A couple of months ago, I was sent a review copy of this magnificent book. I’ve been slowly leafing through it ever since, savouring every page, and have finally, belatedly, found the time to post about it here. It’s a quite superb collection of city photography, featuring one of the classic works of 20th century urban photography, Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York, juxtaposed with ‘rephotographs’ of the same subjects taken from exactly the same position 60 years later by Douglas Levere.
Going beyond just tracking down the exact location, Levere also used exactly the same model of camera (an 8×10 Century Universal), aping the shutter speed and apertures that Abbott had occasionally noted, and undergoing a painstaking process of hand-modifying the lenses just as Abbott had, in order to be able to rephotography exactly. The results are endlessly fascinating.
Of course, the book benefits from being based on, and featuring, Abbott’s initial work – one of the greatest and most famous ‘New Deal’ era projects, funded by the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. Her photographs remain amongst, if not atop, the classic evocations of the modern city:
“Suppose we took a thousand negatives… combining the elegances, the squalor, the curiosities, the monuments, the sad faces, the triumphant faces, the power, the irony, the strength, the decay, the past, the present, the future of a city – that would be my favorite picture.” Berenice Abbott
This book contains eighty-one of Levere’s rephotographs alongside Abbott’s originals, presented face to face and well-reproduced at decent size. Overall, Levere took more rephotographs than included here, but still fewer than Abbott took during the 1930s. Some of Abbott’s original subjects had simply gone, some were impossible to photograph due to changes in the fabric of the city. Others required Levere to brave Chase Manhattan bank security guards summoning up SWAT teams, and peregrine falcons nesting in the roof of One Wall Street.
Sometimes it takes moments to identify the change – the shot of the Flatiron building is barely different at all. Bread stores with only the typography updated; different people in different clothes walking over the same streets. The astonishing shot looking south along Seventh Avenue is essentially the same – just busier. The river, quieter. The Broadway/Broome Street scene which first captured Levere’s imaginations differs from from photograph to rephotograph in subtle ways: the traffic is now one way; the lamppost is no longer Victorian; part of the far-right building has been torn down. But otherwise, it’s remarkably similar.
Elsewhere, the change is radical, surgical. The wonderfully imposing Jamaica Town Hall in Queens pulled down and replaced by a squat, identikit McDonalds. The Irving Place Theatre, with its wonderful signage promising “GLORIFIED FOLLIES” and nightly performances by Gypsy Rose Lee, demolished to be replaced with the ugly base of twenty-seven-story Zeckendorf Towers. Elevated railroads rubbed out. Townhouses flattened. Memorials forgotten.
Elsewhere, the change is simply increased density, the occasional glimpses of the river and sky through the forest of skyscrapers springing up in the 30s are now eradicated by a solid thicket of steel, glass and stone.
Elsewhere, the change is cultural, above the built fabric of the city – the hand-painted menu at the Blossom restaurant is now a window displaying product in an Asian housewares shop.
Sometimes, we seem to have gone backwards. The Downtown Skyport that Abbott photographed in 1936 seems to predict an entirely alternate, and rather braver, future to that rephotographed by Levere in 2001.
Importantly, whilst the presentation of these photographs side by side can seem to depict a loss, the danger of nostalgia never far away, Abbott’s and Levere’s work are both dignified attempts to simply record the city, to freeze it at a moment in in their own time. If you want to make a narrative arc between now and then, so be it. However, these photographs don’t necessarily define that narrative, just as the history of this city slips away under attempts to pin it down. It’s not simply a case of ‘tweening’ Abbott’s photography into Levere’s – morphing left page to right, fast-forward 1938 to 1998. The untold stories between then and now are multiple and unknowable. Too many to make a simple connection, too complex to enable an easy subtraction of one from the other. As Paul Goldberger notes in his foreword to New York Changing:
“Abbott sought to document, not moralize … It is impossible to look at her photographs and not feel a sense of loss, but her eye is so fine and so sure that she makes us feel that loss not in terms of the easy emotion of nostalgia but rather as an expression of dignity, and of the reality of the city as a living thing.”
Overall, these rephotographs help us to do just that – to, in Goldberger’s words, “understand how much (the city) is a living, changing thing”. That’s the main point of this book to me – over and above its function as a quite beautiful visual artifact, it serves as a powerful reminder that the essential, quotidian experience of the modern city is change. Douglas Levere:
“A single photograph gives the illusion that time stops. A rephotograph lifts that illusion. In this tangling of the old and the new, the different and the same, lies the truth that Berenice Abbott understood well. All is flux; change is the only permanence. I hope that our paired works constitute a fresh invitation—not only to the rephotographers of the future but to anyone interested in urban life. The future of our city depends, in great part, on understanding how past decisions have played out.”
On the weekend that one of New York’s greatest sons, Arthur Mlller, died, it seems apposite to recall Willy Loman’s words in Death of a Salesman: “I’m still feeling kind of temporary about myself”. Change is the only permanence, nowhere more so than New York.
New York Changing [Amazon UK|US]
New York Changing site
About New York Changing
Index of a selection of images from the book
More photographs of New York by Levere
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