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Two very different Bostons, two less different photographers

‘Developing Boston: Berenice Abbott and Irene Shwachman Photograph a Changing City,’ at the Athenaeum, shows what a difference three decades can make

Irene Shwachman, "Washington Street, Adams Square," May 23, 1962.Boston Athenaeum

Berenice Abbott’s book “Changing New York” (1939) is one of the great photographic documents. Inspired by Eugène Atget’s visual chronicling of Paris in the first quarter of the 20th century, Abbott sought to do something similar for New York.

Before New York there was Boston, albeit on a much smaller scale and far shorter span of time. The architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock commissioned Abbott to photograph several East Coast cities in 1934. Boston was one of them. The Boston Athenaeum has 24 of those photographs in its collection. Seventeen of them, along with two from 1954, and 25 photographs of Boston in the ‘50s and (mostly) ‘60s by her friend Irene Shwachman are in “Developing Boston: Berenice Abbott and Irene Shwachman Photograph a Changing City.”


Berenice Abbott, "Washington Street at Adams Square," 1934.Boston Athenaeum

The show, which runs at the Athenaeum through Dec. 30, achieves the happy effect of feeling extensive while being quite compact. It also includes two maps, a Shwachman portrait of Abbott, a Shwachman self-portrait, several sets of her negatives, an invitation to a 1962 Athenaeum show of her work, a Boston Globe article about that show, a copy of “Changing New York,” and copies of three books about Atget.

Irene Shwachman, "The West End. 18th- and 19th-Century Buildings," January 25, 1959.Boston Athenaeum

Abbott (1898-1991) you’ve heard about. Shwachman (1915-1988) is nowhere near as well known. Starting in 1959, she spent nine years working on what she called “The Boston Document.” It consists of more than 3,500 negatives, showing the transformation of the city during those years. Most of that time, she worked on her own. From 1962-63, she was employed as a photographer by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (today’s Boston Planning & Development Agency), until a project manager fired her. He was shocked, shocked, to learn that the BRA was employing a photographer who was a woman.


Berenice Abbott, "70-73 Beacon Street," 1934.Boston Athenaeum

Shwachman’s photographs in “Developing Boston” hold their own against Abbott’s, both because there are more of them and because of the nature of the city each woman was documenting. In 1934, “changing” was not a word that much described Boston. There’s a static quality to many of Abbott’s photographs here. A picture of Beacon Street facades could be mistaken for Atget’s Paris (not that that’s a bad thing). That’s owing in part to the architecture and in part to the relatively long exposure times required by Abbott’s view camera. Even so, there’s a sense of a city that, while by no means lifeless, is far from vibrant.

Irene Shwachman, "Noonan's Food Store, Reed and Lenox Streets, South End," July 2, 1965.Boston Athenaeum

That reflected the city’s economic situation. The Great Depression only worsened a decline that had been going on for years. The city Shwachman recorded was in the throes of making up for lost time. The West End was being torn down (Shwachman’s husband had grown up there and urged her to chronicle its destruction). Government Center was replacing Scollay and Adams squares. Even when a given neighborhood wasn’t affected, the larger impact could be felt. What stands out in a charming picture of a corner store in the South End from 1965 is the signage. Look closer, though, and looming in the background is the recently completed Prudential Building. It’s on sentry duty for the future.

The Athenaeum’s Lauren Graves, who curated the show, has done something slightly risky. She intersperses Abbott’s and Shwachman’s photographs. Sometimes adjacent photographs are even of the same subject: Faneuil Hall, the Old State House, the Harrison Gray Otis House.


Berenice Abbott, "57 Hancock Street," 1934.Boston Athenaeum

This interweaving is risky for two reasons. With all due respect to Shwachman, she wasn’t the photographer Abbott was (as she’d have been the first to admit). Conversely, the city Shwachman had in front of her camera was so much more dynamic. Yet the quality of both photographers’ work and the expertness of the hanging mean that risk turns into reward. Each enhances, and enlarges, the other.

“Developing Boston” has two pendants. One consists of 10 photographs of Boston and Cambridge taken by local teenagers under the sponsorship of the Boston nonprofit Artists for Humanity. Talented beyond their years, the photographers are Nancy Gonzales, Victoria Kutta, Rose Narcisse, and Axander Vazquez.

Paul Caponigro, "Eaton Street, West End," Boston, 1959.Boston Athenaeum

“The Caponigro Collection: Boston in 1959,″ which also runs through Dec. 30, comprises 11 black-and-white photographs taken in that year by Paul Caponigro. Nine are of the West End, two of Back Bay. These facades, doorways, and exteriors have such character they almost feel like interiors. They recall Abbott’s advice to Shwachman: “The buildings are the people.” The size of the images, in the vicinity of 5 inches by 3 inches or the reverse, adds to their very considerable appeal. They’re also striking for being so uncharacteristic. Caponigro, who turns 91 in December, is best known for deeply spiritual landscapes, still lifes, and nature studies. These are very different. The show could just as aptly have been called “Developing Caponigro.”

DEVELOPING BOSTON: Berenice Abbott and Irene Shwachman Photograph a Changing City



At Boston Athenaeum, 10½ Beacon St., through Dec. 30. 617-227-0270,

Mark Feeney can be reached at