With these images, Abbott wanted to "reach the roots, get under the
skin of reality." She hoped her photographs would be used by city
planners to improve the quality of urban life. Abbott was concerned
that the hugeness of the city threatened to distort the humanity of
individuals. Although not all of her photographs included people,
she said, "You are photographing people when you are photographing
a city, and you don't have to have a person in it." She hoped people
would construct a positive future together.
Her photographs often show contrasts between the old and new in
New York of the 1930s. Now more that half the buildings she documented
have been demolished. In Murray Hill Hotel: Spiral, Abbott
shows portions of the hotel, which was built in 1884, and at the
time considered one of the most magnificent examples of 19th-century
hotels in New York. The curving lines of the balconies contrast
against the soaring geometric shapes of a modern skyscraper. By
choosing to position herself low to the ground, Abbott created an
exaggerated vision of the city.
Likewise, in Broadway to the Battery, Abbott includes
several important skyscrapers and also Battery Park and the Statue
of Liberty, already an established symbol for American culture and
life. In this photograph, she positioned her large camera on the
roof of the Irving Trust Co. building to offer a sweeping panorama
of the modern American life and its older roots.
When she was in her early twenties, Abbott tried sculpture and
drawing but was not inspired by these media. In Paris, the well-known
photographer Man Ray hired her as an assistant and taught her photography.
She was exposed to the visual vocabulary of modernism--including
extreme angles, faceted views and stark, dramatic contrasts--which
she applied to her photographic work. In a few years, Abbott had
a successful portrait business and photographed many famous people.
She met Eugene Atget, a man devoted to photographing the entire
city of Paris. Although Atget's Paris is quite unlike New York,
the photographs inspired Abbott to make a detailed document of New
York City as it underwent dramatic changes.
art history, this term refers to the philosophies of art made in
Europe and the United States during a period roughly from the 1860s
through the 1970s when certain artists began to take radical steps
away from traditional art in order to be deliberately different,
critical, and often dissenting from the dominant official taste.
Modern art or modernism is characterized by changing attitudes about
art, an interest in contemporary events as subjects, personal artistic
expression, and freedom from realism. Modernism can be seen as artists'
attempts to come to terms with urban, industrial, and secular society
that emerged during the 19th century in Western society.
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