Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 19, 2022
Sarah M. Miller Documentary in Dispute: The Original Manuscript of "Changing New York" by Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland Toronto: RIC Books, 2020. 450 pp.; 150 color ills. Cloth $34.95 (9780262044172)

A 1938 draft of Changing New York by Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland opens with Abbott’s Brooklyn Bridge: Water and Dock Streets, Brooklyn. The steel construction of the Brooklyn Bridge spans the image, forming a stark contrast to the old brick warehouse in the foreground. The disruptive horizontality of waterfront construction partially obscures the verticality of New York’s skyscrapers in the background. If skyscrapers and construction are emblematic of the march of progress, the image’s layers and obfuscations suggest that change is not so linear. Instead, Abbott compresses the past, present, and future within the flat planes of the sharply focused print. Here we see Abbott’s interest in photography as the “excavation of the archeology of contemporary life” (191) on view. The word “inspection” emblazoned on the warehouse offers a clue on how to read the complexly layered image: scrutinizing it to excavate the temporal layers of the city, made tangible in the caption by McCausland (an art critic and Abbott’s romantic and creative partner), which instructs the viewer to read the image for what is visible and invisible to the eye as “a living element in the picture.” As Sarah M. Miller summarizes, “the real subject of the photograph is the tension between stasis and motion, visible and invisible, the naked eye and the camera” (236).

The documentary in dispute identified by Miller is twofold: Abbott and McCausland’s bitter fight with the publisher and funders about the content and form of Changing New York as well as Miller’s broader reconsideration of the category of documentary photography. In 1939, E. P. Dutton & Co. published Changing New York with ninety-seven of Abbott’s photographs aimed at visitors to the New York World’s Fair. The above image was renamed Brooklyn Bridge and moved to number eighty-seven in the sequence. An explanation of the technical marvel of the bridge replaced McCausland’s caption. The dialectical reading encouraged by Abbott and McCausland—what they called dynamic equilibrium—is supplanted by a caption appropriate for the tourist guidebook it became. The published version of Changing New York bore little resemblance to Abbott and McCausland’s vision for the project, which Miller meticulously reconstructs in the first section of Documentary in Dispute.

To show the differing visions for Changing New York, Miller has reproduced McCausland’s original captions as well as the published versions. McCausland’s captions are printed in black alongside the published versions reproduced faintly in gray—attractive but inaccessible. The contrast between McCausland’s poetic and occasionally didactic captions and the banality of the published versions is striking. Contracted by the United States Federal Art Project and Federal Writers Project, agencies of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and published by a commercial press, the competing visions for Changing New York centered on the role of the visual in shaping citizenship, modernity, and progress. What were the stakes? Only the hearts and minds of an estimated five million visitors to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, themed “The World of Tomorrow.” The contentious editing process reveals how Abbott and McCausland’s idea of photography’s documentary power broke with the desires of the publisher and the government funder. Rather than celebrating the march of progress, Abbott and McCausland were interested in contemporaneity, the coexistence of old and new. They showed and named the complex strata of time that make up the city by focusing on the communities being displaced by modernity and the histories lost in the process while naming the bureaucracy that made it possible, including zoning and health department regulations. A discomfort with progress runs through the book, which instead points to “interdependence of destruction and creation, neglect and innovation, visibility and disappearance” (223).

The second, shorter part of the text reproduces a carefully chosen selection of archival documents that outline Abbott and McCausland’s aims and their increasingly fraught communication with the publisher. Here we see the strength of Miller’s choice to devote most of the text to archival recompiling. The fascinating and conceptually rich documents reveal how straight photography and persuasive realism were complex and contested categories in the 1930s. For example, in a 1935 request for funding for a “Photographic Record” to the Art Project, Works Division, Emergency Relief Bureau, McCausland wrote, “the tempo of the metropolis is not of eternity or even time, but of the vanishing instant” (122). McCausland argues that Abbott’s project was needed to “salvage from oblivion” a record of New York, much like Matthew Brady’s Civil War or Eugène Atget’s Paris. Indeed, McCausland would later describe New York as “A CITY NO ONE EVER SEES” (187).

The final section includes two essays. Gary Van Zante and Julia Van Haaften reflect on Abbott’s extensive archive, which dates to her first solo exhibition in Paris in 1926, and how her partnership with McCausland shaped Abbott’s understanding of her own work. Miller’s excellent extended essay delves into the problem of documentary photography. Surfacing several complex and previously underexplored themes in Abbott’s images of New York, Miller compellingly shows how Abbott’s practice is a critical intervention into the idea of documentary photography. Miller has written extensively about documentary in American photography, and the project is situated within a larger reconsideration of documentary photography. In American photography, documentary is traditionally given to encompass the liberal humanism of the WPA, which photo theorists like John Tagg, Allan Sekula, and Martha Rosler criticized as a politically anemic genre. More recent scholarship, largely centering on the practice of Walker Evans, has troubled this critique by showing that documentary was a contested category. Miller’s work joins and extends this work through a fascinating archival reconstruction that illustrates how Abbott’s idea of documentary fundamentally breaks from the parameters established by the WPA while emphasizing the ambition of Abbott’s vision of what photography could do.

Miller’s primary task in Documentary in Dispute is explicating Abbott’s unconventional approach to documentary, which she does by resituating Abbott’s work in transatlantic exchange. Abbott and McCausland’s project does not fit neatly into the liberal humanism that typically defines American documentary realism, a form of straight photography invested in progress and celebrating state programs. Miller shows that Abbott’s formalism was not apolitical but rather shaped by European modernist understandings of the photograph as a document. In this framework, the image has the potential to reveal something beneath the surface, to illuminate the invisible forces that order modern life. Abbott’s documentary is Benjaminian: a complex interplay of image and text that directs the viewer on how to see. For example, as Miller writes in her reading of Brooklyn Bridge, the tension in the image is between what is materially visible and the hidden structures of power. Abbott and McCausland instruct the reader to be aware that “the tension that structures the city is unseeable but determines what can be seen” (236). In this context, the documentary photograph is a device to teach people how to see, explicated by McCausland’s captions which spend an unusual amount of space explaining how the camera works and the technical aspects that both hinder and enable vision. By teaching the viewer how to read the photograph—carefully composed by Abbott to reveal a deeper truth about power and modernity—the viewer could learn to read the city itself.

Documentary in Dispute was published in the Ryerson Image Center’s (RIC) series on the history and theory of photography, themed around RIC Collections and Archives. The project is, in many ways, fundamentally archival. The emphasis on the design process for the book is a welcome addition to photography scholarship, as the careful outlining of the multiple forms the project took expands knowledge beyond the published form, redirecting the reader’s attention to process. The multivalent forms and capacious material pose some challenges, however. The title tells us the book focuses on “the” original manuscript. What original means in this context is elusive. Dutton swiftly rejected the first draft of the layout, a modernist experiment designed by McCausland. The second proposal adhered to more standard conventions, a set of one hundred photographs with individual captions and a sequence chosen by the publisher. Dutton rejected McCausland’s captions which were rewritten in what Miller calls the “intermediary manuscript.” Another round of captions was written by Abbott’s research staff, which were ultimately replaced with captions supplied by Dutton. The final version removed three of Abbott’s photographs, including a church in Harlem, and followed the conventional guidebook structure that began downtown and led the reader to the World’s Fair site in Queens. Miller focuses on the second proposal as the “original manuscript.”

Given the multiple versions and competing voices, identifying any one manuscript as original is somewhat fraught terrain. The complexity is alluded to by Miller, described variably as a project of reconstruction (xix), “resurrecting” (194), and an “archival composite” (xviii) while the foreword calls it a “historical reclamation” (x). The static notion of the authentic original feels antithetical to Abbott and McCausland’s challenging vision, best exemplified in the five pages of McCausland’s hand-drawn draft reproduced in the book. It seems that “archival composite” is a more productive category, as Miller brings together primary source material to expand upon the original images and captions while the essays provide vital context and analysis. If Abbott’s photographs were an archeological project, a temporal layering of past and present, Miller’s meticulously researched and imaginatively framed “reconstruction” is a fitting response, introducing another layer of meaning to a changing New York.

Siobhan Angus
Assistant Professor, Communication and Media Studies, Carleton University