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  • Berenice Abbott. Daily News Building, 220 East 42nd Street, Manhattan. November 21, 1935. Gelatin silver print, 1935–55, 9 5/8 × 7 1/2" (24.4 × 19.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art. Thomas Walther Collection. Abbott-Levy Collection funds, by exchange (MoMA 1599.2001). © 2014 Berenice Abbott/Commerce Graphics

    From around 1913, when the Armory Show brought progressive European art to America, New York was the beachhead of the avant-garde. The gallerist and photographer Alfred Stieglitz imported freshly hatched ideas from Europe and, under the influence of the example set by Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, gradually converted from soft-focus painterly effects to sharply focused photographic vision, and from Platinum papers to gaslight papers, around World War I. His deep investment in print quality, his long and strident advocacy of photography as an independent form of high art, and his new, more direct approach to “the thing itself” became central tenets of American modernism, which he championed in his galleries and which he and fellow photographer Paul Strand advocated almost as a religion, converting, for instance, Edward Weston and, later, Ansel Adams.

    In the years leading up to World War I, the Clarence H. White School of Photography, based in New York, had trained amateurs in Pictorialist craft and Cubist-derived abstraction, but after the war the school joined other organizations, such as the Art Director’s Club, to form The Art Center, which trained professional photographers including Margaret Bourke-White and Anton Bruehl in a clearly focused and polished technique that paralleled the result of Stieglitz’s evolution but was better suited to the needs of illustration and advertisement. Such commercial applications were frowned upon by the Stieglitz circle; Edward Steichen, who became chief photographer for Condé Nast’s publications, was the most visibly successful at this sort of popular art, but both genres—the exalted “fine” art of Stieglitz and Strand, and the more widespread and accessible “practical” art of commercial photographers—coexisted in New York during the 1920s.

    In the early 1930s European photography came ashore. In 1931 the Delphic Gallery exhibited the work of László Moholy-Nagy; The Art Center showed Foreign Advertising and Industrial Photographs, with work by Florence Henri, Germaine Krull, Moholy-Nagy, and Dziga Vertov; and, perhaps most importantly, the Julien Levy Gallery opened. With prints he had gathered from avant-garde talents in Paris and Berlin, Levy mounted Modern European Photography in 1932, followed by an exhibition of Man Ray’s photographs. In addition, an exhibition that featured much of Levy’s stock, International Photography, was on display in 1932 at the Brooklyn Museum. Levy continued with exhibitions of works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Walker Evans, and many other American photographers, but despite his valiant efforts, there was insufficient interest in advanced photography to keep his gallery afloat.

    In 1937 The Museum of Modern Art mounted Photography 1839­–1937, a huge show that gathered large audiences and much positive press. The success of this show led to the founding of MoMA’s Department of Photography in 1940, the first in any museum. Stieglitz’s prominence in New York’s art world had by then somewhat faded, but his version of modernism—a lush, transcendent naturalism—was important in the department’s programming and collecting. A less highly aestheticized but equally clear and deliberate style of photography, exemplified by Walker Evans, also came to the fore in the 1930s and was honored by the Museum. Berenice Abbott and the other photographers employed on government-sponsored projects during the Depression also practiced this documentary style.

    —Maria Morris Hambourg

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