The recreation of a landmark in 1930s documentary photography.
Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York (1939) is the career-defining book by one of modernism’s most prominent photographers and a landmark in 1930s documentary photography. Published in 1939 by E. P. Dutton with support from the New Deal’s Federal Art Project, the book presented ninety-seven photographs from Abbott’s larger WPA-funded “Changing New York” project (1935–1939), with by captions credited to art critic Elizabeth McCausland. Yet, because of editorial changes by the publisher, the book that Abbott and McCausland actually planned, sequenced, and wrote remains unseen. As a consequence, their wholly unique theory of documentary, along with their radical program for conjoining change, history, experience, and photography-trained vision in New York City’s built environment, have been lost. This book recreates Changing New York as it was originally envisioned by Abbott and McCausland, presenting their original selection of photographs and McCausland’s original and published captions.
In an accompanying essay, Sarah Miller investigates Changing New York‘s recreation, the publisher’s revisions, and the European theoretical and cultural background of the project, explaining how the concept of “documentary” was a contested notion and the object of intense, if not acrimonious, discussions. Julia Van Haaften and Gary Van Zante then discuss Changing New York as a physical artifact, focusing on the document’s provenance, its archival history and preservation, and, more important, its recent institutional accessibility—which has made this book possible.