If you were an American artist or writer in the 1920s, Paris was where you wanted to be. The Springfield, Ohio-born photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) arrived there in 1921 by way of New York, and by early 1929 she had managed to establish herself in the French capital’s flourishing interwar avant-garde scene — first working as an assistant to Man Ray and later taking her own celebrated portraits of luminaries such as James Joyce and Djuna Barnes. She even changed the spelling of her name from “Bernice” to the more Gallic “Berenice.”
Yet somehow this magnet for culturally minded expatriates lost its hold on Abbott the moment she set foot in Lower Manhattan — on a messy January day, no less — at the beginning of what was supposed to be a short trip back to the United States. She had lived in New York once, just eight years before, but in her absence the city had been scaled up: new skyscrapers were rising, the population was exploding, and every block, it seemed, was abuzz with commerce and construction. (The market crash of October 1929 was still many months away). Suddenly, Paris was passé. “When I saw New York again, and stood in the dirty slush,” she later recalled, “I felt that here was the thing I had been wanting to do all my life.”
“Berenice Abbott’s New York Album, 1929,” a small but inspiring show at the Metropolitan Museum, channels the exhilaration Abbott felt upon arriving in the city. The exhibition’s focus is a disbound scrapbook with seven to nine photographs per page, all taken over the course of that year, as Abbott paced the streets (and piers, bridges and train platforms) with a hand-held camera and a compulsion to capture New York’s unruly, cutthroat modernity.
With its 32 pages of small contact prints processed at drugstores and commercial labs (or as Abbott called them, “tiny photographic notes”), the album can be seen as a rough draft of her well-known Works Progress Administration project of the 1930s, “Changing New York.” (Several examples from this later series are in the Met show, including a disconcertingly ethereal view of Seventh Avenue taken from the top of a 46-story building in the garment district.) But Abbott’s “New York Album” is a fascinating artwork in its own right, an adrenalized and ambitious alignment of artist and subject.
Abbott felt that the changing city needed an equivalent to the French photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927), who had documented Paris during a critical period of transition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with what Abbott called “the shock of realism unadorned.” She had come to New York as part of an impassioned effort to promote Atget’s oeuvre, one that included purchasing the photographer’s archive after his death and making her own prints from his glass-plate negatives; in the “New York Album” she goes further, becoming, in effect, his heir.
The Met’s exhibition incorporates several Atget photographs from the museum’s collection, including one that Abbott was known to admire; it shows an early automobile garage in the Fifth Arrondissement, with a Renault parked in a cobblestoned courtyard. A similar appreciation for the collision of the newfangled with the outmoded can be seen throughout Abbott’s “New York Album,” in shots of skyscrapers looming over rows of tenements and, in one more subtle and almost surreal case, an overhead view of an equine statue photographed from the Ninth Avenue El.
Although the album is not strictly organized by location, it has a distinct cartography. Abbott gravitated to certain neighborhoods that, for her, showed the face of the new city emerging. Many of them were in Lower Manhattan; multiple pages are devoted to the Lower East Side, where she was drawn to storefronts and their simultaneously poetic and transactional signage, and the Financial District, where she often pointed her camera skyward to exaggerate the intimidating height of new corporate towers.
Unlike peers such as Walker Evans, she did not take much of an interest in the human subject — or, at least, in individuals. To her, the city was a human construction and humanity was implicit in every part of it. “You’re photographing people when you’re photographing a city,” she explained in a documentary film about her life. “You don’t have to have a person in it.”
As Abbott’s biographer has noted, she was influenced by the French literary movement of Unanimism, which emphasized collective consciousness and expression. You can sense this especially in her shots of the city’s elevated train system, which revel in the formal modernism of all that interlaced steel and cast iron without losing sight of its function of moving millions of people.
As an extension of the exhibition, the Met has created a helpful digital map that identifies some of the subjects in Abbott’s album and updates them with present-day photographs (a collaboration between the Met curator of photography who organized the exhibition, Mia Fineman, and the Jones Family Research Collective, led by the Manhattan borough historian emeritus, Celedonia Jones, until his death last April). It reveals, for example, that the site of a burlesque theater on Houston Street photographed by Abbott is now a Whole Foods.
Visitors to the exhibition can spend a lot of time testing their own knowledge of the city’s geography, but the pleasures of the show have more to do with the drive and dynamism behind the pictures. “Berenice Abbott’s New York Album, 1929” takes us back to an invigorating moment in the history of the metropolis, captured on the fly by an emergent modern artist.
During her upbringing in Ohio, Abbott had planned to be a journalist — she attended Ohio State University’s School of Journalism before turning to art — and it’s clear from her photography that she never lost that instinct for wanting to be where the story was. In those early months of 1929 she recognized that New York was the big story; looking at her “New York Album” gives us hope that it could be again.
Berenice Abbott’s New York Album, 1929
Through Sept. 4, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, 212-535-7710; metmuseum.org.