Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Photography in urban discourse: Berenice Abbott's changing New York and the 1930s
by Shimizu, Meredith Ann TeGrotenhuis, Ph.D., Northwestern University, 2009, 372; 3386516
Abstract (Summary)

Between 1929 and 1939, Berenice Abbott produced an extraordinary portrait of New York City in a series of over one thousand photographs of its buildings, bridges, and streets. Acclaimed by social critics, fellow photographers, and civic boosters alike, her photographs were immediately resonant in the 1930s, when the severe economic depression threatened the social integrity of New York City and compounded existing uncertainties about the nature and future of the modern metropolis. Despite Abbott's continued fame throughout the subsequent decades, no study in photo history, art history, or urban studies has dealt with this body of photographs with regard to this extraordinary cultural context.

This project examines the remarkably enthusiastic reception of Abbott's project in the 1930s in relation to contemporary ideas and anxieties about the city. I show how Abbott's photographs were appropriated as evidence and deployed as rhetorical tools within both popular culture and critical discourse in order to bolster, and sometimes challenge, dominant social and economic systems. The reception of Abbott's photographs intersected four specific and widespread cultural practices—preservation efforts, boosterism, guidebook production, and what I call the fantasy of ascent—each of which influenced urban consciousness and even altered the cityscape itself in the 1930s. By tracing how the photographs circulated in urban discourse and by examining the photographs anew in relation to this discursive context, I endeavor to demonstrate how images—Abbott's and others—participated in shaping perceptions and conceptions of the urban landscape in a period of instability, when the future of the modern metropolis was very much in doubt.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Zanten, David Van, Lambert-Beatty, Carrie
Commitee: Feldman, Hannah J. L., Smith, Carl S.
School: Northwestern University
Department: Art History
School Location: United States -- Illinois
Source: DAI-A 70/12, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: American studies, American history, Art history
Keywords: Abbott, Berenice, New York, Nineteen 30s, Photography, Reception, Urban
Publication Number: 3386516
ISBN: 978-1-109-51863-4
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