Lisette Model & Berenice Abbott

New York City Photography in the 1940's

World War II dominated the 1940's. European artists and intellectuals fled to the United States to escape Hitler and the Holocaust, bringing with them new ideas and disillusionment. War production pulled the U.S. out of the Great Depression. Women were needed to replace the men who had gone off to war, taking women out of the home and into to the workplace. The war affected the food we ate, the clothes we wore, and the art we looked at.

After the war, the men returned having seen the rest of the world. No longer was the family farm their ideal and no longer would blacks accept their inferior status. The GI Bill allowed more men than ever before to get a college education. Women had to give up their jobs to the returning men, but they had tasted independence.  The “Golden Age” was how New York City was often referred to in the 1940s.  It was a decade when America was the superpower and NYC became the Capital of the World.  NYC was the hub for finance, music, consumerism, and art.   Photographers worked relentlessly to capture the vitality, tempo, and changing landscape of the city.

Berenice Abbott and Lisette Model were both artists who saw the aesthetics in the city’s people and landscapes. Their images showed a "worm's-eye view" and/or "a bird's-eye view" of the city that never sleeps. Abbott captured skyscrapers thrusting into the air and the geometric shapes of modern buildings contrasting with the delicate textures of older architecture and advertising. As a photographer, her goal was to represent the past, present and future of an intense city.  Lisette Model took to the streets with her camera to produce work that portrayed genuine, vibrant pieces of city life and to capture it with a pure, consistent honesty. 

World War II directly influenced the work of American artists. Mainstream magazines published confrontational and controversial photographs giving readers no choice but to become aware of horrific events such as the Invasion of Poland, Pearl Harbor, and Hiroshima.  Lisette and Abbott adopted these traits—graininess, active participation, and refusal to shy away from what they saw—as a way to express the fleeting nature and uncertainty of urban life.  With the portability of the hand held camera, these two photographers captured the unexpected and ever changing reality of New York City. Through their work, they depicted not only a broader sense of the climate change in the postwar era but also the melancholy anonymity of life in a fast-paced city mingled with the artists’ own self-reflections.