The 1939 book Changing New York, by Berenice Abbott, with text by Elizabeth McCausland, is an icon of American documentary photography and the career-defining publication by one of modernism’s most prominent photographers. Yet no one has ever seen the book that Abbott and McCausland actually planned and wrote. Here, for the first time, their original manuscript for Changing New York is recreated by sequencing Abbott’s one hundred photographs with McCausland’s astonishing caption texts. This reconstruction is accompanied by a selection of archival documents that illuminate how the project was developed, and how it was drastically altered by its publisher. Author Sarah M. Miller analyzes the original manuscript and its revisions to unearth Abbott and McCausland’s critical engagement with New York City’s built environment and their unique theory of documentary photography. The battle over Changing New York, she argues, stemmed from disputes over how Abbott’s photographs—and photography more broadly—should shape urban experience on the eve of the futuristic 1939 World’s Fair. Ultimately it became a contest over the definition of documentary itself. Gary Van Zante and Julia Van Haaften contribute an essay on Abbott’s archive and the partnership with McCausland that shaped their creative collaboration.
By: Sarah M. Miller
Co-published by: Ryerson Image Centre and the MIT Press, 2020