Individual and National Memory and Identity

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Abbott, B. (1936) Stone and William Streets. In: Yochelson, B. (1997) Wall Street, City Hall, and South Street Districts: Plate 16

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Abbott, B. (1937) Oliver Street, Nos. 25-29In: Yochelson, B. (1997) Lower East Side: Plate 18

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Abbott, B. (1938) Vista: Thames Street. In: Yochelson, B. (1997) Lower West Side: Plate 4

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Abbott, B. (1938) Jefferson Market Court and 447-461 Sixth Avenue. In: Yochelson, B. (1997) Greenwich Village: Plate 30

The theoretical study of memory and identity has been noted in academia for its relationship with culture. Astrid Erll highlights that “socio-cultural contexts shape individual memories” (2008: 5) suggesting that the individual is a product of the environment they are exposed to. In extending this approach, that joins culture, memory and identity together, it becomes apparent that through grouping individuals together a collective is formed which leads to the notion of an overall cultural, or in other words, national identity being established. Erll continues, stating that it is through memories being “represented by media and institutions” and “actualized by individuals, by members of a community of remembrance” that they can become present within national identity and have an impact upon society (5). Within my selection of photographs from Changing New York I will argue that they provide a good example for discussion of discourses surrounding individual and national identity and memory due to their placement within the genre of artistic documentation. Analysis of individual identity and memory, I shall argue, comes from Abbott’s own intentions for embarking on this project as lead creator and author. Whereas national memory and identity can be seen within the wider impact Abbott’s work had through it being accepted for government funding, the popular public exhibitions of her work, and the immortalisation of the project within a book.


As explained previously, to start my analysis of how memory and identity relates to the Changing New York project, I shall be focusing on Abbott herself and explaining how her own identity and memory influenced her art. Following her departure from New York in 1921 and subsequent tutelage from Man Ray, “she joined the modernist attack on pictorialism” and aligned herself with an artistic documentary photographic approach that focused on capturing ‘contemporary life … at the right moment’” (MacOrlan, 1928 in Yochelson, 1997: 11). This provides an initial example of a part of her identity as her alignment with modernism influenced her work greatly. Upon her return to New York she was struck by the effects of the “second great skyscraper building boom” (12) that had occurred in her absence and, in coming back, she was able to view New York “with new eyes” (Abbott, 1931 in Yochelson, 1997: 13). In doing so she realised “its extraordinary potentialities, its size, its youth, its unlimited material for the photographic art [and] its state of flux” (Abbott, 1931 in Yochelson, 1997: 13). This prospection, anchored in retrospection, can all be seen as part of Abbott’s personal memory as her ‘fantastic passion’ for New York was fueled from her remembering what once had been and seeing what had become of a city she had called home. In applying all of this to theory, Gabriela Christmann’s analysis is relevant as she reiterates that “photographs are always influenced by culture” due to their subjectivity of composition (2008). Abbott claimed that her work was intended to be simultaneously documentary and artistic (Abbott in Yochelson, 1997: 25), which again highlights elements of her identity which had been influenced by memory - both being centred around culture. In addition to this, later on in Christmann’s article, which focuses on the “inept destruction” (2008) of Dresden following the Second World War, she refers to the photographs as drawing attention to “the loss of valuable cultural goods” which, she states, “must be lamented” (ibid). This photographic project can be compared to Changing New York, in terms of Abbott’s own personal identity and memory, as Abbott maintained a view of New York that looked towards future possibilities and her project aimed to highlight change in a positive sense. Yet, it must be acknowledged that the photographic project on Dresden was produced post-war which evokes different memories and identities that are, as a consequence, associated with war. Whereas Abbott’s project was created for the contemporary moment, as a way of making a photographic record of New York in the 1930s. Each generation that passes will view Abbott’s photos differently as each individual memory and identity is shaped and informed by their culture. In this sense, both of these projects’ photographs, for different reasons, can be “seen both as ‘facts’ and as ghosts or shadows” and “are the imperfect means by which we fill the voids of memory in modern culture” in preserving “the remnants of a world that has disappeared” (Lippard, 1997: 56).


Not only were Abbott’s intentions personal and informed by her memory and identity, they were also instrumental in creating these elements on a national level and collectively within New York. As highlighted earlier, it was through funding for the government that Abbott’s project was facilitated - without which the public, and therefore collective American and world wide populace, would not have been able to admire it.  The widespread interest from the public in Changing New York is suggestive of the impact it had in the 1930s, in addition to its status as part of national heritage in the twenty-first century. The 1934 exhibition of her work “was extended six weeks because of popular demand” (Yochelson, 1997: 26) which was only intensified due to “the growing vogue in America for documentary photography” (27) at this time. Considering that the majority of Abbott’s photographs do not contain people as the focal point of the photograph, the individuals viewing them would, arguably, be focusing more on identification with place. This concept is explained by Lucy Lippard where she states that photographs “are an excellent means with which to trigger concern and soothe anxieties about history and place” (1997: 20). Therefore, it could be suggested that the popularity for Abbott’s work was centred in this form of identification, which I will argue, can also be extended to the level of national identity due to New York’s fundamental role in promoting the “growth of America into a world power” (Yochelson, 1997: 3) and the sense of national pride that comes with this. Furthermore, once government funding for the project was cut, and the Federal Art Project (FAP) was left needing “favourable publicity” desperately, Abbott’s “public acclaim” (28) was used to create the Changing New York book (1939). It could be said that the production of this book represented a publicly available, lasting piece of national heritage. This is significant due to the interrelatedness of heritage and culture as heritage is, arguably, defined by culture. Therefore, due to the Changing New York book being an example of national heritage, in comparing this with the earlier analysis of culture, memory and identity’s connection to each other, this book can be seen as another representation of national memory and identity.   


In conclusion, by viewing Changing New York through discourses surrounding memory and identity, it has become apparent that personal and national approaches to this study are relevant. When initially appreciating the project for the elements of personal memory and identity Abbott’s intentions and passion for New York, and America in general, become apparent. Her personal memory and identity was a foundation for the creation of the project. Yet, due to the content and approach of this project, it becomes clear that national memory and identity were also essential to, and produced by, this project as its popularity and place within national heritage represents. The concepts of nation and culture are inextricably linked and Abbott’s Changing New York forms a perfect example of the artistic documentation of this.

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Abbott, B. (1938) Facade: Alwyn Court. In: Yochelson, B. (1997) Middle West Side: Plate 33

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Abbott, B. (1938) Glass-Brick and Brownstone Fronts. In: Yochelson, B. (1997) Middle East Side: Plate 31

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Abbott, B. (1937) Wheelock House. In: Yochelson, B. (1997) North of 59th Street: Plate 24

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Abbott, B. (1936) Joralemon Street, No. 135. In: Yochelson, B. (1997) Outer Boroughs: Plate 42