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Tri-Boro Barber Shop is a black and white gelatin silver print on paper. The photograph has a portrait orientation and shows a crop of a building’s facade. In the left side of the composition a man leans on a striped pilaster in the doorway of a barber school. On the right side of the image is the school’s glass frontage. The large window facing the street has striped painted edges and is inscribed ‘264 Tri-Boro Barber School’. Men peer out from behind the haircut advertisements painted on the lower section of the window. At the top of the image is a metal gridded structure through which the sun shines, creating patterns of light and shadow across the pilaster and the painted glass. The building is seen frontally, with the foreground occupied by the pavement of the street, on which rests a large sandwich board advertising the establishment’s prices.
Tri-Boro Barber Shop was taken in 1935 by the American photographer Berenice Abbott. The image, which has yellowed considerably with age, depicts a barber school in New York’s Lower East Side, at 264 Bowery. Although the school has not survived, the building still exists. In 1929 Abbott began to document the changing urban environment in New York City. In 1935 she received a photographic commission for this from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was part of the Federal Art Project, initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt under his new economic plan for Depression-era America that was termed the New Deal. The WPA sponsored Abbott to document the intense period of construction being undertaken in New York City under the New Deal’s auspices. The resulting photographs, of which Tri-Boro Barber Shop is one, were published in 1939 in a book entitled Changing New York.
Abbott had arrived in New York in 1918 to study journalism; however, she switched to sculpture and then relocated to continue her training in Berlin and Paris. In 1923 she answered an advertisement in Paris for a studio assistant with no previous experience, which had been posted by the painter and photographer Man Ray. The pair had first met in New York in 1918 and her lack of knowledge qualified Abbott for the job. She gained experience developing Man Ray’s prints and he encouraged her to begin taking her own photographs. In 1925 she established a studio in Paris to take the portraits of celebrated subjects, including the writer and artist Jean Cocteau and the writer James Joyce. In 1929, however, Abbott returned to New York for a short trip and was struck by the dramatic changes to the cityscape that had taken place while she had been in Europe. The photographic potential of these changes encouraged her to return to New York and document the transformation. As the curator Barbara Shissler Nosanow has observed:
Fascinated by New York City and the changes that had occurred in it in her absence she began the monumental work of documenting its visual presence – its sweeping technological innovations, its bridges, its canyonlike streets overtowered by skyscrapers (many of the most famous under construction at the time), its nineteenth century brownstones and even earlier vestiges of colonial architecture, its littered streets, its hum and vitality, its sparkling transformation at night.
(Nosanow in Berenice Abbott: The 20s and the 30s, exhibition catalogue, International Center of Photography, New York 1981, p.8.)
Abbott’s experience as a portrait photographer striving for an imaginative realism informed her later architectural photographs. In the portraits she sought to capture her relationship with the sitter. As she observed: ‘I wasn’t trying to make a still life of them but a person. It’s a kind of exchange’ (quoted in International Center of Photography 1981, p.7). Similarly, Abbott’s architectural images attempt to document her relationship with the evolving urban fabric of New York City.
Another of Abbott’s works in the Tate collection is Dinty Moore Antiques c.1937 (Tate P13098), which is from the same series of images of New York.
Berenice Abbott, ‘What the Camera and I See’, Art News, September 1951, pp.36–7.
Alice C. Steinbach, ‘Berenice Abbott’s Point of View’, Art in America, November–December 1976, pp.77–81.
Avis Berman, ‘The Unflinching Eye of Berenice Abbott’, Art News, January 1981, p.87.