Berenice Abbott’s 1930s New York

photoLooks like sunny spring Sundays are not for writing. This morning, on the middle of a sentence, I had a sudden irresistible urge to research New York in the 1930s, which is where my novel begins. And what better to immerse myself in than my latest find, the New York Public Library’s dog-earred copy of Berenice Abbott’s “New York in the Thirties.”

I settled down on the terrace for a nice read…and emerged an hour later with my head full of old New York. The book was originally published in the fateful year of 1939 as “Changing New York.” There are skyscrapers and modern wonders, but also bakeries selling loaves of bread for 5 cents, barber schools offering 10-cent haircuts, and a “traveling tin shop,” a horse-drawn cart in Brooklyn selling pots and pans. Tenements boarded up by landlords too cheap to install fire escapes; hardware stores displaying all their wares on the sidewalk because immigrants were afraid to walk inside and ask for something they couldn’t point to; and a photo of one of the  “14,000 pushcart peddlers, selling candy, roast corn, baked sweet potatoes, roasted chestnuts, hot dogs, soft drinks, vegetables and fruits…banished from the streets of New York in 1938 by order of the Commissioner of Markets.”

After living the good life in Paris, photographing Joyce, Gide and Cocteau, Abbott came back to New York in 1929 to record it all. The book’s introduction describes her process. “Amid traffic, haste, vibration, crowds,  confusion, she has set up her 8 x 10 camera, leveled it off with a tiny carpenter’s spirit level, composed the image on the ground glass, focused it, calculated exposure, and taken the picture.” Back then, a good photo took time.

And that’s not the only thing that’s changed since the Thirties.



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