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New York at Night

Accession Number
2002/1.156

Title
New York at Night

Artist(s)
Berenice Abbott

Artist Nationality
American (North American)

Object Creation Date
1932

Medium & Support
gelatin silver print on paper

Dimensions
13 3/8 in x 10 1/2 in (33.97 cm x 26.67 cm);22 1/8 in x 18 1/8 in (56.2 cm x 46.04 cm);20 1/16 in x 16 in (50.96 cm x 40.64 cm)

Credit Line
Museum purchase made possible by a gift from Helmut Stern and the Jean Paul Slusser Memorial Fund

Label copy
This photograph, shot from a window in one of New York’s skyscrapers, presented Abbott with numerous challenges. “It was, of course, difficult to get permission [to photograph in the building],” she said. “They always thought you wanted to commit suicide and the superintendents were always tired, lazy and annoyed. They usually had to be bribed.” Since most office workers left at 5 pm, Abbott chose the shortest day of the year—when darkness had fallen but the offices were still lit—and she knew that she would only have time to make one exposure. Abbott’s memorable image has become one of the icons of the modern metropolis—restless and unsleeping. In this fifteen-minute exposure, she has captured the quintessential image of New York City.
Carole McNamara, Assistant Director for Collections & Exhibitions
on the occasion of the exhibition New York Observed: The Mythology of the City
(July 13 – September 22, 2003)
View is looking north from the Empire State Building.
"I took this early in the evening; there was only one time of year to take it, shortly before Christmas. I started in at 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 surprised the negative is as sharp as it is because these big 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 people began to go home, and so it had to be correct on the first try. In this case I was at a window, not at the top of the building; there would have been too much wind outside. 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." quoted from Hank O'Neal, "Berenice Abbott, American photographer," New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982, p. 4

Subject matter
Berenice Abbott's birds-eye view of New York City skyscrapers at night transforms and flattens the distinctive Manhattan skyline into a grid of cubes and glowing lights. Timing was key in the creation of this image: the photographer selected an afternoon in late December 1932 when the sun went down before 5 pm, and set up her camera at 4:30 so that workers would still be in their offices with the lights on. Given the length of the exposure--a full fifteen minutes--Abbott expressed surprise that the forms of the buildings are as sharp as they are. She used a specially devised developer to heighten the contrasts between light and dark, and took the photograph from a window in the Empire State Building in order to protect her camera from wind. This afforded an unusually high, oblique angle over the rooftops of neighboring buildings that allows us to see the city in a new light.

Physical Description
Night view of New York City skyscrapers seen from above.

Primary Object Classification
Photograph

Collection Area
Photography

Rights
If you are interested in using an image for a publication, please visit http://umma.umich.edu/request-image for more information and to fill out the online Image Rights and Reproductions Request Form.

Keywords
Cityscapes
New York City
cityscapes (representations)
dusk
high-rise buildings
night
skyscrapers

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& Author Notes

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