Review: New York Changing by Douglas Levere


Book Reviews

If there is any one city that has been inspiring photographers the most it must be New York City. Situated on a narrow island, this moloch made of stone, concrete and steel contains some of the most potent symbols of modern and classic America: Wall Street, Broadway, Times Square, and, of course, the place known as “Ground Zero”. New York City became the target of Islamic fundamentalists, and for ultra-conservative Americans, it has also become the symbol of everything that (supposedly) is wrong with the country. What irony! The city’s magic is inescapable, and you can use it for pretty much anything - including the shameless exploitation of the deaths of 3,000 of New York’s inhabitants to win an election.

The vibrancy of the city is being created by the people who live and work there. But there is more to New York City than just the people, namely the city itself. Given its unique position, there is no way for it to expand. Sure, you can move across the rivers, to Brooklyn, say, or Jersey City. But that is not the same. New York City is pretty much Manhattan.

In the late 1930’s, Berenice Abbott set out to document the changes New York City was going through at that time. I have the feeling that back then people were saying the same things that people are saying now: It was all nicer in the past. Well, was it?

About sixty years later, Douglas Levere went out to re-record New York City, finding the spots that Berenice Abbott had taken photos at, using the same equipment, and trying to get as close as possible to achieving the same look-and-feel of the photos as possible. The result of this process have now been published as New York Changing (Princeton Architectural Press); and they are nothing but impressive.

The book shows Berenice Abbott’s and Douglas Levere’s prints side-by-side; and I think the most interesting aspect of this is that - regardless of what your position is when you start looking at the book - there is no way that you can avoid changing your opinion or, at least, realize that things simply are not that simple. For example, if you’re a member of the fraction that thinks that in the past everything was simply better and more stylish, you’re in for a surprise. Big gas tanks in the city? If, however, you’re a big fan of our modern age, you’re also in for a surprise. Big highways in the city?

New York City is changing, and it is not changing from a better to worse or from a worse to better but simply from one stage to the next, to a different one. Interestingly enough, some parts of these different stages look exactly the same, whereas others look completely different.

The one impression you cannot escape is that New York City is a classic city, and this is not going to change. Crappy warehouses might be replaced by condo complexes, or crappy condo complexes might replace classy old buildings, but there simply is no way to take away from the magic. And this is what Douglas Levere is showing us.