If you were an American artist or writer in the 1920s, Paris was where you wanted to be. The Springfield, Ohio-born photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) arrived there on her way to New York in 1921, and by early 1929 she was able to establish herself in the French capital – working first as an assistant to Man Ray and later to James Enlightenment figures such as Joyce and Jonah Burns took their own portraits. She even changed the spelling of her name from “Bernice” to the more Gaelic “Berenice”.
Yet this magnet for cultural expatriates loses its hold the moment Abbott sets foot in Lower Manhattan—on a blustery January day, no less—at the start of a brief trip back to the United States. He had only lived in New York once, eight years earlier, but the city had grown in his absence: new skyscrapers were rising, the population was exploding, and every block seemed to be bustling with commerce and construction. (The market crash of October 1929 was still many months away). Suddenly Paris left. “When I saw New York again, and was standing in the dirty slush,” he later recalled, “I felt that this is where I wanted to be all my life.”
“Berenice Abbott’s New York Album, 1929,” A small but inspiring show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, channeled the euphoria Abbott felt upon arriving in the city. The focus of the exhibition is a disbound scrapbook with seven to nine photographs per page, all taken over the course of the year Abbott paced the streets (and on piers, bridges and train platforms) with camera in hand, and was obliged to take new photographs. York’s haphazard, cutthroat modernism.
With 32 pages of small contact prints processed in drugstores and commercial labs (or, as Abbott calls them, “little photographic notes”), the album can be seen as a rough draft of his well-known Works Progress Administration project of the 1930s, “New York changes(Several examples of the latter series are in the Met show, including a disturbingly ethereal view of Seventh Avenue taken from the top of a 46-story building in the Garment District.) But Abbott’s “New York Album” is a fascinating work of art in its own right, one of artist and subject. Adrenalized and ambitious alignment.
Abbott felt the changing city needed an equivalent French photographer Eugene Atgate (1857–1927), who documented Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a period of momentous change in what Abbott called “the shock of unsophisticated realism”. He came to New York as part of a passionate effort to promote Atget, which included purchasing the photographer’s archive after his death and making his own prints from his glass-plate negatives; On the “New York Album” he went even further, virtually becoming his successor.
The Met’s exhibition includes a number of Atget’s photographs from the museum’s collection, which Abbott admired; It shows an early automobile garage in the fifth arrondissement, where a Renault was parked in a stone courtyard. A similar appreciation for old clashing with new can be seen throughout Abbott’s “New York Album,” in shots of skyscrapers atop rows of tenements and, in another subtle and almost surreal case, an overhead view of an equestrian statue. Photo taken from Ninth Avenue L.
Although the album is not strictly organized by location, it does have a distinct map. Abbott gravitated to some neighborhoods that showed the face of the new city for him. Many of them were in Lower Manhattan; Several pages are devoted to the Lower East Side, where he was drawn to storefronts and their simultaneously poetic and transactional connotations, and to the Financial District, where he often pointed his camera skyward to exaggerate the terrifying height of new corporate towers.
Unlike peers Walker Evans, he didn’t take much interest in people – or, at least, in individuals. To him the city was a human construct and humanity lay in every part of it. “When you’re photographing a city you’re photographing people,” he explained in one A film based on television “You don’t have to have a person in it,” about her life.
As Abbott biographer He was, he noted, influenced by the French literary movement of Unitarianism, which emphasized collective consciousness and expression. You can especially sense this in his shots of the city’s elevated train system, which enjoys the formal modernism of all interlaced steel and cast iron without sacrificing the functionality of moving millions of people.
As an extension of the exhibit, the Met created an auxiliary Digital map which identifies some of the subjects in Abbott’s album and updates them with contemporary photographs (a collaboration between the Met Curator of Photography who organized the exhibition, Mia Fineman, and the Jones Family Research Collective, led by Manhattan Borough Historian Emeritus, Celedonia Jones, until his death last April). It reveals, for example, that the site of a burlesque theater on Houston Street that Abbott photographed is now a Whole Foods.
Visitors to the exhibition may spend a lot of time testing their own knowledge of the city’s geography, but the pleasures of the show have more to do with the drive and dynamics behind the images. “Berenice Abbott’s New York Album, 1929” takes us back to an evocative moment in the city’s history, captured by a budding modern artist.
During his upbringing in Ohio, Abbott planned to become a journalist — he attended Ohio State University’s School of Journalism before going into the industry — and it’s clear from his photography that he never lost his instinct to want to be where the story was. As early as 1929 he recognized New York was big story; Seeing his “New York Album” gives us hope that it can happen again.
Berenice Abbott’s New York album, 1929
Through September 4, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, 212-535-7710; metmuseum.org.