Regarding New York

F. Javier Rodríguez Barberán

<em>Canyon: Broadway and Exchange Place</em>

Berenice Abbott
Canyon: Broadway and Exchange Place, 1936
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Photography Collection. The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
© Getty Images / Berenice Abbott

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The contrast between the title and the image is somewhat bewildering: Berenice Abbott labels the work Canyon, and where we would expect to find steep walls with almost no vegetation and a landscape slowly formed over millennia by water erosion, such as those photographed around the same time by Ansel Adamas, something entirely different emerges. This landscape is completely artificial and its chronology bears no relation to naturally forming canyons: man needed only a few short years to construct these edifices that reach up to the sky, with powerful verticals in sharp contrast with the bridge-like passageway that links two of the skyscrapers. The viewpoint only serves to heighten the metaphor: we cannot help but imagine the expressions of those people, like the artists, who lift up their eyes to admire the marvelous transformation of Manhattan into the vastness of Utah or Arizona.

New York is a key milestone in the creation of the cultural landscape of the 20th century and the project which Abbot encapsulates in her book entitled Changing New York demonstrates a fascinating kaleidoscope of the metropolis. It is in dialog with her peers and also speaks to future generations. When we see the buildings under construction it is wonderful to observe the images of daily life of Lewis Hine at the same time, also epic photographs in their own right. The city and its people break down the divide between the stage and the actors, filling the frames with stories that literature and especially cinema have made so familiar to those of us who have never visited the city: because New York is also, or perhaps above all, a place that has been frequently filmed, from King Vidor to Allen and Scorsese.

Perhaps the highly diverse nature of the place in comparison with the European World is what Abbot manages to depict perfectly. Because Abbott, who crossed the Atlantic and then came back, is all too aware that Manhattan is not Paris and that her work will never be like the work of Eugène Atget, whom she admired greatly. New York is defining what several decades later the architect Rem Koolhaas will come to call the “culture of congestion”, “Manhattanism” as an ideology, made up of a dense network in which architecture rises up and gets lost in the sky and where stories intertwine. However, it is wonderful to lose oneself in the photographs where this density is not down to the buildings but rather the signs: signs that clutter up the sidewalks, windows displays and stores full of posters and products… In a very sincere way, Atget, once again, and Walker Evans seem to shake hands in the work of Berenice Abbott, who depicts a city that will undoubtedly leave an impression on its visitors. Perhaps the soft strains of an old tune will follow them to the exhibition hall entrance, because as Cole Porter wrote: I happen to like New York.

F. Javier Rodríguez Barberán is tenured professor at the E.T.S. de Arquitectura in Seville.