Abbott, B. (1936) Pine Street, U.S. Treasury in Foreground. In: Yochelson, B. (1997) Wall Street, City Hall, and South Street Districts: Plate 21
Within Barrett’s work Criticizing Photographs, taking inspiration from John Szarkowski’s (1966) The Photographer’s Eye, he “presents a new category system” that “covers all photographs, art and nonart, family snapshots and museum prints” (2012: 70). This category system, he states, “is based not on subject matter or form but rather on how photographs are made to function and how they are used to function” with the intention of helping “viewers think about photographs and especially to interpret them” (70). Barrett outlines these six categories as: the descriptive, explanatory, interpretive, ethically evaluative, aesthetically evaluative, and theoretical (70). Furthermore, Barrett highlights the difficulty in placing “a single photograph of unknown origin” (105) within these six categories therefore highlighting the need for “contextual [original emphasis] information” surrounding the photograph (105). The different types of context are defined by Barrett as being internal, original, or external (105).
My photograph of choice is titled Pine Street, U.S. Treasury in Foreground and initially I shall focus on the three contexts that this photograph fits into. Barrett defines original context as seeing “what the photographer has done to make a picture” and placing this within “certain information about the photographer and about the social times in which he or she was working” (108). Ultimately it is “the photographer’s intent” that aids in understanding photographs (108). Therefore, this photograph fits within Abbott’s overall project, titled Changing New York, with “the documentation of change” within New York city forming Abbott’s “central theme” (Yochelson, 1997: 21). This photograph in particular, therefore, forms an example of Abbott’s intention of creating photographs that “[were] to be documentary, as well as artistic” (Abbott in Yochelson, 1997: 25). This photograph did not officially appear “in the 1939 Dutton edition of Changing New York” (Yochelson, 1997: 339) which was the original project as funded by the Federal Art Project (FAP), a division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Barrett’s definition of internal context is centred around paying attention “to what is descriptively evident, … namely, the photographs subject matter, medium, form, and the relations among the three” (105). This photograph is a black and white portrait of Pine Street in New York, specifically the U.S Sub-Treasury and an additional building of the Bankers Trust Company in the 1930s. Due to the deep black and white contrast of the image the other buildings are either plunged into darkness or over highlighted allowing the viewer to understand the focal point of the image being the two buildings aforementioned. The viewer is made aware that this is an historical photograph due to the other historical indicators in the photograph such as lampposts and cars that are apparent at street level.
The external context is defined by Barrett as being “the situation in which a photograph is presented or found” (108). In the case of this photograph, it is part of the “former Curator of Prints and Photographs” Bonnie Yochelson’s Berenice Abbott: Changing New York which forms “a comprehensive analysis of Abbott’s celebrated photographic study of the City” (Macdonald in Yochelson, 1997: 8). Therefore, in viewing its external context, this photograph becomes part of a provision of “historical context and fresh insights about the artist and her subject” (8).
From these contexts, the different categories that this photograph fits and does not fit into can be explained. Barrett explains that “all photographs describe in the sense that they offer descriptive, visual information, with more or less detail and clarity, about the surfaces of people and objects” (Barrett, 2012: 72). Therefore, this photograph is descriptive in that it is a black and white, portrait photograph of Pine Street with the U.S. Treasury in Foreground, taken from street level, in the 1930s as explained earlier.
Explanatory photographs are described, in part, by Barrett as dealing “with subject matter that is specific to a particular time and place and that can be dated by visual evidence within the photograph”. Furthermore, these photographs “usually use an angle of view that places the subject in a social context” with the provision of “visual explanations that are in principle verifiable on scientific grounds” (79, 83) being achieved. Therefore, this photograph fits within the explanatory category as, in reference to its context within the overall project, it fits within an artistic documentation of 1930s New York.
The interpretive category is defined by its similarity to explanatory photographs as they “also seek to explain how things are, but they do not attempt scientific accuracy, nor are they accountable to scientific testing procedures” (83). Essentially they “are personal and subjective interpretations, more like poetry than a scientific report” (83). Initially it could be said that this specific photo does not meet this definition that Barrett puts forth, as this photograph does appear to be focused on stylised documentation as opposed to promoting interpretation. However, as highlighted by Barrett, interpretive photographs “are self expressive and reveal a lot about the worldviews of the photographers who make them” (84). With this in mind, it could also be said that, again in reference to the overall context of the project and juxtaposed to other photos found within this collection, the political stance of Abbott could be seen to be brought attention to. Although “Abbott’s photographs were not polemical … her sympathies and associations veered left” due to the “heated political environment of the late 1930s” (27) and it could be said that, through the individual's interpretation of this photograph, and the other photographs in the collection, Abbott’s politics can be interpreted through this photograph.
Barrett defines ethically evaluative photographs as describing with the intention of making “ethical judgements” by praising or condemning aspects of society, showing “how things ought or ought not to be” and are “politically engaged and usually passionate” (89). Again, in initially looking at this specific photo it does not appear to contain qualities of an ethically evaluative photograph due to its apparent focus on architecture and documentation. However, as said similarly for interpretive photographs, when this photograph is placed within context and compared to the “working-class neighborhoods east of midtown’s towers” and “the city’s poorest neighborhoods” (Yochelson, 1997: 229, 85), represented in other sections of this collection, this picture could be said to represent a core area of the financial district which holds an ethically evaluative definition purely in its juxtaposition to these poorer areas.
For aesthetically evaluative photographs it is what the photographer considers to be worthy of aesthetic observation and contemplation” that defines it (Barrett, 2012: 95). Furthermore, “the landscape is common subject matter” for photographs in this category (95). Considering that every photo within this project contained what Abbott thought “worthy of aesthetic observation and contemplation” (95) this photograph can be seen as no different. Further to this, as explained by Yochelson, although Abbott “was not averse to photographing tourist sites” she was “determined to avoid cliches, and unless she could bring an interesting visual idea to a well-known subject, she chose not to photograph it” (Yochelson, 1997: 195). Therefore, considering Abbott’s appreciation of “the architectural form of the Sub-Treasury building”, juxtaposed against “the rising shaft of the 1933 addition to the Bankers Trust Company”, with deep contrasts that make “the foreground buildings [fall] into deep shadow” (344), this photograph can be seen as an example of “beautiful things” being “photographed in beautiful ways” (Barrett, 2012: 95).
Barrett defines theoretical photographs, the last category, as being concerned with “issues about art and art making, about the politics of art, about modes of representation, and other theoretical issues about photography and photographing” (99). Additionally, “they are self-reflexive in regard to the medium that is ever shifting in production and uses” (104). It could be said that Abbott’s work does not fit this definition as her approach to photography was not used as a tool for reflection on photography itself but reflection on the changes New York was undergoing. Further to this, when, in 1930, “Abbott purchased an 8 x 10-inch view camera” this “radically changed her style and themes” placing architecture as “the principle subject” in photos taken with this camera (Yochelson, 1997: 13). Therefore, considering this photograph’s focus on architecture, it could be assumed that this photograph was not intended as a tool to reflect upon photography itself.
In conclusion this photograph can be seen to simultaneously apply and not apply to all the categories Barrett puts forth. It appears to fit most with the categories that promote scientific and aesthetic appreciations of subject matter, with the individual’s reading of the photo in the context of the collection allowing some ethical and political comments to be understood - despite Abbott’s attempt at remaining politically unbiased.