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Monday, June 4, 2007

Vintage NYC scenes and skyline, now on-line

Penn Station, 1935, by Berenice Abbott
Penn StationsitesI'm creating the marketing program for a new building that I'm representing for sale at 9 West 19th Street (more on that coming soon). It was built in 1903 in the 'Ladies Mile Historic District'. I wanted to design a memorable visual identity for this property, which would speak to its history and landmark status. I decided to look for archival photos of it; and that lead to checking if Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) had ever photographed the block. She was a great photographer who documented NYC in the WPA/FAP era from 1935 to 1938 in her seminal work, Changing New York.

"to preserve for the future an accurate and faithful chronicle in photographs of the changing aspect of the world's greatest metropolis, ... a synthesis which shows the sky-scraper in relation to the less colossal edifices which preceded it, ... to produce an expressive result in which moving details must coincide with balance of design and significance of subject."
Her vision becomes even more focused and meaningful within the shifting context of passing time. Curator Julia Van Haaften writes of her work, "Meeting Abbott's explicit aesthetic goal of creating visually compelling documents, the images of Changing New York reflect her thorough acquaintance with the visual vocabulary of European modernism and at the same time resonate with her philosophical and aesthetic sympathy for the camera's documentary realism". These are superb, large format photos, composed by a master of the view camera. They are modernist landscapes, which resonate the industrial scenes of the precisionist painters of a decade earlier like Charles Sheeler. They give us a gateway back through over 70 years of time. Capturing forever a fleeting moment in the life of our city. We need only use our eyes for transportation.

While my research did not come up with any shots of the block that I was hoping for, I did discover hours of browsing pleasure at the New York Public Library site which incredibly, has put the entire collection online in a digital gallery. I wanted to share that discovery with you. It is an amazing resource for anyone interested in seeing our city's past. She covered much of downtown including the Financial District, Soho, the Washington Market (now Tribeca) and Radio Row (The World Trade Center site) as well as other parts of the Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island. It is a reminder of what's endured, and some of what's been lost too, like the old Penn Station by McKim, Mead and White pictured above, razed to build Madison Square Garden, and sparking the landmark preservation movement.

visit the 'changing new york' digital gallery »