Remembering Berenice Abbott, the 1930s artist who revolutionized documentary photography

Looking back at Abbott's revelations of the New York's hidden, fleeting energies for Document Fall/Winter 2013.

In the language of photography, documentary carries connotations of neutrality, objectivity, the camera’s capacity and duty to report plain fact. Jaded by decades of photojournalism scandals and postmodern theory, we know objectivity is a fiction—and yet we cling to the notion that documentary promises truths we can verify and realities we can see.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1930s America—when the term documentary spread like fire through the cultural lexicon—it had no defined meaning, prescribed no set program and promised no agreed-upon version of the real. Originally a provocation imported from European avant-gardes of the 1920s, the notion of the document—a seemingly banal fragment of the material world by which social values could be laid bare, the official narrative of history upended or the viewer’s psyche unexpectedly seared-opened a thrilling rift between photography’s old roles of pure information on the one hand and self-expression on the other. In this third space percolated a wild variety of experiments concerning photography’s capacities to engage the world critically and creatively. One could say the word documentary named—but did not constrain—a terrain for competing proposals about what it meant for photography to be modern, to be art, to be intelligent. Recording known facts wasn’t the point; the point was to investigate how photography might produce new kinds of truth altogether.

Among those determined to revolutionize photography’s operations under the rubric of documentary was Berenice Abbott. “To be documentary creatively,” Abbott informed her fellow artists, “implies that the photographer has a point of view and an objective.” She had both, and she zealously taught beholders to identify the photographer’s point of view as the engine of intelligent composition—ground zero for turning found elements into a meaningful picture, the picture into a new experience and the experience into a heightened consciousness of “the instant NOW.”

For her Works Progress Administration-sponsored project “Changing New York” (1935-1939) Abbott sought “the past jostling the present” in a cityscape undergoing unprecedented demolition and rebuilding. Abbott loved how New York’s contrasts—of planned and unplanned, engineered and handcrafted, modern and antiquated, solid and ephemeral—generated invisible “tension.” Her self-assigned mission was to make that tension visible in images structured for “dynamic equilibrium” and thereby reveal the invisible forces propelling modernity itself.

“She had both, and she zealously taught beholders to identify the photographer’s point of view as the engine of intelligent composition—ground zero for turning found elements into a meaningful picture.”

Refusing to reproduce hackneyed tourist landmarks and conventional views, Abbott located both site and subject of the documentary photograph in “the vanishing instant.” The most telling city scenes, she argued, were those glimpsed fleetingly; only a photographer with perceptual intelligence, artistic skill and political acuity could seize and compose them into a history of contemporaneity. The hundreds of images in “Changing New York” forever suspend the city’s contradictions in photography’s unique dialectical vocabulary of light and shadow, depth and plane, stillness and speed. Each picture is at once a revelation of the city’s hidden energies and the only surviving monument to a nonrepeatable moment.

Abbott is best remembered for vertiginous perspectives on the city’s modern skyscrapers—compositions that reveal technological and economic forces at work. But she was also a fierce defender of New York’s outmoded corners, weird grotesqueries and sensory delights, believing such shocks exerted a salutary effect on the imagination and ultimately on the practice of living. By the late 1930s, her city of eccentric surprises and spontaneous encounters was under attack from the planners of the upcoming New York World’s Fair. The Fair promised planned, purified, homogenous cities for a healthier “World of Tomorrow.” In anticipation of that future—and millions of tourists—New York City officials cracked down on deviance, cleared slums and demolished Victorian oddities while touting its new bridges to the suburbs.

By the time this photograph was published—in a 1939 book marketed to World’s Fair visitors over Abbott’s objections—the old El tracks were slated for demolition, doomed to vanish along with their shifting shadows and the fugitive meetings they sheltered. Indeed, many of the subjects depicted in “Changing New York” disappeared within months or years, never again to be seen as Abbott saw them. But the photographs, she knew, would survive to cultivate a documentary sensibility in urban wanderers of the future, training them to perceive an explosive history and to embrace an unknown future in the landscape of unpredictable encounters.