NYC Streets: Berenice Abbott

category: > Photography, < NYC Streets

written by: Jaap Proost

NEW YORK street photography is almost a genre of itself. The mix of rich and poor, black and white and locals and visitors that walk the streets of Manhattan gave some of the biggest names in photography inspiration to roam the streets. Now: Berenice Abbott.


The photographers I already introduced, mostly looked straight ahead. But everybody who has visited the city, knows that when in New York you also look up. Not to see clouds or stars, but the height of the skyscrapers. A photographer who did not mind to stretch the neck, was Berenice Abbott (1989 – 1991). Without the human element in the pictures, her work can’t really be defined as street photography. She focused on the decor, instead of the actors. But the view of Abbott of the city puts the work of the other photographers in context.



A city can be seen as a concrete beehive full of people, or a large collection of piled up stones.  When Berenice Abbott was on the streets, she looked at the stones instead of the people. This point of view had a practical reason. Abbott photographed New York in a time when photographers were limited by the technical conditions. It was simply impossible to document the hustle and bustle of the streets. ‘The look of a vibrant city needs detail, texture, perspective. The people decorating this tableau would be very desirable too, but our time capsule did not permit this. Why? Film was 10 or 20 times or more slow. (…) Faster film would have permitted a wider range of subjects and speedier motion’, she once mentioned.


Although she was also known for her portraits of the artistic elite – James Joyce and Marcel Duchamps appeared before her lens – photographing New York brought her the most fame. The idea was to capture a moment of the ever-changing city. Between 1935 and 1939 she worked on this project. The result was the book ‘Changing New York’.


Abbott picked a good time. Around that period the appearance of the skyscrapers started to change. Until then most buildings had a Neo-Gothic look. While in Europe a debate about new forms in architecture was held, American architects followed their own path in the first decades of the twentieth century.  Many skyscrapers were modeled after medieval cathedrals. With the Art Deco buildings, it gave the city a dark ‘gothamesque’ look. After WWII modernist views also rooted in the New World. Glass replaced sandstone. More than half of the buildings on the pictures below have been demolished.




Click on the double squares in the lower right corner to see popout pictures

- related posts -