• Documentary in Dispute: The Original Manuscript of Changing New York by Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland
    Sarah M. Miller
    Thierry Gervais
    Julia Van Haaften and Gary Van Zante
    Ryerson Image Centre/MIT Press, 2020
    Sarah M. Miller

Berenice Abbott, “‘El,’ Second and Third Avenue Lines, Hanover Square and Pearl Street, March 6, 1936,” 1936. Gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 x 7 5/8 inches. Museum of the City of New York, 40.140.68. Museum purchase, Mrs. Elon Hooker Acquisition Fund. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Changing New York, published in 1939, is an icon of American photography. Yet the book is not the one planned by Berenice Abbott (1898–1991) and her collaborator Elizabeth McCausland (1899–1965), because the publisher imposed drastic revisions to appeal to the New York World’s Fair visitors. Part 1 of Documentary in Dispute reconstructs the surprising original manuscript for Changing New York—including 100 photographs and caption texts—while Part 2 presents related archival documents. In Part 3, scholar Sarah M. Miller explores Abbott and McCausland’s unique theory of documentary photography, designed to critically illuminate the hidden forces shaping New York’s cityscape. Miller analyzes their photographic theory of “dynamic equilibrium” and their desire to cultivate the capacity of readers to embrace contradiction. Changing New York’s contentious revision is situated within wider contests over photography’s relationship to city futures, tourist experience, and theories of history and progress promulgated by the World’s Fair whose theme was “Building the World of Tomorrow.”

Sarah M. Miller is assistant adjunct professor of art history at Mills College in Oakland, CA. A specialist in the history of photography, modern art and urbanism, and American art, her work focuses on the invention, multiplicity, and contestation of “documentary” as a key concept in American photography. Recent publications include essays in Subjective/Objective: A Century of Social Photography, eds. Donna Gustafson and Andres Mario Zervigon (Zimmerli Art Museum/Hirmer Publishers, 2017) and Berenice Abbott: Photographs, ed. Gaëlle Morel (Hazan/Jeu de Paume/Ryerson Image Centre, 2012). Her reviews and criticism have appeared in Aperture, Critical Inquiry, Études Photographiques, Artforum, Photography & Culture, and on Her work has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, Council on Library and Information Resources, the Center for Creative Photography, and the Ryerson Image Centre, among others. Miller holds a doctorate in art history from the University of Chicago.