Sunday, November 21, 2010

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #8 -Contrasting No. 331 East 39th Street with Chrysler Building and Daily News Building

Contrasting No. 331 East 39th Street with Chrysler Building and Daily News Building, Manhattan, Berenice Abbott, November 8, 1938 Art Institute of Chicago

New building materials, steel, glass and chrome, in the 20th century led to the rise of many new skyscrapers. Steel was an incredible new material, and allowed for lighter walls which then allowed for glass to be utilized in new ways. Elevators became a more reliable technology and allowed for buildings to be built higher and higher. Architectural styles used in buildings that were built from World War I until the 1930s are known as "traditional", after that time they were considered to be "modern". These new materials created the modern aesthetic - one that was not only new but would also showcase these innovative materials. The Bauhaus was in full swing in Germany and one architect, Le Corbusier, was the champion of the International Style.

The cityscapes were changing rapidly; Bernice Abbott took note and set out to document the changes. She studied in Paris and was a darkroom assistant to Man Ray, a very famous portrait photographer and Dada and Surrealist artist. He trained her in his methods, and soon she was shooting for herself and mounting her own shows. Rather than take pictures of people, she decided to take portraits of the buildings that were appearing in the city. New York was one of the most dynamic places for new skyscrapers at the time, so that's where she settled down. She realized that her goals were in tandem with the WPA/FAP, and submitted a proposal to document the historical changes being made to the New York City skyline. He proposal was accepted.

Look at the building that is named only by its address - its windows are boarded up, posters cover the doors and windows on the street level. It appears to have been a residential building. It was unremarkable, except to Abbott it spoke of the problems during the Depression - evictions, people fleeing in search of a lucrative opportunity, an example of urban decay. The new buildings, the Chrysler Building at the far left and the Daily News Building to the very left of No. 331 East 39th, are beautiful, new, named and renowned within the city. This contrast between the old and new is not necessarily a political statement. Much like Walker Evans, she is merely capturing the image of the change and bringing it to the viewer's attention.
Bernice Abbott


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