Change as the Heart of NYC

Change as the Heart of NYC|Change as the Heart of NYC

Photographer Douglas Levere revisits Berenice Abbott’s urban chronicle

In 1929, when she was 31 years old, Ohio-born, Greenwich Village-bred Berenice Abbott––she had, while abroad, added the middle “e” to her first name, French-style––returned from Paris, expecting not to stay in New York very long.

With her she brought 1,400 glass-plate negatives and 7,800 prints she had salvaged from the studio of the great Eugene Atget, who had died two years earlier, and from whom she had learned how to look at, and how to photograph, a city.

She intended to stay in New York only long enough to find somebody or some museum willing to exhibit the work of Atget, and/or a publisher willing to publish a book about him. Easier said than done.

What instead happened was she looked around and saw what had been going on in the visage of this city, the great architectural flowering in the eight years she had been away in Paris taking photographs of people like Jean Cocteau, James Joyce, Andre Gide, and her friend and early employer Man Ray. It was a whole new New York City she beheld, and, after a quick trip back to Paris, she decided to stay.

Then the stock market crashed.

It took five years of scrabbling for survival, teaching at the New School, and recognition––principally by the fledgling Museum of the City of New York––before the Federal Arts Project of the New Deal’s Works Project Administration came through with the $145 monthly stipend that enabled Abbott to go around with her heavy 8×10-inch Century Universal camera, bellows, and tripod to take photographs of what may have been the greatest era in what’s been called the “architectural landscape” of this city.

Those photos were brought together in a book that became an instant classic, “Changing New York” (E.P. Dutton, 1939), and it is that book, and some of those photographs that are now echoed, mirror-imaged, amplified, put into subsequent context, and historically enriched in another knockout photo volume, “New York Changing” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2005), by 39-year-old New York-born Douglas Levere.

What it does is put face-to-face on opposing pages photographs of a given locale at a given time of day by Berenice Abbott, on the left, and, from the same vantage point, at the same locale, at the same time of day, by Doug Levere, on the right, some 60 or more years later.

The jacket cover almost tells the story: Top half, Abbott’s 1936 shot past an ornate multiple-figured Custom House statue to the solid, elegant, tall-windowed façade of the 1886 New York Product Exchange; bottom half, Levere’s identically placed 1997 shot past the same statue to the trashy, tinny, mechanistic siding of a Metropolitan Transit Authority headquarters even then about to undergo its own complete makeover.

Let us turn to facing pages 90 and 91, for this is where the whole project started in the mind of Douglas Levere.

On the left, “Broadway Near Broome Street, 1935,” on the right, nearly identical but not quite, just as sharply stamped in sunlight and shadow, “Broadway Near Broome Street, 1998.”

The one on the left, the Berenice Abbott print, is what Levere suddenly saw staring him in the face at a pre-auction exhibit of works by many famous photographers, one day in 1996 or ’97.

“I lived on Broome Street,” he writes in his “New York Changing” book. “Here I stood, unexpectedly staring at the view outside my building, taken six decades before.”

Doug Levere lives in Buffalo where he went to college these days, but he recently visited his native city to cast an eye upon the Levere/Abbott exhibit that’s at the Museum of the City of New York, Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street, through November 27.

“The Abbott photograph told me so much,” he said. “In those days, Broome Street was two-way; now it’s one-way. The building on the near right is gone, but not the 1857 cast-iron building beyond it, the first building in New York City, or perhaps the whole country, to have an elevator. It’s the building where Mary Lincoln bought china for the White House. Now there’s a Staples on the ground floor.”

There is a platform of beer kegs in the Abbott photo, Prohibition having ended in 1933. “The Vegetarian Dairy Restaurant sign”—now gone—“tells you this was probably a Jewish neighborhood,” Levere explained.

There are more trucks in Levere’s 1998 view, but if you squint along rooftops you can see, very tiny, the same water towers.

It was Ellen Carey, a professor at the Hartford School of the Arts––“my friend who was becoming my mentor,” Levere said––who for some years had been urging him to do his own thing, invent his own project as a photographer.

“She’d been pushing me, and I’d been thinking of doing something on Alexander Rodchenko [Russian Constructivist painter and photographer, 1891-1956), but that didn’t work for today’s age,” Levere recalled. “Now I realized that artists, musicians, poets, writers always stood on the shoulders of what came before. I went out and bought a $15 Dover paperback copy of Abbott’s ‘Changing New York,’ and started going around by bicycle––if I had a free day, had the time, and the light was right––taking snapshots, using the Dover reprint as a guide.”

He also thought back to “a group of photographers and geologists” who in the 1970s went out to cover the ground in the American West where William Henry Jackson and Timothy O’Sullivan had taken pictures a century earlier.

“Then 25 years later, these same photographers and geologists went back and did it again. If they could put so much energy into covering such a vast location, with such skill and such accuracy, I figured I could do it in my backyard and come up with something better than a simple then-and-now book.”

One day a Life magazine photo editor named Debbie Bondilic asked Levere he had “any personal projects.” He pulled out some of the snapshots he’d done scouting Abbott’s camera sites while trying to figure out if the whole long effort would be worth it.

“Debbie loved them, she called in David Friend, director of photography,” and the magazine published five pairs of Abbott and Levere prints, including a close-up of the big sidewalk clock at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street that Abbott had taken from the top of a double-decker Fifth Avenue bus. “So Life magazine actually rented a red double-decker tourist bus for me to take the same picture.” 

Curator/author Bonnie Yochelson was at that moment preparing the Museum of the City of New York’s fine 1998 retrospective, “Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York, 1935 to 1939,” and was also at work on a book on the subject.

“I introduced myself”—and Yochelson’s book served as Levere’s guide to the date, numbering, time of day, weather, light, shadow, angles of every one of Abbott’s 300 photos of changing New York. “She had 300, I had 16.” In the end, for his own book, he completed 114.

Todd Watts, an artist/photographer who early in his career had published Abbott’s photos and made one of those big, heavy 8×10-inch cameras for her—painting it, at her request, black with salmon-colored metal fittings—now built such a camera for Levere.

One bleak day on the end of an East River pier, shooting a scene that had been a magnificence of Lower Manhattan skyline in Abbott’s photo but was now a hideous black mass, or blot, of brutalitarian 1990s office building, Levere asked himself: Why am I standing on this pier, in the cold––who wants to take this horrible picture?

“But then I thought: If these pictures stand next to one another, that’s change!”

Douglas Levere’s parents, Julius Levere, printer, and Ann Levere, fashion illustrator, both still alive, were children of the Depression, their son said. They remember the New York––much of it thrillingly under construction––that fell before Berenice Abbott’s eyes the day in 1929 she stepped off the boat, back from Paris, only as long as she might need to find somebody to take care of the legacy of Eugene Atget.