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New! Celebrating Berenice Abbott's bday with a fresh POV on NYC.

City Arabesque by Berenice Abbott
10"x8" ($35) | 14"x11" ($75) | 20"x16" ($260) | 30"x24" ($1000) | 40"x30" ($1800)

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For some city folk, summer is high time to explore the urban jungle on foot, fire hot pavement and inhumane humidity be damned. For the rest of us, the air-conditioned reprieve of our apartments takes precedent, but Berenice Abbott's city scenes can bring the outside in. Feast your eyes on our fourteenth Abbott edition, another stunner from the Changing New York series she shot as part of the New Deal’s Federal Art Project. Tomorrow would be the legendary photographer’s 121st birthday, so it only seemed right to ring in the occasion with an edition that exhibits so much of what we love about Abbott’s images. City Arabesque isn’t just quintessentially Abbott—it’s a metaphor for her mode of seeing, her approach to documenting and understanding the city.

Abbott saw New York City through its architecture—quite literally, in the case of 1938’s City Arabesque, peering between architectural ornamentation at the densely packed buildings below. The overlapping arabesque lines of the barrier on the roof of 60 Wall Street Tower compose a curved framework, incongruous against the angular city grid below. This chaotic dissonance echoes the disorienting, vertigo-inducing angle from which Abbott shot City Arabesque. The result is a deeply absorbing feeling of flux. Abbott saw New York City for all its magnificent volatility, its perpetual growth and change, and the destruction and creation that came (and comes) with it. The Big Apple of Abbott’s eye prioritized expansion and evolution over all else, as exemplified by its constant architectural upheaval. Leave it to Abbott to convey this change in a way that was at once dizzying and exciting, frightening and beautiful.

Born in Ohio, Abbott spent a brief stint in New York City before moving to Paris in 1921. She eventually returned to NYC eight years later, right around the start of the Great Depression. Having put some space between herself and the city, she came face-to-face with a fresh and profound awareness of its rapidly changing landscape—new construction swallowing the past, buildings competing for real estate in the skyline. While she photographed plenty of people on the city streets, there’s not a soul to be seen in some of her images (like City Arabesque), only the all-consuming sprawling city and its layered, jagged geometry. But behind Abbott’s lens, the built environment says it all.

Abbott’s work with Changing New York was as much a creative endeavor as a sociological study. Her goal was to distill and translate the personified essence of NYC into photographic form, while capturing its hustle and bustle, its crowded real estate, its endless reinvention and superimposition. City Arabesque packs an artistic punch with poignant sociological observation—without a single person in sight. For the history buffs, urbanites, or architecture aficionados in our midst, it’s a collectible moment not to be missed.

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