This week, we have a guest post from our fabulous archival intern, Suzanna Calev, who is currently obtaining a double Master’s Degree in Library Science with a concentration in Archives Management and History at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts. Suzanna recently completed processing Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York papers (the finding aid is available on the Museum’s catablog for archival collections). Suzanna’s insights on the collection, and her experience of processing it:
Every time I return to New York, I find the city has changed. Whether it is the demise of my favorite brunch place or the construction of a new high-rise, New York City is always changing, always re-inventing itself. Being a native of the city, I should not be surprised by this, but I always have a mixed feeling of hope and nostalgia by the transformation of the city I love, missing the old stomping grounds from my childhood and hoping that the coming changes are favorable ones.
Perhaps this is exactly what the photographer Berenice Abbott felt when she returned to New York City in 1929. Originally from Springfield, Ohio, Abbott moved to Greenwich Village in 1918 with college friends. She moved to Paris in 1921 and it was there that she developed an interest in photography, working as an assistant to Man Ray. Her return to New York City was meant to be temporary, but when she saw how much the city had changed – the skyscrapers replacing nineteenth century classical columns, new towers and structures popping up all around her – she decided to move back permanently to capture this transformation through the lens of a camera. For more information on Abbott’s life, as well as the Changing New York project, take a look at the finding aid for Berenice Abbot’s Changing New York papers.
After photographing the city independently for six years, unable to get financial support from organizations, foundations, or private individuals, she was finally hired by the Federal Art Project (FAP), a small division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) formed in 1935 to centralize various public work projects. The FAP was a relief agency for artists and supported the work of many painters, photographers, and printers, including Romare Bearden, Ben Shahn, and Lee Krasner.
In 1937 the Museum of the City of New York mounted an exhibition, Changing New York, of Abbott’s photographs for the FAP. This prompted interest in publishing a Changing New York book that would include both the photographs and captions written by Elizabeth McCausland, a writer, art critic, and Abbott’s longtime partner.
Abbott’s papers relating to the project, along with several of Abbott’s photographs from the Changing New York project, were in the custody of the Metropolitan Museum of Art prior to their transfer to the Museum of the City of New York. The Changing New York materials appear to have been deposited with the Met as a matter of convenience, if not accident, when the FAP presented the Met with materials from another project. Because of the City Museum’s role in the original exhibition, the Met felt the rightful home of the papers was with the City Museum and custody of the collection was transferred in 1947 along with 215 unmounted and 71 mounted photographs from the Changing New York project.
The Berenice Abbott papers contain the original captions proposed for the book and they are an absolute treasure to read. They reveal the literary genius of McCausland, who attempted to produce cinematic effects with her descriptions of the photographs. For example, she implored the reader to recite “like Vachel Lindsay’s train announcer” the names of various cheeses for Cheese Store on Bleecker.
E. P Dutton, the publisher of the book, foresaw many tourists visiting New York and buying guidebooks for the opening of the 1939 New York’s World Fair, so he wanted Abbott’s book to be a simple guidebook that could attract multiple audiences. As a result, he rejected McCausland’s original captions, such as the one for the Cheese Store, pictured above. The published Cheese Store caption below is strictly factual:
It saddens me that Dutton didn’t use McCausland’s original captions. The published captions lack her lyrical voice. Many of the original captions convey McCausland and Abbott’s political and social beliefs, which may have been too radical for Dutton and Co., Inc. For example, the original caption for Gunsmith and Police Department suggested that the placement of the gun over the shop facing the police department in Abbott’s composition was intentional.
McCausland’s bold caption above was replaced with a toned down version that suggested a cooperative relationship between the Police Department and Frank Lava’s gun shop:
Although Dutton had final say over the captions, thankfully we can still see how Abbott and McCausland viewed the changing landscape of the city and how they wanted to impart these changes to the general public. Despite the conflicting vision over the Dutton book, it is comforting to know that no matter what the era, New York City continuously surprises and mesmerizes its inhabitants.