Is This Berenice Abbott Shooting One Of NYC's Most Iconic Photos?

Is This Berenice Abbott Shooting One of NYC's Most Iconic Photos?

Almost everybody knows Berenice Abbott's famous "Night View, New York" photograph. It's Manhattan in a nutshell — a solid wall of city, cold and bright. But we've never known the whole story behind this definitive image.

Is This Berenice Abbott Shooting One of NYC's Most Iconic Photos?

I recently stumbled upon the following photo hiding inside the Boston Public Library Flickr stream. It's by the photographer Leslie Jones, and it's called New York City At Night:

Is This Berenice Abbott Shooting One of NYC's Most Iconic Photos?

Amazing isn't it? It feels like you zoomed out of the first photo. But who might be that man or woman in the second picture?

Despite the given dates (1932 and 1930 or 1917 and 1934), I think there's a good chance that we can see Berenice Abbott herself in the second photo, taking one of her most famous photographs. Or at least before or after taking it. Warning: incoherent speculations are coming, but I hope you will enjoy the investigation as much as I did.

Let's look at the figure at the bottom of the second photo. In my opinion, this figure resembles a photographer leaning on the parapet of the roof. We cannot see his or her face — this part of the photo is out of focus, blurred with very few details, so it could be male or female — however, I tend to believe that this is a woman's shape in a long winter coat and some kind warm hat:

Is This Berenice Abbott Shooting One of NYC's Most Iconic Photos?

Just for reference, here are two rare photos of Abbott. On the left, she's seen in 1938 with her large format camera, and on the right, in 1979 posing for Hank O'Neal:

Is This Berenice Abbott Shooting One of NYC's Most Iconic Photos?

The woman in the photo may or may not be her — it's impossible to say.

In the 1930s, Abbott took many legendary pictures of the ever changing metropolis. This is how she remembered the birth of her famous image:

"I took this early in the evening," she wrote. "There was only one time of the year to take it, shortly before Christmas. I started about 4:30 P.M. and didn't have much time. But I had done a good deal of prior planning on the photograph, going so far as to devise a special soft developer for the negative. This was a fifteen-minute exposure and I'm surprise the negative is as sharp as it is because these buildings do sway a bit. I knew I had no opportunity to make multiple exposures because the lights would start to go out shortly after 5:00 P.M. when the people began to go home and so it had to be correct on the first try." (Source)

Leslie Jones' photograph seems to have been taken at exactly the same time of day — even the same time of year. Let's compare the city lights in the two photos: A lot of lights are on, and a lot of windows reflect other lights, creating a beautifully chaotic urban landscape in both images.

I'm sure that these two photos were not exposed at the same time (of course not). Based upon the numerous lights out in his image, Jones's shot was taken a few minutes, or even a half an hour, before or after Abbott's fifteen-minute exposure. You may say: sure, the two photos could have been shot on different days. But look at the similarities in the two photos. Most of the same windows are lit in these buildings:

Is This Berenice Abbott Shooting One of NYC's Most Iconic Photos?
Is This Berenice Abbott Shooting One of NYC's Most Iconic Photos?
Is This Berenice Abbott Shooting One of NYC's Most Iconic Photos?

So what about Abbott? Do we have any idea where she was that evening?

"In this case I was at a window, not at the top of the building; there would have been too much wind outside." (Source)

According to this quote, the legendary shot was taken from a window not far from some part of the roof — so my theory is at least partially incorrect. Which leaves us with three other possibilities: One, Abbott was checking the weather before the shot. Two, Abbott was taking a last look at the city before leaving the building. Three, Abbott was taking a study photograph some days or even years before the "real" shot. This is why:

Abbott's first major photographic project, documenting New York City, began in 1929 [...] Abbott's earliest photographs were simply notes, taken with a small camera for future reference. The size of her negatives and scope of her project increased until finally, by 1932, all were made with her 8" x 10" Century Universal. [...] Her first photographs of the city were taken with a hand-held Kurt-Bentzin camera, but soon she acquired a Century Universal camera which produced 8 x 10 inch negatives. Using this large format camera, Abbott photographed New York City [...] (Source)

This may explain why we can't see a large format camera in Jones's photo — the posture of the mysterious figure could easily hide a small handheld camera.

A few more question remain. Did Abbott and Jones know each other? I can't tell, and no sources reveal the answer. But why not? These two talented photographers both lived and worked in the same burgeoning 1930s city (browse Jones's amazing photos from New York here), where there were fewer professional photographers on the streets. Simply based on their shared profession, there's a chance that they knew each other. And if they did? Maybe they also supported each other's work and cooperated to gain access to a guarded skyscraper:

It was, of course, hard to get permission. They always thought you wanted to commit suicide and superintendents were always tired, lazy and annoyed. They usually had to be bribed." (Source)

And you may ask: Why is this important? It may not be, to you. But images like Abbott's play a pivotal role in the life of the city — and accidentally discovering a photo that tells the story behind one of the most famous? That's a fascinating prospect.

And there are plenty of other untold stories out there. For example, I'd give a fortune for a photo showing Robert Capa capturing the death of the loyalist soldier. Wink-wink.

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