Every time I walk through American Modern: Abbott, Evans, Bourke-White, I can’t help but stop at the pages on display from Berenice Abbott’s early New York scrapbooks. They jump out because of their size, shape, and black background, but also because they look no different than the photo scrapbooks my grandparents kept. Not knowing much about Berenice Abbott, I wondered what exactly was she trying to accomplish in these commonplace, black pages? Was it similar to how my grandparents used albums to store photos and keepsakes or was she doing something else entirely?
Abbott was born in Ohio, but moved to New York City in 1918 when she was 20, forming an intimate connection with the city she would call home for the latter part of her life. She moved to Paris in 1921 and began working in Man Ray’s studio. It was her first contact with photography and she fell in love with the art form. When she returned to New York in 1929, she found that the city was undergoing massive architectural changes. Older, dilapidated buildings were being torn down to make way for new skyscrapers, each trying to take the title of “tallest.” The Chrysler Building, for example, became the city’s tallest building in 1930…only to be eclipsed the following year by the Empire State Building.
Small format camera in hand, Abbott began furiously and excitedly moving through this newly vertical city, taking photographs along the way. She printed and pasted them on numerous pages. Her fascination is clear as she catalogued everything from skyscrapers to blank store windows. We can bear witness not only to her private enthrallment with New York, but also to the development of Abbott’s trademark style—high-angle shots that emphasized the “canyons” formed between skyscrapers (see image above). She wrote in pencil right on some of the photographs, putting a checkmark on what are presumably her favorites. Interestingly, she didn’t even refer to these photographs as such, preferring to call them “just notes.” So these pages become a unique opportunity to see the photographer’s thought process at work.
While photographers usually work through ideas with proof sheets, Abbott did all her thinking in 1929 and 1930 on the pages of her scrapbooks. As an aspiring art historian (and amateur photographer) I’m captivated by this entirely different approach she took to taking photographs. This outpouring of “notes” certainly rings true with our modern-day tendency to snap picture after picture to fill our digital memory cards, which we then upload and scroll through on-screen and organize into virtual albums. Over seventy years later, her method has become ubiquitous. In that sense, Abbott was way ahead of her time!
—Matt K., Curatorial Intern, Photography Department