Berenice Abbott’s Greenwich Village @Marlborough New York

JTF (just the facts): A total of 50 black-and-white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space and the associated entry area on the second floor. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between c1923 and c1950, with some vintage and some printed later. Physical sizes range from roughly 3×2 to 13×10 inches (or the reverse), and no edition information was provided for the later prints. (Installation shots below.)

A catalog of the show has been published by the gallery. (Cover and detail shots below)

Comments/Context: Systematically photographing a neighborhood is inherently an exercise in patience. Of course, anyone with a camera can quickly drop in and make images of the obvious landmarks and sights, but it takes years of sustained looking to notice (and then document) the subtleties of streets, buildings, and residents that are constantly in flux.

For roughly thirty years, Berenice Abbott lived at 50 Commerce Street in New York City, in what is now called the West Village (her building now houses a trendy restaurant). In the mid 1930s, she taught at the New School, and in 1935, she was hired by the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to document the rapidly changing urban environment of the city’s five boroughs. This work would consume her for next several years, ultimately taking shape in 1939 as her landmark photobook Changing New York. Through the 1940s, Abbott continued to carefully observe her local neighborhood, her work over that decade coming together as Greenwich Village: Today & Yesterday in 1949.

Like her friend and mentor Eugène Atget (who she knew in Paris in the 1920s and whose work she actively championed after his death), Abbott saw the complexities of the transforming city as an endlessly engaging subject, and over the years she lived in the Village, she made countless images of its small streets, storefronts, individual buildings, and various local residents going about their daily routines. This show gathers together published images from the two relevant photobooks, as well as a range of variants, outtakes, and lesser known pictures, creating a precisely seen time capsule of the neighborhood as it was almost a century ago.

The exhibit actually begins with a short prelude in the external hallway, featuring a selection of Abbott’s portraits made in Paris in the late 1920s and in New York in the early 1930s, many with connections to life in the Village. Having trained in Man Ray’s studio, Abbott’s aesthetic was consistently sparse and unadorned, with the turn of a head or a simple pose all she needed to capture the essence of a personality. In the portraits collected here, she sees Djuna Barnes and Coco Chanel in strict profile, Edna St. Vincent Millay emerging from surrounding darkness, and Thelma Wood and Solita Solano in softer poses highlighted by contrast of light and dark.

And while these early portraits point to Abbott’s place in a swirling mix of intellectuals, writers, and actors, when we arrive in the main gallery space, it becomes clear that Abbott’s images of buildings and storefronts are actually portraits as well, with the clarity and formalism of her studio work now applied to subjects that she discovered in the streets. Abbott gives a few buildings the grande dame treatment, including Nos. 4, 6, 8 Fifth Avenue with their starkly contrasting color progression and the Civic Repertory Theater on 14th Street with its ornate Neoclassical facade, but the neighborhood’s older, scruffier, and less showy structures seem to have captured more of her attention. She documents the last remaining wood frame houses in the neighborhood, capturing the humble angles and horizontal lines of the slats. She pays attention to simple doorways and stoops, noticing the ways stairs meet the streets, windows flank doors, basement apartments reach up to the sidewalk, and ornamental features like round windows decorate otherwise modest fronts. She wanders down forgotten alleyways and dead end streets, discovering courtyards, repurposed carriage houses, and quirky angled spaces. And she revels in the eccentricities of buildings, including one (on King Street) covered by wisteria and another (on Christopher Street) with rounded dormers.

Abbott’s views of storefronts and shop windows are perhaps better known, and like Atget’s images of similar spots, they document the changing needs of the neighborhood, the entrepreneurial efforts of longstanding residents, and the inspired design choices made by those painting the signs and arranging the goods on offer. A touch of the surreal can be found in a massive white stag hung in an industrial designer’s window on Bleecker Street, and in the ominously large clock face in a repair shop on Christopher Street, the hands of time constantly turning. The instinct to offer multiple things in one location is discovered at an antiques shop selling ice out of the basement and a bookshop offering manuscript typing services in the window. And sheer visual density takes shape in the cheese shop window on West 8th Street, the Italian specialties offered on the hanging sign at the Napolitana Kitchen on West 4th, and the arrangement of racked guns for sale on Christopher Street.

While most of Abbott’s images of New York focus on the built environment rather than the people, a few of the photographs on view here do actually show us some of her Village neighbors. Edward Hopper poses with austere seriousness near the wood stove in his studio on Washington Square North, while a series of pictures captures Isamu Noguchi at work in his studio, including his back garden decorated with sculpture and his overstuffed worktable filled with tools. Other pictures are slightly more anonymous, catching actors hanging out on their doorstep, a friend at the outdoor fruit and vegetable market, and various other painters in their shadowy rooms. Add to these a scattering of pedestrians seen on the sidewalk here and there and Abbott’s Village feels unexpectedly bustling and vibrant, even during the hard years of the post-Depression 1930s.

This show ends up being both a study of a bygone era in one of New York’s most celebrated neighborhoods and in the way that Abbott arranged her frames to control the visual information in front of her lens. A closer look reveals how she used spindly winter trees to interrupt wider views, how she placed a fire escape or a tower in the distance to balance a composition, and how she used squared off frontal arrangements to highlight the geometries of squares and rectangles. Her subjects are streets, buildings, and storefronts, but every single picture is the solution to a compositional puzzle to solve, where Abbott’s eye transforms the city into something precise ordered.

The show closes with an outlier – a rain dappled view from her Commerce Street studio window, where the view down the street is turned into a wet blur behind the glass. It’s the most atmospheric picture in the show, setting mood more than documenting details. Made in the early 1950s, it perhaps signals the beginning of the end of Abbott’s days in the Village; by the end of the decade, she was doing her scientific work at MIT, and by the mid 1960s, she had permanently moved to Maine. The rain softens the sharp lines we have come to expect from Abbott, transforming into the street into an approximation, almost like a fading memory.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $3000 and $10000, based on vintage/later print status and scarcity. Abbott’s work is consistently available at auction, with dozens of prints coming up for sale in any given year, with prices ranging from roughly $1000 to $90000.

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