Berenice Abbott and the Legacy of the New Deal
The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act was passed by Congress on April 8 in 1935, five years into the Great Depression. The name of the legislation may sound foreign, but most likely you are quite familiar with some of the programs it enacted. The New Deal’s WPA, or Works Progress Administration, was one of those programs. It put millions of the unemployed to work, mostly in building public works projects, such as the building of La Guardia airport and the creation of roads, schools, and more across the country.
Other programs authorized by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act were the Federal Arts Project, the Federal Writers Project, and the Federal Theater Project, which employed those in the arts fields during the Great Depression. While the efficacy of these programs was fiercely debated at the time, today it’s clear that we owe much to this program of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Off the Grid spotlighted the WPA’s tax photos project in a post from 2012. This collection, which contains a photograph of every building that was standing in New York City from 1939-1941, is an invaluable resource to historic preservationists, architects, and history researchers today.
Researchers have also benefited from the images taken by photographer Berenice Abbott, whose work was supported through the Federal Arts Project in her early career. Abbott (July 17, 1898 – December 9, 1991) moved to New York City, and more specifically, Greenwich Village, in 1918. Abbott was first drawn to the field of journalism, and later theater and sculpture. But while living in Paris, she discovered photography.
She returned to New York in 1929 and began to photograph streetscapes with a large format camera. When the Federal Arts Project began in 1935, she was hired to photograph the city’s changing architecture. The project, which became known as Changing New York, contained over 1,000 images and was eventually deposited at the Museum of the City Of New York. Abbott expressed that, through the project, she hoped to preserve the architectural and social history of New York, while at the same time interrogating the relationship between old and new buildings. Many of the photographs in the project feature Greenwich Village, where Abbott moved in 1935 along with her partner Elizabeth McCausland.
While Berenice Abbott might not be a household name, her collection of photographs of New York City continue to help historians, artists, and more picture a changing New York. An enduring legacy for a controversial piece of New Deal legislation.