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New York Photo League and Documentary Style Photography

Ohio-born Berenice Abbott moved to New York City in 1918 to study sculpture, and became part of the mix of artists, writers, and actors who made up the bohemian world of Greenwich Village. Abbott left New York for Paris in the early 1920s, where she worked as a darkroom assistant to Man Ray before opening her own studio. During this time, Abbott made portraits of Sylvia Beach, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Duchamp, and James Joyce, among many others. Back in New York in 1929, she embarked on a comprehensive visual record of the city she loved. The photographs Abbott made during the 1930s and promoted through an exhibition and accompanying book titled Changing New York document New York’s transformation from a nineteenth-century city to a modern metropolis. Changing New York encompassed the city’s architecture, activities, inhabitants, and above all, its emergence as a technological citadel. Consisting of hundreds of images, it was one of the most ambitious of the “creative projects” funded by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (FAP), both elements of the New Deal. After years of struggle to secure funding to support her work, in 1935 Abbott was offered $145 a week by the FAP to photograph full time. She was also assigned research and technical assistants, as well as a driver.

Abbott diligently pursued contrasts—old and new, grand scale and small, horizontal and vertical, deep shadow and direct light, congestion and desolation, monumentality and triviality. She employed angle shots, bird’s eye views, worm’s eye views, and rooftop views to discern the larger design of the city in the chaos of its details. Abbott’s images of rising skyscrapers, grand bridges, and massive construction projects reflect her hope that progress might bring a better future for New York’s citizens. Published as a book to coincide with the 1939 World’s Fair, Changing New York was, in the words of the publisher, “for those who love the city and have a romantic interest in its historic past.”