Skip to content

Photo of the Week #176

Berenice Abbott

Black and white photo: view looking down from the Empire State building in 1932, an elevated train line runs between lit up buildings at night.

New York at Night, Empire State Building, 1932 (printed c. 1980)
13½ x 10½"
gelatin silver print
signed on verso


January 17, 2022
Berenice Abbott moved to New York City when she was just 19 years old. Despite the onset of the 1918 flu pandemic, Abbott persevered with her study of art, forging new friendships in avant garde circles. In 1921, Abbott left for Paris to continue her artistic studies. Abbott knew Man Ray from New York, and while working as an assistant in his Paris studio, she was introduced to the photography of Eugene Atget. Atget’s rigorous photographic record of the city of Paris would serve as a guiding influence and set Abbott on her lifelong course as a photographer. 

Abbott returned to New York in 1929, shortly before the Wall Street Crash ushered in the Great Depression. She was struck by the modern transformation that the city had undergone, with ever-taller buildings still emerging in rapid succession. Throughout the 1930s she documented that transformation, contrasting modern development with the established neighborhood businesses in the city’s ethnic enclaves. 

In the early 1930s, the incandescent light bulb was rapidly replacing the old gas-powered lights across the city. The Empire State Building was the tallest in the world when Abbott took this glittering photograph from one of the building's observation decks. While her method was consciously indebted to Atget, the view afforded by this Art Deco tower in the sky, looking down at the city aglow, was a genuinely new one.

This classic photograph delivers an electric vision of a city whose only constant is change.