Berenice Abbott, née Bernice Abbott, 1898, was a modernist photographer who began her career as Man Ray’s darkroom assistant (Yochelson, 1997: 10). The Dadaist gave her the experience she needed to progress and allow “her natural talent and technical finesse” to grow (10). Her movement towards documentary photography was influenced by the work of Eugène Atget whose photographs she described as depicting “the real world, seen with wonderment and surprise” which was “mirrored in each print” (Abbott in Yochelson, 1997: 12). Seeking realism became her main focal point within her work and upon returning to New York in 1929 her “fantastic passion” (Abbott in Yochelson, 1997) to document the city was realised. Her passion grew from the recognition of New York’s “endless possibilities of photographic exploration” due to “the physical changes that the city had undergone” (Gouliaris, Giouzepas and Tsaras, 2016: 195, 196) in the time that she had been away. She understood the immensity of the project before her and her search for funding began. Eventually she received what she had been searching for and in 1935 her request for funding was accepted by the Federal Art Project (FAP); “a relief agency for artists” which aimed “to show that art, as well as schools and highways, contributed to the general welfare” of American citizens (Yochelson, 1997: 20). She worked within the FAP until 1939, where she eventually received her pink slip after multiple demotions and pay cuts following a “lethal assault” from “a hostile Congress” (27). Yet it was within this time that her project, subsequently named Changing New York in April 1936 (21), was constructed. This project aimed to “include diverse elements” (Gouliaris, Giouzepas and Tsaras, 2016: 205) within the images and “show the skyscraper in relation to the less colossal edifices which preceded it … the past jostling the present” (Abbott in Yochelson, 1997: 21). Her “historically minded, conceptually sophisticated, and aesthetically straightforward” approach to her artwork (Gouliaris, Giouzepas and Tsaras, 2016: 205) allowed for detailed representation of “the city’s contrasts of wealth and poverty, new and old, and all its stubbornly insistent incongruities” (Kouwenhoven in MacDonald, 1997: 8). Through this juxtaposition of past and present, Abbott was able to show life within the city as not “a still moment in strictly-defined time and space” but “as always being fluid and dynamic” (Gouliaris, Giouzepas and Tsaras, 2016: 206).
Kanaga, C. (1937) Berenice Abbott. In: Yochelson, B. (1997), 8