15 Pictures of New York in the 1930’s on 8×10 camera by Berenice Abbott

Mar 7, 2020
5 min read

15 Pictures of New York in the 30’s by Berenice Abbott

“I believe there is no more creative medium than photography to recreate the living world of our time. Photography gladly accepts the challenge because it is at home in its element: namely, realism—real life—the now.”

-Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) is one of the most renowned American documentary photographers, best known for her images of New York City in the 1930s. Inspired by the realistic city street portraits by Eugène Atget, a French photographer she met in Paris, Abbott produced a series of over 300 black and white photographs of New York. Her work was compiled in the publication Changing New York in 1939. It serves as an invaluable record of New York’s changing landscape during the Great Depression. 

Although Abbott used a small hand-held camera to record her ideas, she always made the final shots with a large view camera. She took her first photographs of New York with a hand-held Curt-Bentzin and later switched to a Century Universal that produced 8×10 inch negatives.

In her storefront window photographs, Abbott often constructed intricate juxtapositions between interior and exterior, light and shadows. 

This busy storefront shot captures the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, the largest grocery retailer in the United States at the time. 

Abbott’s bulky view camera allowed her to capture the tiniest details, including the handwriting on the restaurant window in this crisp image of Blossom Restaurant and Jimmy’s barbershop. 

One in every three New Yorkers was unemployed at the time this photograph was taken. Through her photography, Abbott strived to give an honest portrait of the city with all its contrasts, such as extreme poverty amid incredible wealth.

Motorized vehicles driving alongside carts and horses witness a fleeting moment in New York’s rapidly vanishing past. In Abbott’s work, though, there is no place for emotion or nostalgia. She simply wanted her photography to be “a faithful presentation of what has actually existed in the external world at a particular time and place.” 

Abbot’s expertise in achieving a great depth of field is evident in this shot of a Manhattan street displaying the architectural variety of an evolving urban environment. 

Between 1921 and 1966, Radio Row was the Lower West Side warehouse district, with several blocks jam-packed with popular electronics stores. 

Abbott captured an everyday scene at what was the most important wholesale fish market in the US and an integral part of the East River waterfront for almost two centuries. The market is now disassembled in order to be reconstructed a few meters away from its original location.

The shot of the Yuban coffee warehouse under the Brooklyn Bridge brings out the crisp detail and emphasizes the beauty of a utilitarian structure, an aspect influenced by Eugène Atget’s Paris street photography. 

The mast of a merchant ship stands tall against the backdrop of the New York skyline. The sharp focus of both the rigging and the Financial District buildings is yet another example of Abbot’s mastering great depth of field.

This Downtown Skyport shot is a result of Abbott’s attention to detail and composition. The 40 Wall Street building in the center of the frame used to be the world’s tallest building until it was dethroned by the Chrysler Building.

These buildings and the elevated railroad barely visible on the right were torn down for new constructions. Like many other Abbott’s photographs, this image is an invaluable resource for New York’s historic preservationists.

Bathed in early morning light, the facades of the three Fifth Avenue buildings stand in sharp contrast. Abbott used adjustments on her view camera to correct distortions and add to the flatness of the images. 

The photo of the Flatiron building, the very epitome of modernity for New Yorkers, was taken from the top floor of a six-story commercial building across the street. 

Night View was shot from the Empire State Building with a fifteen-minute exposure. This is one of the most iconic New York photographs ever taken.  

All the photos are sourced from the New York Public Library online catalogue.

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