ArtsConnectEd/ArtsNet Minnesota

Art and Artists
 Berenice Abbott
 Giovanni Canal
 Frank Gehry
 Marsden Hartley
 Louis Lozowick
 Mexico (Nayarit)
 David Nash
 Georgia O'Keeffe
 Vincent van Gogh

Inner Worlds What is Art?  Identity  Designing Spaces and Places
Berenice Abbott
Abbott, Murray Hill SpiralClick for larger image Abbott, Broadway to the BatteryClick for larger image
Berenice Abbott
Murray Hill Hotel: Spiral, 1935
gelatin silver print
9 3/8 x 7 1/4 in.
Berenice Abbott
Broadway to the Battery, 1938
gelatin silver print
9 3/16 x 6 3/4 in.
About the Art

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.

Vocabulary Terms

modern, modernism--In 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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