These twenty-four photographs of Boston were taken in 1934 by the modernist photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). A native of Ohio, Abbott learned her trade in Paris as a darkroom assistant for the surrealist artist Man Ray in the 1920s. After a stint as a successful portrait photographer on the Left Bank, Abbot returned to New York City in 1929 where she began work on her well-known Changing New York project. Inspired by the French photographer Eugène Atget, Abbott spent nearly ten years photographing the built environment of New York City as skyscrapers emerged and old buildings were demolished. But funding for such a vast project was scarce during the Depression, and in 1934 she accepted an offer of temporary employment from the architectural historian, Henry Russell Hitchcock (1903-1987).
Hitchcock was a leading advocate for modernist architecture, publishing and lecturing widely on the virtues of avant-garde architecture and the International Style. As a professor at Wesleyan University from 1929 to 1948, Hitchcock curated a series of architectural exhibitions, including The Urban Vernacular of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties: American Cities before the Civil War. In this exhibition, Hitchcock proposed a historical precedence for modernist architecture, arguing that many early nineteenth-century buildings in America shared similar traits with contemporary architecture: lack of ornamentation, simple and regular proportions, well-made materials, and avoidance of historical or anthropological references. To bolster his claim, Hitchcock identified buildings in five major cities, including Boston, New York, Baltimore, Charleston, and Philadelphia, and hired Abbott to photographically document these structures for his exhibition.
In the summer of 1934, Hitchcock and Abbott traveled the eastern seaboard researching and photographing the architecture of the chosen cities. Although Hitchcock created the itinerary and selected the buildings, Abbott was given full artistic license and many of the resulting photographs are evidence of her evolving style and commitment to modernist principles. Like Hitchcock, who deplored the historical revivals of late nineteenth-century western architecture with its elaborate ornamentation and cluttered facades, Abbott rejected the pictorialist aesthetic of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as “artificial” and “sentimental.” As seen in the Boston photographs that constitute the Athenæum’s collection, Abbott favored a clear, sharp-focused, stripped down approach to photography.
Seven of the twenty-four photographs in this collection were chosen for inclusion in Hitchcock’s exhibition, The Urban Vernacular. Based on internal evidence, the remaining seventeen photographs can also be dated to the summer of 1934. It is unclear if they were part of the Hitchcock/Abbott collaboration or if Abbott took them for her personal files. Although all of the photographs focus on nineteenth-century buildings, they also acknowledge the presence of modern life: parked automobiles, large signage, telephone poles, and street lamps. Largely devoid of people, the photographs are characterized by a stillness and clarity, documenting a single moment in the life of the city.
Walter Muir Whitehill, Director of the Boston Athenæum from 1946 to 1972 and a well-known local historian, acquired these photographs from the artist in February of 1958. (Abbott had recently moved to Boston to photograph scientific phenomenon for MIT’s Physical Science Study Committee whose mission was to improve the quality of science education in American high schools.) Abbott had retained her original 8x10 negatives from her 1934 trip and printed a new set of silver gelatin prints for the Boston Athenæum.
Curator of Prints and Photographs
Julia Van Haaften, an authority on Abbott and author of a forthcoming biography on the photographer, kindly provided information on the photographs and their acquisition by the Boston Athenæum.
Mileaf, Janine A. and Carla Yanni. Constructing Modernism: Berenice Abbott and Henry-Russell Hitchcock. Middleton, Conn.: Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University, 1993.