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Double Misdirection

Berenice Abbott’s “Changing New York” project from 1935 has some peculiarities based on its creator. Abbott wasn’t a newspaper photographer looking for the most straightforward photo of a given topic; she was an artist. So when she set out to capture social changes in New York through photography, she combined art and news in varying mixtures for different topics.

The picture above is titled “Murray Hill Hotel, From Park Avenue and 40th Street.” Obviously, it’s a beautiful photo. I’m no art critic, but that’s great composition of a shot. But Abbott is misdirecting our attention like a stage magician.

First, the Murray Hill Hotel is not the modern skyscraper at the center of the photo. It’s the older building on the right, with the curved and lacy iron balconies. (For more on the Murray Hill Hotel: here.) The hotel was built in 1884. The skyscraper in the center of the shot is 275 Madison Avenue, 43 stories tall and completed in 1931; the skyscraper behind it is 10 East 40th Street, 48 stories tall and completed in 1929. The Madison Avenue building is in the corporate Art Deco style popular at that time; the 40th Street building is, somehow, at over 600 feet tall, in a renaissance revival style. Without attempting to read Abbott’s mind, she seems to be making a statement about new versus old. We’re looking west on 40th Street, which shows us the side facades of all three buildings, not that it necessarily matters. Here’s a 1911-or-so view of the front (east) facade of the hotel:

That’s 41st Street on the right, ending at Fifth Avenue, where the library has a double block (40th to 42nd). The hotel’s outside did not change much until its 1940s demolition, so Abbott’s first misdirection, naming a dramatic photo of two big new buildings after this rather blocky and boring building, is clear.

If you look closely at the 41st Street facade of the hotel, the right side, you’ll see a curved bay window running from the second floor up to the seventh. (The light-colored windows on the right are part of that bay, and look light because they are facing the camera rather than facing to the right.) There’s a matching curved bay on the 40th Street facade, and that’s where the curved iron balconies in Abbott’s photo are. Here’s a close-up of the 41st Street bay and balconies:

Abbott found an angle on 40th Street where she could capture the iron balcony and still look down the street. The second misdirection: the curved bay and iron balcony are poor representatives of the hotel’s architecture. Most of the building looks nothing like that.

How I know that I think this is a great photograph: Abbott misdirected me about the content twice and I don’t care.