Unsentimental Vistas: Berenice Abbott and 20th-Century Interwar Urban Photography


Berenice Abbott


“I am an American, who, after eight years of residence in Europe, came back to view America with new eyes.”


By Ayten Tartici
PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature
Yale University


When the American photographer Berenice Abbott returned to New York in 1929 after nearly a decade away in Paris, she came back to a city transformed by a frenzy of epic construction projects. Contractors for the Chrysler were racing to lay three million bricks in less than two years in the hopes of becoming the tallest building in New York; by then, the Holland Tunnel had been open to traffic for nearly two years. Having spent her early career doing portraits in France, first for Man Ray and then on her own, Abbott felt inexorably drawn to the transformation of New York for her next subject.

In a 1935 application for a Guggenheim fellowship, Abbott wrote: “I am an American, who, after eight years of residence in Europe, came back to view America with new eyes. I have just realized America—its extraordinary potentialities, its size, its youth, its unlimited material for the photographic art, its state of flux particularly as applying to the city of New York.” That moment of transition, Abbott urged, had gone underappreciated by the artistic community: “I feel keenly the neglect of American material by American artists. . . America to be interpreted honestly must be approached with love void of sentimentality, and not solely with criticism and irony.” For someone coming back home after almost a decade away, Abbott’s insistence on a “love void of sentimentality” seems unusual, even at odds with the enthusiasm she feels for America’s unrealized artistic potential. What she longs for though is a middle ground, an artistic sincerity, located somewhere between patriotic nostalgia and highbrow irony.

Berenice Abbott. “Cliff and Ferry Street, Manhattan” (1935). The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.

Yet, what Abbott calls an honest artistic interpretation of our cities is difficult to achieve because by their nature cities are always in the act of aging, and confronting that decay triggers an understandably emotional desire to preserve. As I write, the hutong alleys of Beijing are disappearing; Gezi Park will soon be a faded memory in the history of Istanbul. In New York, historical commissions scramble to preserve both beauty and ugliness. Those prior layers are rarely fully removed; their half-sloughed skin remaining draped around the streets we pass by every day. We feel immense anxiety about the passing of our structures, sometimes rushing too quickly to restore. In 2011, architecture critic Sarah Goldhagen published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled “Death by Nostalgia.” She argued that the sentimentalizing impulses of preservationists had sometimes prevented necessary urban development by turning historic architecture into tourist traps rather than authentically lived spaces. She proposed the use of European-style design review boards, which would permit New York City to evolve, even where that evolution meant the replacement of older structures.

Abbott’s documentary approach to her New York City, both curious and detached, tries to avoid urban nostalgia. A crucial part of that unsentimentality is paying careful attention to facts as they exist in the present. In Changing New York, the iconic photographic collection that resulted from Abbott’s decision to come home, each photograph is labeled meticulously with a time and location. This attentiveness to detail has made it easier for subsequent photographers like Douglas Levere to attempt to re-create Abbott’s work. For example, a photograph of a schooner named Theoline is presented as: “‘Theoline,’ Pier 11, East River, Manhattan; April 9, 1936. Fore, main, mizzen and spanker masts; flying, inner and under jib staysails and four lower and four topsails. . .  [Theoline] makes trips from New York every three or four months, carrying whatever cargo it can get.” Captions such as these further amplify the clinical precision of her work.

McKnight Kauffer. “B.P. Ethyl Anti-Knock Controls Horse-Power” (1933). Photolithograph. © Simon Rendall.

That detached and analytical language spills over to buildings, whose former and current uses are noted, as well as to street peddlers, trinket shops and food vendors. Abbott’s crisp 1936 picture of a hot dog stand owner—taken in the middle of the Depression—is notable for the absence of any maudlin social commentary, especially in comparison to the work of her contemporaries, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Abbott is thus not a romantic poet gushing over Grecian ruins; nor is she a futurist frothing at the mouth about the salve of modernism. Rather, she seems to be sensitive to moments of disjointed transition, to the seams between one city and the next.

Of all the plates Abbott produced during this period, I always return to “Cliff and Ferry Street,” which was left out of the Changing New Yorkedition published by E.P. Dutton. Shot in 1935 against a backdrop of glistening new skyscrapers, “Cliff and Ferry Street” looks south toward lower Manhattan and therefore toward industry, progress and wealth. In the distance stands the recently finished 50-story colossus of 60 Wall Tower. The vista closer to the viewer is less regal. On the right is the foreshortened facade of the Schieren Building, a leather belting factory that had been built in 1906 when this area of Manhattan was still called the “Leather Swamp.” In the lower left foreground stands the humble Mac-Lac Shellac shop, its large black sign acting as a counterweight to 111 John Street’s tiny white moniker.

The most striking element of the photograph, however, is the single horse drawing a cart in the foreground. The creature is the only living being within frame. Like Eugène Atget, whose work she deeply admired, Abbott was frequently drawn to compositions emptied of life. As Henry Allen noted in 1998, Abbott’s photos “show architecture with only the occasional human being as an accent point: cubist upthrusts of the skyscrapers massed around Wall Street, storefronts and piers that look wildly forgotten; a leafless and unpopulated city: l’esthetique du neutron bomb.” This emptiness makes the horse-cart that much more prominent and strange. Where and at what hour is this animal without a driver barreling down the road? Its defiant posture in the foreground has always made me feel, paradoxically, that instead of fleeing its own replacement by the automobile, it is almost pulling forward that gleaming city behind it. In this way, Abbott’s composition refuses to give into romantic clichés about the decline of the urban horse, nor is she advocating only for those skyscrapers on the horizon.

Image by Michelle Jia, Flickr, Creative Commons

My grandfather, who ran a construction company in southern Turkey, had a similarly unsentimental attitude toward the inevitable fall of things and spaces into disuse. Everything in his house, which was kept in a pristine cleanness, needed to be useful in the present. When my grandmother was diagnosed with MS and eventually became unable to walk and then to fit into her clothes, he began to preemptively discard her possessions. I insisted on bringing back from Ankara to Connecticut—in a panic I am only now beginning to understand—her cashmere sweaters, none of which were my size.

I always thought my grandfather was too severe, but when my husband and I moved into our current one-bedroom apartment in New York and the amount of habitable space available became a real concern, we began our own struggle: what could we no longer bear to look at and what were we no longer conscious of not needing? We first rented a small storage unit in Queens. My grandmother’s clothes were donated. A first-generation iPhone, which my father had gifted me during his first visit to the United States, was boxed away. All the books that would not be of use for my dissertation were similarly dispatched into safekeeping. I have now devised a system in which instead of mining for sentences I underlined long ago, I pile up in the corner next to my desk only books borrowed from the library even when I know there is a copy waiting for me in storage. A sentimental attitude toward our old pencil marks inevitably slows us down.

Ayten Tartici. “Pulaski Bridge Facing South” (2017).

Today, the intersection of Cliff and Ferry no longer exists. While the area of Cliff Street in the far distance is still around, Ferry Street was completely covered over in 1969 to make room for a middle-income co-op complex called Southbridge Towers. Yet, in a way, the city had moved on even in 1938, three years after Abbot shot “Cliff and Ferry,” when Alexander Alland, a Russian émigré and photographer, set out to capture the same scene as Abbott’s original. Like Abbott, he set up his camera just north of Cliff and Ferry. Facing south, he chose a less imposing, less vertical composition. Sixty Wall Tower was still looming in the distance, guarded by 111 John St. The Mac-Lac Shellac sign was still there. But the horse—that four legged strangeness—was no longer in the frame.


Originally published by Arcade: Literature, the Humanities, and the World under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.

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