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Berenice Abbott

Text from Bonnie Yochelson, Berenice Abbott: Changing New York

The FAP gave Abbott what she most desired: a weekly salary of $145 that allowed her to photograph New York City full-time. By giving her a staff, the FAP acknowledged that she could not work "in the spirit of the news photographer who rushes up to a fire, presses a button, and rushes back to the darkroom to develop his film, that she needed time-and sometimes advance permission-to select her subjects, and that she needed physical help carrying sixty pounds of equipment through the city's streets. Abbott's other needs were not ideally met. She was assigned less technical assistants and more research assistants than she requested. Administration was not Abbott's forte, and she resented the extra time and energy that her swollen ranks required. Abbott had also asked for a car, which she deemed an essential; not until November 1936, after fourteen months' work, was she allotted a 1930 Ford Sport Roadster, which brought with it a $38-33 per week raise for maintenance. She also sought a recent model miniature camera, urgently required for certain types of work ... if the photograph is to have ...spontaneity." Not until mid-1938 did she obtain two small-format cameras, a Linhof and a Rolleiflex.

Abbott's bureaucratic problems, however, were relatively mild and were often resolved in her favor. Once when she was struggling to procure supplies, she complained to Cahill at a dinner, not knowing of his appointment as FAP national director. To her embarrassment and the mirth of others, his status was revealed and her difficulties soon disappeared. Like all FAP artists, Abbott bemoaned the requirement that she sign in at the FAP's midtown headquarters-a requirement ill-suited to the work habits of most artists. Opposition to timekeeping engendered a bureaucratic battle that pitted Cahill and McMahon against WPA authorities. Abbott, however, was eventually allowed to transfer the locus of her project to her Commerce Street studio, and thereby to avoid the midtown sign-in.

Once the project began, Abbott devised an "Outline for Photographing New York City." Although it was not until April 1936 that she named the project Changing New York, Abbott always considered the documentation of change her central theme. Introducing the outline, she wrote:

How shall the two-dimensional print in black and white suggest the flux of activity of the metropolis, the interaction of human beings and solid architectural constructions, all impinging upon each other in time?
Abbott rejected the obvious solution of capturing fleeting gestures with a small, hand-held camera. She also dismissed the "architectural rendering of detail [with] the buildings Of 1935 overshadowing all else." Instead, she wished to "show the skyscraper in relation to the less colossal edifices which preceded it ... the past jostling the present."

Abbott's thinking about cities reflected the influence of Lewis Mumford's Sticks and Stones, a widely read book, first published in 1924, after a series of lectures at the New School, and reissued in 1933. Rejecting an aesthetic reading of architecture, Mumford espoused a sociological analysis that sought to explain the relation of "the shell itself to the informing changes that ... take place in the life of the community itself." He organized his study of civilizations in three parts: the place, the work, and the people. Abbott adopted the identical three-part organization in her outline: "material aspect," "means of life," and "people and how they live."

Abbott's outline was not just a theoretical construct but a plan of work. Material Aspect was divided into buildings-historical, picturesque, architecturally significant, and deluxe-and city squares. Within each subcategory, such as "picturesque buildings," Abbott listed topics, such as frame dwellings, and specific sites, such as "old saloon interior, 138th St. and Third Ave." Occasionally, she editorialized: under "city squares" she noted, "Not postcard views!"

Means of Life was divided into three parts: Transportation (land, water, rapid transit, and airways); Communications (mail, phone, and telegraph); and Service of Supplies (food, water, heat, and light). The third section-People and How They Live-was divided into seven sections: Types; City Scenes (street, night, and civic); Interiors (high and low life); Recreation (theaters and movies, music halls, Coney Island, sports, and parks); Culture and Education; Religion; and "Signs of the Crisis."

Spread over thirty-one pages with blank space left for additions, the outline was not a blueprint but a point of departure. Only a fraction of the listed sites were photographed, and many topics that were left blank in the outline, such as "transportation, water routes," were photographed extensively. Abbott welcomed change. After a year's work, she remarked:

I have had the experience which is a healthy part of every artist's growth: The more you do, the more you realize how much there is to do, what a vast subject the metropolis is and how the work of photographing it could go on forever.
Toward the end of the project, Abbott made three lists of potential subjects, one for each camera. The lists included topics as general as "crowded corners" and as specific as "detail of column with capital in center: downtown side of 'el' station, 50th St. & 6th Ave." They reveal the same intuitive working method as the original outline.

Abbott dated her project negatives, and the chronology shows that progress was random, with no systematic approach to a district or a theme. Other than a preference for early spring and late fall when trees were bare and the air was clear, Abbott worked unpredictably, alternating bursts of energy with barren lulls. Outside commitments - teaching, occasional freelance jobs, and exhibitions - contributed to the project's ebb and flow, but Abbott's method played a significant part. Before photographing, she accumulated ideas for subjects, sought permission to photograph in restricted areas, and noted optimal times for particular exposures. Once in the field, she courted chance and seized unforeseen opportunities.

A glimpse of Abbott's routine was recorded by a reporter who joined her on May 3, 1938, her first day with the Linhof camera. Although the light was unsuitably "flat," Abbott took four photographs, all of which she retained for the project. She first photographed "seven vagrants drunk in front of the queerest looking shack you ever saw" on the East River waterfront. Then she drove down South Street and stopped near the Brooklyn Bridge at a rope store, which she had photographed two years before. Trying to capture the reflection of the bridge's cables in the store's window, Abbott was pessimistic: "I'm not going to like the result when I'm through. But I've got to try it." An assistant set up the view camera, loaded the film, and chased away passersby who entered Abbott's field of vision. Abbott asked the storekeeper to bring out more rope and a big winch "which shone like silver in the dull light". After lunch the group headed for Hester Street on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood Abbott knew well and where crowded streets presented opportunities for the Linhof. Abbott chose two subjects she had already photographed with the view camera. Her assistant convinced a housewife to allow them into her apartment so that Abbott could photograph push carts from above. A few steps down the block at the corner of Hester and Orchard Streets, Abbott photographed a roast corn vendor. Work ended that afternoon when it rained. The four photographs were among nineteen that Abbott took for the project that May, a number equal to the previous five months' output.

Abbott exposed the last negatives for Changing New York in November 1938, but never finished her plan of work. Particularly incomplete was her work with hand-held cameras. In a December 1938 interview, she vented her frustration:

There are lots of things I could have taken in the last five years, if I only had had better cameras....You want to get a crowd of people really protesting something. If you try to get the expression on their faces, you are stuck ... You want to take a bunch of colored people in a dark corner.... You want to take a subway rush at 5 o'clock .... suppose you want to catch a seething mass of people from a bus stop.
Abbott accomplished only the lost of these subjects, Tempo of the City. Without a miniature camera, she was also unable to explore the final section of her original outline, "people and the way they live." Crowd scenes, night scenes, and interiors were never investigated, and some of her most colorful ideas-"police in action, mounted, at theater hours," Broadway shooting parlor, and Italian marionettes on Mulberry Street and her most overly political ideas-election night, picket line, and Union Square street speeches-were never realized.

Rather than work through her outline, Abbott returned many times to favorite locations. She omitted the Empire State Building but photographed the corner of South Street and James Slip four times. She devoted half of Changing New York to lower Manhattan, a preference justified as much by the area's historical importance as by artistic concerns and sheer whim. The financial district and the waterfront, which formed the crux of New York's economy, offered Abbott the technical challenge of photographing skyscrapers and bridges. The immigrant neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, set against the backdrop of Wall Street, presented endless contrasts of old and new, rich and poor. Greenwich Village contained many of the city's oldest structures and was Abbott's home. Manhattan north of 14th Street was much less appealing. Perhaps her most glaring omission was the city's middle-class housing-from Victorian brownstones to apartment buildings-which occupied most of the island north of 9th to 59th Street; this significant component of the city's "material aspect" did not even appear in her outline.

As the project progressed, Abbott developed a more daring experimental style, and her return to a site often signaled a new compositional idea. in re-photographing the Flatiron Building, for example, she replaced a "post card" view, taken from an office building across the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, with a radically cropped, foreshortened view, taken in traffic. She rephotographed other sites-Bowling Green, St. Paul's Chapel, St. Mark's Church, the Starrett-Lehigh Building, and the New York Telephone Building-in similar fashion. Abbott seems to have discovered this approach in the financial district, where she was forced to point her camera up at skyscrapers from the narrow streets below and used the camera's adjustments to exaggerate rather than correct distortion. She applied this same expressive technique to other subjects where more conventional alternatives were available.

Although she owned few lenses, Abbott often exposed two negatives for an image, experimenting with a short, wide-angle lens and a long lens which compressed distance. In Union Square, she photographed an 1876 bronze statue of General Lafayette against the popular discount department store S. Klein, l00 yards away. She selected the long-lens negative, in which Lafayette seems to point to the crudely designed storefront, as if he were surrendering nineteenth-century civic Ideals to twentieth-century commercial culture.

Another of Abbott's stylistic preoccupations was the placement of figures. Because the imposing presence and long exposure time of the view camera made it difficult to capture movement, her early photographs, like Cherry Street, included only small, distant figures. Later in the project, she had people pose, and sometimes, as in Mulligan Place, she exposed more than one negative, asking a person to walk repeatedly into the frame. On other occasions, she set up the camera and exposed several negatives as different people walked unaware into her composition. Blossom Restaurant and Church of God are successful examples of this technique.


 


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