Social Research from 1934 to 1958. Her commitment to straight photography and realism was sealed in the book, A Guide to Better Photography, which she penned in 1941. The work of Berenice Abbott has been included in numerous influential exhibitions of the era including, the Salon de l’escalier, 1928; Fotografie der Gegenwart, 1929; and Photography: 1839–1937, 1938; a solo-exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1932. In 1970, The Museum of Modern Art hosted a career retrospective for the artist. Her work remains as an educational classic for photography historians, and continue to influence future generations of photographers and contemporary artists through its communicative and documentative aesthetic.