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Changing New York: Photographs by Berenice Abbott, 1935-1938

Hundreds of black and white photographs by Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) from her Changing New York Works Progress Administration/ Federal Art Project. The Library's collection holds about 80% of the project's 302 images; this presentation includes variant and discarded images, plus other work Abbott produced as a project employee.

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Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, Manhattan, October 03, 1935. Digital ID: 482799 Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, Manhattan, October 03, 1935. Digital ID: 482799

Collection History

The Library's Changing New York archive contains more than 2,200 duplicate and variant prints representing about three-quarters of the 302 images contained in Abbott's definitive version of the project. The Library's holding also contains images that continue the project's negative numbering but fall outside its scope. These anomalous images are included here for historical and pictorial purposes. The Library's archive contains contact and enlarged prints, primarily from the 1930s, from several sources within NYPL that were united in 1989, supplemented by occasional purchases and generous gifts beginning in 1988 :

  • Two hundred thirty prints acquired from the Federal Art Project in the 1930s by the Local History & Genealogy Division <http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/lhg/genea.html> for the "New York City Views File," a self-indexing file of 60,000+ photographs arranged by street location which also appears in Digital Gallery
  • More than five hundred single and duplicate prints received by the Picture Collection <http://www.nypl.org/branch/central/mml/pc/index.html> from the Federal Art Project in the 1930s and arranged in self-indexing files by neighborhood and subject
  • Over seventeen hundred prints, primarily duplicates, received by the Picture Collection from the files of the Federal Art Project when it disbanded in 1943
  • Approximately one hundred prints donated by Ronald A. Kurtz in the late 1980s and early 1990s, primarily portfolio prints and file prints from Abbott's own archive
  • Occasional prints purchased with the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Purchase Fund

Support from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1991-1992 enabled a computerized inventory of the individual prints-titles, dates, sizes, physical characteristics such as various hand-stamps, additional inscriptions, paper weight and types, print quality, and preservation condition. The images also received subject entries at this time. Information extracted from this database describes the particular prints presented in this digital collection .

Background

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 .

Related Resources

Abbott, Berenice and Elizabeth McCausland. Changing New York. (1939) [reprinted 1973 as New York in the Thirties]

Levere, Douglas. New York Changing. (2004)

Museum of the City of New York "Berenice Abbott's Changing New York" (1998). <http://www.mcny.org/collections/abbott/abbott.htm>

New York Public Library. Berenice Abbott, Photographer: A Modern Vision; A Selection of Photographs and Essays. (1989)

O'Neal, Hank. Berenice Abbott, American photographer. (c1982)

Yochelson, Bonnie. Berenice Abbott: Changing New York. (c1997)

Library Division(s)

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