Fifth Avenue, # 4, 6, 8, Manhattan / from the series Changing New York, 1936
Berenice Abbott, American, 1898–1991
Gelatin silver print
Image: 7 1/2 × 9 5/8 in. (19 × 24.4 cm) Sheet: 7 1/2 × 9 5/8 in. (19.1 × 24.4 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the estate of Caroline Wiess Law, The Manfred Heiting Collection

Habits of Mind

  • SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications

Fifth Avenue

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

GRADE LEVEL

7

SUBJECT AREA

Social Studies

HABITS OF MIND

Synthesize

Connecting to the Work of Art

Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio in 1898. She attended Ohio State University for one term before moving to New York City. Discontent with American culture took her to Paris in 1921, where she worked as a photography assistant to artist Man Ray. What began merely as a means of earning a living evolved into a long and impressive career as a photographer.

While in Paris, Abbott also developed an avid appreciation for the works of then little known photographer, Eugène Atget, who photographed the evolution of nineteenth-century Parisian architecture during the Industrial Revolution. While visiting New York City in 1929, Abbott’s fascination with the aesthetic and social changes of the city led her to return to the United States for good. Abbott, inspired by Atget’s keen, yet objective, documentary style, began her photographic documentary of the rapidly modernizing cityscape of New York in 1935. The series, entitled Changing New York, was published in 1939.

 

The three adjoining houses shown in Fifth Avenue #4, 6, 8 Manhattan, were built in the mid-1880s for Mrs. Mary Wetherbee, Mrs. Rhinelander Stewart, and Mrs. J. Herbert Johnston, three women who were daughters of F. W. Rhinelander, president of the Milwaukee, Lake Shore, and Western Railroad. The imposing facades of the houses illustrate the flair for elegance among New York’s upper class of the time. The houses were on the historically posh Fifth Avenue, still one of the city’s most exclusive areas for shopping, dining, and living. Architect Henry J. Hardenbergh, who established himself with the design of the Waldorf-Astoria and Hotel Albert, designed the soaring structures in his typical ornate style.

Abbott’s Changing New York series chronicles the city from the most luxurious parts of Manhattan to the underprivileged Lower East Side. When a reporter asked her to identify her favorite photograph of the series, she responded that a “a myriad-faceted picture combining the elegances, the squalor, the curiosities, the monuments, the sad faces, the triumphant faces ... of a city” would be her favorite.

 

In this photograph, Berenice Abbott presents a view of the three monumental, multi-storied houses cleverly juxtaposed with unidentified individuals. By presenting her subjects from a realistic perspective, Abbot is able to more successfully portray the effects of the changing conditions of 1930s American culture within the city environment. In an essay in which Abbott discusses Changing New York, she says:

“To photograph New York City means to s eek to catch in the sensitive photographic emulsion the spirit of the metropolis....The concern is not with the architectural rendering of detail, the buildings of 1935 overshadowing all else, but with a synthesis which shows the skyscraper in relation to the less colossal edifices which preceded it.”

 

The year 1929 marked the beginning of the Great Depression, making private funding for the arts scarce. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” included the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (FAP), an employment relief agency for out-of-work artists. The FAP provided artists, including Abbott, with the funds necessary to produce “socially useful” works of art such as the Changing New York series. FAP Director Holger Cahill said that the goal of the Project was not to “develop what is known as art appreciation”, but rather, “to raise a generation...[s]ensitive to their visual environment and capable of helping to improve it.”

Conversation Starters

• Why did Abbott take this photograph? What is she saying about New York in 1936?

• Note the composition of this photograph, including the angle of the buildings and the use of shadow. Did Abbott take a long time to capture this exact image? Why?

• What can be learned about the neighborhood by looking at this image? Examine not only the buildings, but the other surroundings as well. How prevalent were cars in the 1930s?

Assessment

• Look at this image. Why is it important today to study such images from the past? What can be learned from it? What types of research projects could be developed using this photograph?

• Research Abbott’s Changing New York series. Compare the photographs from the various boroughs. What do these images say about the diversity and the changing neighborhoods of New York?

• Create a photo collage of images that define your neighborhood. What aspects do you like the best? Pretend that you are creating this collage for someone who has never seen the neighborhood and knows nothing about it. What would you want them to know?


The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.