If you've seen a black & white photo of a New York City streetscape in the 1930s, it was almost certainly taken by Berenice Abbott, whose series Changing New York contains around 300 photographs shot between 1935 and 1938. The New York Public Library's archive actually contains thousands of images from Abbott, however — around 2,200 duplicate and variant prints "representing about three-quarters of the 302 images contained in Abbott's definitive version of the project."
Inspired by the work of French photographer Eugene Atget, Abbott photographed the drastically changing landscape of New York City at the time. She then began documenting the city for the Federal Art Project, a New Deal agency set up to help unemployed artists. Her series portrays all aspects of the city’s architecture, from the newest skyscrapers and ornate buildings to dilapidated nineteenth-century homes and run-of-the-mill shops. The series was published in an eponymous photobook on the occasion of the World's Fair in 1939.
The series includes pieces of the city that are still standing today, as well as those that are not — look no further than the city's oldest apartment building. By 1960, the building (designed with so much care that each unit was sound proof!) was torn down and replaced with a new residential building.
Often dramatically lit with strong shadows and interesting perspectives, Abbott’s photographs in Changing New York offered a different view of the city, highlighting its modernity and change. Nearly a century later, they provide us with a glimpse into New York City's great past. This historicism, combined with Abbott's artistry, represent visual images of a bygone era.
While the collection features all five boroughs, most of the photos were taken in Manhattan. You can see them all here.
As part of our month-long Dear NYC series, we're looking at New York City gems hidden away at the New York Public Library. The NYPL’s four research centers offer the public access to over 55 million items, including rare books, manuscripts, letters, diaries, photographs, prints, maps, ephemera, and more. Integral to these robust collections is the Library’s extensive material related to New York City, and as NY works to come together, cope, heal and recover from the 2020 pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the many issues that divide us, it is important to look at that history and remember: New York is resilient. New York is strong. New York has seen its share of hard times. And, as always, with Patience and Fortitude (the names given to the Library’s beloved lions in 1933 by Mayor LaGuardia for the virtues New Yorkers needed to get through the Great Depression) we will get through it, together.