A photographer captures a New York City of abstraction in the 1940s

The street photographers who point their cameras all over the city tend to focus on people in motion in recognizable places—the rush of crowds on a subway platform, barflies at a corner tavern, or the random strollers, workers, loafers, and others found at any moment in time on specific streets and sidewalks.

Brett Weston, on the other hand, used his camera to render a more abstract midcentury city. Instead of focusing on a city of people, energy, and vitality, he isolated ordinary objects and buildings and made them beautiful, haunting, even lyrical.

Weston, born in California in 1911 and the son of photographer Edward Weston, was already an established photographer before coming to Gotham in 1944. During World War II, he was drafted and sent to the Army Pictorial Center in Queens, according to the International Center of Photography (ICP). There, in a former studio owned by Paramount, filmmakers and photographers helped produce army training films. (Today it’s Kaufman Studios in Astoria.)

When he wasn’t working, Weston took to the streets of the city with his 8×10 view camera, per the ICP.

“Over the next two years, Weston took over 300 photographs, each distinguished by an attention to the formal values of linearity, depth, and contrast,” the ICP noted.

“Turning away from the documentary style that characterized much of the photography of New York in the preceding decade, notably Berenice Abbott’s project Changing New York (1939), Weston pioneered a highly subjective and abstract view of the city, often focusing on details such as the finial on an iron railing or ivy on the side of a building.”

The Danziger Gallery, which represents Weston’s work, stated that he “concentrated mostly on close-ups and abstracted details, but his prints reflected a preference for high contrast that reduced his subjects to pure form.”

Weston only spent a few years in New York, and his cityscape images are a small portion of his overall work. In the 1920s he apprenticed with his father in Mexico; most of his life he was based in California, where he had a studio and portrait business, according to The Brett Weston Archive (where his vast body of work can be viewed).

Weston died in 1993 at the age of 82. His New York images have a timelessness that brings them out of the 1940s to still resonate today. Like the work of the abstract expressionist painters of the 1940s, they reflect the quiet, solitary stillness of the modern city.

[First and second photos: artnet.com; third photo: International Center of Photography; fourth photo: artnet.com; fifth photo: International Center of Photography; sixth, seventh, and eighth photos: artnet.com]

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16 Responses to “A photographer captures a New York City of abstraction in the 1940s”

  1. pontifikator Says:

    “Haunting” is right. More than maybe any other photos, these bring me home to my early youth, where you could occasionally find a wagon in front of a store, still. I want to locate each and every photo and take a walk in my mind. I miss this New York as I miss my youth, especially these days.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I found myself drawn to the wagons and carts, and also the curious pile of things in the Brooklyn Bridge photo. I’m just not sure what they are.

      • pontifikator Says:

        Looks like there may be giant spools of cables (or just the leftover empty spools). Can’t enlarge to see what else might be there under the bridge.

  2. Ann Haddad Says:

    The black and white New York of my parents’ era. So haunting and evocative!

  3. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    I recall weekend quiet empty streets in Greenwich Village or on the Lower East Side… Man, what have we replaced it with?

  4. countrypaul Says:

    Very cool! I like the photo of the two-phase traffic light (have any survived?), a hallmark signifier of old NYC, before the yellow light, which of course means “hurry up and block traffic”! (Another lost though unphotographable artifact: “Don’t block the box”!)

    • Kiwiwriter Says:

      No, the two-phase traffic signals were wiped out by the Department of Transportation mandating a three-phase system. Some of their cast-iron plinths survived in Central Park.

      The worst losses were the green bronze two-phase traffic signals that were topped by a statue of Mercury on 5th Avenue. The statues were placed on the new black Donald Deskey lampposts on 5th Avenue that replaced the cast-iron lampposts on Manhattan’s Via Triumphalis, but they, too, have vanished, along with most of the black Deskey poles.

      • countrypaul Says:

        Of course I know they were mandated out of existence, and some of their placements were awkward in terms of good traffic control. I also agree about the loss of the beautiful brass signals. It’s just a shame to lose such iconic symbols. In Summit New Jersey, a 1920s blinker still exist because my wife and I campaigned to maintaine it, and even though it serves no useful traffic purpose other than as a divider between oncoming Lanes, it’s still flashes proudly.

      • pontifikator Says:

        I’d love to see photos of those lost traffic signals. Your descriptions evoke my (now faint) memories of them, especially the ones topped with Mercury on 5th.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        There’s a mysterious 2-light traffic signal at Riverside Drive and maybe 99th Street. I just can’t place its era or figure out how old it is, or if it’s old at all.

      • countrypaul Says:

        Sometimes artifacts “sneak through.” For years the last two-light “Empire Building” road light on the Henry Hudson Parkway stood at the closed 72nd Street southbound exit ramp. How I wanted that light, but before I could act on it, it was gone. Darn!!!

  5. James Calderwood Says:

    I Find the Photos very interesting, but they seem cold and distant I would rather have street scenes with the vibrancy of colorful crowds. I enjoy our Red-brown earth and sweeping plains of our Aussie outback

  6. Kiwiwriter Says:

    These photographs are fantastic, for composition, use of lines, and use of lighting.

  7. velovixen Says:

    What I find so interesting is that in the abstraction of Weston’s photos, we see the humanity—or, perhaps, just the human scale—of New York City, especially in comparison to what it has become.

    Also, when I look at Weston’s photos, I am reminded of how abstract painters like Mondrian were influenced by everything from building features to the cacophony of traffic and pulsing lights.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      That’s a smart observation: the human scale of his abstractions. Usually the two terms are considered opposites.

  8. pontifikator Says:

    I KNOW I’ve seen that St. Francis fancy groceries and fruit store somewhere in real life, but can’t recall where. Looks like maybe it was near a station, subway? Grand Central? Interesting glass above the store.

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