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August 21, 2020

32 Stunning Black and White Photographs That Capture Street Scenes of New York City in the 1930s

An American photographer, Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) was a central figure in and important bridge between the photographic circles and cultural hubs of Paris and New York. She was born in Springfield, Ohio, and in 1918 moved to New York, where she studied sculpture independently, meeting and making vital connections with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, leaders of the American avant-garde.

In 1921, Abbott moved to Paris and continued her study of sculpture there and, later, in Berlin, before returning to Paris and becoming an assistant at the Man Ray Studio, where she would master photography. Her first solo show was at the gallery Le Sacre du Printemps in Paris in 1926 and featured portraits of the Parisian avant-garde, a practice she continued throughout her years in Paris, as in James Joyce.

It was in 1925 at the Man Ray Studio that Abbott first saw photographs by Eugène Atget. After Atget’s death, in 1927, she collaborated with Julien Levy, of New York’s Julien Levy Gallery, to buy most of Atget’s negatives and prints, bringing them back to New York upon her return in 1929. Abbott’s initiative preserved the archive of this fin-de-siècle French photographer’s studio, which, given its influence on the avant-garde, has become an important chapter of Abbott’s legacy.

Arriving back in New York in 1929, Abbott was struck by the rapid transformation of the built landscape. On the eve of the Great Depression she began a series of documentary photographs of the city that, with the support of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project from 1935 to 1939, debuted in 1939 as the traveling exhibition and publication Changing New York. For the rest of her life Abbott advocated for a documentary style of photography as exemplified in this project, while also continuing to promote the work of Atget.

Throughout her career, Abbott’s photography was very much a reflection of the rise in the development of technology and society. Her works documented and extolled the New York landscape. This was guided by her belief that a modern-day invention such as the camera deserved to document the twentieth-century. These photographs were shot by Abbott between 1933 and 1938.

Hester Street, between Allen and Orchard Streets, Manhattan. Looking down from window on street scene including peddlers, women sitting on stoop, baby carriages, fabric and clothing stores and pedestrians.

Harlem Street: II. 422-424 Lenox Avenue, Manhattan. Women sit on steps of house that serves as a church, with barber- shop below, white man talks to barber, beauty shop, and auto school next door.

Henry Street, Manhattan. 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.

Oyster Houses, South Street and Pike Slip, Manhattan. George M. Still and N.P. Housman Oyster Co.’s with piles of oyster shells in front and the Manhattan Bridge above.

Pike and Henry Streets, Manhattan. Looking down Pike Street toward the Manhattan Bridge, street half in shadow, rubble in gutters, some traffic.

Fulton Street Dock, Manhattan skyline, Manhattan. Men walk on pier where sailing vessels are moored, skyline beyond.

Waterfront, South Street, Manhattan. Brooklyn Bridge span as it reaches land above South Street near James, tall buildings rise beyond.

Radio Row, Cortlandt Street, Manhattan. Men window shop in store selling radios, elevated railroad station, Ninth Avenue line, right center, subway entrance visible.

Automat, 977 Eighth Avenue, Manhattan. Man takes pie out of Automat, stone counters and walls below metal and glass display.

Newsstand, 32nd Street and Third Avenue, Manhattan. Newstand next to State Coffee Shoppe, large display of magazines, ads for sundaes, Coca-Cola above, boxes of sodas below, man at left.

General view, looking southwest to Manhattan from Manhattan Bridge, Manhattan. Looking down Monroe Street toward Municipal building and financial district; children play on corner near church, parking lot, left.

Oak and New Chambers Streets, Manhattan. Festive lights in curlicue designs arch over street, men with tall ladder, wagons, cars, billboards; ‘el’ and Municipal Bldg. just visible.

Traveling tin shop, Brooklyn. Tinker looks over his shoulder at camera while he ties box to wagon already loaded with pans, brushes, basins, etc.

Union Square, Manhattan. Looking up at statue of Lafayette from behind and left, S. Klein’s store, a bank, a hotel and the Consolidated Edison Building, beyond.

Madison Square, looking northeast, Manhattan. Policeman stands in front of Seward statue, shoe-shine man lounges on railing, right, Metropolitan Life building rises above park.

Herald Square, 34th and Broadway, Manhattan. Looking down on busy intersection, people crossing, buses, trucks, cabs, other autos, Macy’s entrance just visible with union picket in front.

Willow and Poplar Street. Laundry wagon, cars, along sloping street lined with rowhouses, skyline of Manhattan visible above buildings at end of the street.

Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, Manhattan. Men stand at entrance to barbershop, pole in front, under the Blossom Restaurant, which has menu painted on windows and board out front.

Huts and unemployed, West Houston and Mercer Street, Manhattan. Men share a light in front of hut with open door, milk can and washtub inside, hut to left has pictures in frames adorning the outside of it.

Department of Docks and Police Station, Pier A, North River, Manhattan. Long building wtih clock tower at far end housing Dept. of Docks and a Police station; man walks toward camera near newsstand in foreground.

Mulberry and Prince Streets, Manhattan. Building with gambrel roof, dormers on corner, small houses along street where man pushes cart, large buildings topped with water towers beyond.

A & P (Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co.), 246 Third Avenue, Manhattan. Window display showing can goods, eggs, crackers, etc. and signs for sale items, ads with Kate Smith inviting you to try 2 different coffees.

‘El,’ Sixth Avenue Line, 28th Street Station, Manhattan. Street clogged with traffic below ‘el,’ stairs leading up have ads painted on them, sign on station: ‘RIDE ON THE OPEN AIR ELEVATED.’

Penn Station, Interior, Manhattan. Massive steel uprights in the center and to the left, with lighter steel tracery and windows above; men stand near stairway to trains.

Looking down from ‘el’ station at intersection of 34th and Broadway; pedestrians, traffice, Macy’s and billboards, Saks at 34th St.

Looking south at Greyhound Bus Terminal, 33rd and 34th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, Manhattan.

Scene at Fulton Street fish market, 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.

Pedestrians at Union Square in New York City were photographed mid-stride on an especially sunny and warm day. Union Square has long been a center of commercial activity, as well as a busy intersection where people catch one of the many subway or bus lines that run along Lexington Avenue, Columbus or Broadway.

Corner of East 10th Street and Avenue D, Manhattan. Two women converse on corner in front of Corn Exchange Bank Trust Co., truck at curb, other building at right.

Manhattan Skyline: I. South Street and Jones Lane, Manhattan. Looking from pier toward Manhattan, tugboats moored left, Downtown Skyport, right, skyscrapers in the background.

(via The Museum of Modern Art)


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