The Paris Review

Not a Nice Girl: On Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott, Self Portrait with Distortion, 1945.

Photography is the most modern of the arts … It is more suited to the art requirements of this age of scientific achievement than any other … Photography born of this age of steel seems to have naturally adapted itself to the necessarily unusual requirements of an art that must live in skyscrapers. —Alvin Langdon Coburn

I like this picture so well because it re-creates for me some of the feeling I got from the original scene—and that is the real test of any picture. —Berenice Abbott, 1953

It’s twilight in late December 1932. Thousands of streetlights and office windows blaze in electrified concert for a scant half hour between the winter-solstice sunset and the lights-out, five o’clock end of the office workers’ day. Just weeks earlier, after three crushing years of the Great Depression, fear-defying FDR had won the presidency by a landslide. Optimism was in the air.

High up in the northwest corner of the new Empire State Building, thirty-four-year-old Berenice Abbott aims, will forever signal “modern metropolis”—as futuristic to us in the twenty-first century as it was to Berenice’s Depression-weary contemporaries. 

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