Karen Quinn NYS Muesum
PEF member Karen Quinn, a senior historian and curator at the New York State Museum, works in the art department and assisted with the Berenice Abbott “Changing New York” exhibit.

March 10, 2023 – In 1929, photographer Berenice Abbott returned from abroad to find New York City dramatically different than when she left nearly a decade earlier.  

Berenice Abbott
Berenice Abbott in an undated photo, c. 1930s. Photographer and source unknown. Courtesy of the New York State Museum.

Hundreds of 19th-century buildings were gone – replaced with towering skyscrapers. The oldest parts of Manhattan, below Fourteenth Street, saw the most extreme changes as buildings were razed and new construction took their place. 

“Abbott came back after eight years in France and was stunned by the changes,” said PEF member Karen Quinn, a senior historian and curator at the New York State Museum (NYSM). “She began to document the changes.” 

The building boom inspired Abbott to photograph the new face of New York. Backed by the Federal Art Project, she got to work. Using a large-format camera, Abbott traversed the city seeking examples of the dramatic changes. Skyscrapers juxtaposed with old tenement buildings. Billboards towering over monuments. She focused much of her work in the oldest parts of the city, avoiding public spaces like Central Park and tourist sites. 

By 1940, Abbott had completed her Changing New York collection, considered to be one of the monumental achievements of 20th-century photography. She created two sets of 305 exhibition prints for the Museum of the City of New York, and a partial set of 40 for the NYSM.  

Abbott’s photography is conceptually brilliant, Quinn said.  

“It’s more than just sight lines, so much more goes into it,” she said. “The angles, how she cropped it, how she focuses on one thing. There is so much thought behind it. Her photos give us a sense of New York City at a moment in time.” 

Only a few of Abbott’s photos are on display in the museum’s New York Metropolis Hall due to light sensitivity, Quinn said, and those are scans to protect the originals from fading. You can view the NYSM Changing New York online collection here. 

Quinn said her work as an art historian for the state focuses on art and culture in all mediums, not just photography. Historians and curators at the museum study the intersection of art and culture and share it with the public through the museum’s exhibits. 

“We work with every kind of art form,” she said. “Painting, sculpture, photography, drawing, anything on paper. Anything you can think of as art.”