Berenice Abbott is best remembered as having produced the most important visual archive of the modernization of New York. Her “Changing New York” photographic essay is considered to be the seminal study of any developing American city. Abbott began her studies in the U.S. then traveled to Paris, Berlin, and back to New York at the end of the 1920s. In Paris, she worked as the studio assistant of American artist, Man Ray, who would be a lasting influence. While working in Man Ray’s studio, Abbott was introduced to the photographer Eugene Atget, further inspiring and influencing her aesthetic. After Atget’s death, Abbott, so mesmerized by Atget’s collection of photographs chronicling the modernization of Paris, returns to NYC in January of 1929 in an attempt to find a way to save his archive. She finds her own passionate photographic essay subject, the rising skyscraper landscape of New York City. Inspired by Atget, Abbott pursues a series she entitles “Changing New York.” This project aims to preserve the 19th-century buildings as well as to document the evolving modernization of New York City into a world-class metropolis of the 20th century. After tirelessly looking for the funding to realize her project and being turned down by all private individuals, the series was made possible with the eventual support of the Works Progress Administration. This comprehensive photo essay would immortalize New York City.
“The new things that had cropped up in eight years, the sights of the city, the human gesture here sent me mad with joy, and I decided to come back to America for good.” – Berenice Abbott
Born in Ohio, Berenice Abbott attended Ohio State University before embarking for Europe to further pursue an education in the arts. In Paris, she would work as an assistant in Man Ray’s studio. After impressing Man Ray with her natural aptitude for photography, he allowed her to use his studio to create her work. Abbott begins to craft her own aesthetic, eventually exhibiting with Man Ray and André Kertész in Paris in 1928 at the Premier Salon Indépendant de la Photographie. Once back in New York, fresh from Europe and seeing America with a newfound perspective, Berenice Abbott realized the potential to record the changing American landscape.
“I have just realized America – its extraordinary potentialities, its size, its youth, its unlimited material for the photographic art, its state of flux particularly as applying to the city of New York… I feel keenly the neglect of American material by American artists… America to be interpreted honestly must be approached with love void of sentimentality, and not solely with criticism and irony.” – Berenice Abbott
Her image, Broadway to the Battery, taken from above the Irving Trust Company building in 1938, benefitted from being photographed with a box camera. The camera uses a large negative that could capture detail with precision, giving a sense of the magnitude of the city. The image has a dynamic perspective and compresses space to show the new, monumental American architecture. The horizon, with the statue of liberty acting as a marquee on its harbor, nurtures the incoming immigrants from Europe and foreshadows the flourishing the city would experience in the coming century. Broadway to the Battery presents Broadway Avenue, particularly a passage known colloquially as the Canyon of Heroes, that has become the stage for triumph and achievement. It is where ticker-tape parades highlight the most notable achievements of the nation. This stretch of the avenue is where American troops were first received coming home victorious from both world wars, as well as the astronauts from the Apollo missions. It is still today used for current celebrations.
“The camera is no more an instrument of preservation; the image is.” – Berenice Abbott
Berenice Abbott’s photograph, Broadway to the Battery, is a unique, early vintage photograph printed by her in 1938. Most of Abbott’s available photos are modern prints, printed and edited in the 1970s. The image has the Federal Art Project’s stamp on verso as well as notations, place, angle, and dating. Berenice Abbott’s photographs of the changing urban landscape in the 1930s serve as a paragon of American historical and cultural endowment. These photographs are the most significant visual records we have of the rise of what becomes America’s most powerful city.