Lisette Model & Berenice Abbott
"The challenge for me has first been to see things as they are, whether a portrait, a city street, or a bouncing ball. In a word, I have tried to be objective. What I mean by objectivity is not the objectivity of a machine, but of a sensible human being with the mystery of personal selection at the heart of it. The second challenge has been to impose order onto the things seen and to supply the visual context and the intellectual framework-that to me is the art of photography." - Berenice Abbott  (

Changing New York

fig. 11 Flatiron Building
When Abbott returned to New York City in the late 1920s, she immediately viewed it as a place of great photographic brilliance and recognized its potential as the subject for an historical chronicle. Although she lost her funding from the FAP and was fired as project supervisor for her Changing New York project, she continued to work relentlessly. With the help of assistants in the field and office, Abbott committed her time to producing, printing, and exhibiting her photographs.  By the end of 1939, she produced over 300 photographs for Changing New York.Her work throughout this time was just as much about sociology as it was about the aesthetics of photography.  Abbott worked to create photographs that portrayed the vital interaction between three aspects of urban life: the diverse people of the city; the places they lived, worked and played; and their daily activities. The idea of the project was to open peoples’ eyes to the environment around them and to make them see how their behavior affected that environment (and vice versa). Her photos described a city before the arrival of urban planning, and the menacing attributes of her compositions appear in the buildings she photographs.

Abbott’s photograph of the Flatiron demonstrates her principles of documentary photography; it serves as a record for the future.  The Flatiron Building bordered a building whose entire side was painted with an advertisement that read, "Cover the Earth for Beauty and Protection Sherwin-Williams Paints."  For many New Yorkers, the unusual Flatiron building was a symbol of modern life, technology, and architecture.  This photo of the Fuller building, nicknamed "the Flatiron," was taken from the top floor of a six-story commercial building nearby.

     Abbott believed that there was no better way to document the 20th century than to use a 20th century invention.  "I believe there is no more creative medium than photography to recreate the living world of our time," she wrote. "Photography gladly accepts the challenge because it is at home in its element: namely, realism—real life—the now." (Universal Photo Almanac, pp. 42-47. 1951)

Abbott’s passion for New York was all about contrasts.  In “Tri-Boro Barber School, 264 Bowery, Manhattan” (fig. 2), Abbott photographed the contrasts created by sunlight filtering through the overhead fire escape onto the barber-pole stripes and window lettering on the front of the school. Abbott also captured another contrast, the man in dark shabby clothes who leans in the doorway and the young student in a clean white smock gazing through the window. The entire window area produces a variety of texture that gives the picture interest.

The same is true of “Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, Manhattan”.  Abbott provided great contrast around the simple rectangular door that the man is emerging from and the rectangular shape of the busy signage in the widows. By doing this Abbott, told a story about New York and the ever-present struggle and changes between the citizens and the landscape.

Fig. 12 Tri-Boro Barber School, 264 Bowery, Manhattan
Fig. 13 Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, Manhattan

Abbott also liked to look up, and many of her images were of the new office buildings that turned up where brownstones once stood. In “Rockefeller Center with Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas, Fifth Avenue and West 48th Street,” Abbott showed the contrasting scales of the old buildings and the new in a terrifying way.  She also looked up at the many new bridges crisscrossing the Manhattan skyline and appreciated their sculptural qualities.

Fig. 14 Rockefeller Center with Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas, Fifth Avenue and West 48th
Fig. 15 Manhattan Bridge Looking Up

Her juxtaposition of the old and the new was evident in “38 Greenwich Street” where laundry from a tenement huddles up against a massive new building. In “Columbus Circle,” Abbott photographed the multi-layered, curving text on an advertising display intertwined with the city’s rigid geometric architecture. This featured the comparison of old/new and past/present relationships in the urban landscape.  

Fig 16. Columbus Circle
Fig. 17 38 Greenwich Street
The Change New York photographs have remained classic photography throughout the 20th century. Berenice Abbott's images captured the essence of New York and made her one of America's leading photographers.