Boston Athenaeum Showcases Pioneering Photographers of 1930s and 1960s in “Developing Boston” Exhibition

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BOSTON–The Boston Athenaeum has launched its newest exhibition, Developing Boston: Berenice Abbott and Irene Shwachman Photograph a Changing City, featuring the first joint presentation of work by the two pioneering photographers of the 1930s and 1960s as they captured a Boston in the midst of great change and redevelopment.Abbott’s 1934 photos and Shwachman’s 1959-68 images capture many of the same locations 30 years apart, including the Old State House, Faneuil Hall, West End, Beacon Hill, and Adams Square (now Government Center), with some locations and buildings still recognizable today, others utterly transformed by redevelopment. They also include historical images of “New City Hall” and the Prudential Tower under construction in the 1960s. The exhibition will be open through the end of December and available with a first-floor admission ticket. 

Leah Rosovsky, the Boston Athenaeum’s Stanford Calderwood Director, said, “For anyone who loves exploring the modern history of Boston and the evolution of photographic technique and composition, ‘Developing Boston’ promises to be a rich and inspiring experience. We are also so honored and excited to partner with and showcase the teen photographers of Artists For Humanity as we work to deepen the Athenaeum’s connections with people from all of Boston neighborhoods and present new perspectives on our city and its history.” 

The photographers have notable personal connections, as well as differing approaches to photographing the city. Abbott approaches Boston from a distance, offering stoic views, oscillating between straightforward and oblique angles. Shwachman, a onetime student of Abbott’s who photographed alongside, and even worked for a time as Abbott’s darkroom printer, amended her teacher’s approach by photographing Boston through a personal, subjective lens to highlight the city’s dynamism.“By examining the works of Abbott and Shwachman in conversation, Developing Boston explores how each photographer viewed, dissected, and preserved Boston as it evolved throughout the twentieth century. As Abbott employed her documentary practice to create clear sightlines between the past and present, Shwachman developed her practice to signal towards Boston’s uncertain future,” says Lauren Graves, Ph.D., assistant curator at the Boston Athenaeum. “The documentary approaches of both photographers, whose work has never previously been presented in a joint exhibition, shine together to present a side of Boston’s buildings and public spaces that would have otherwise been lost. We hope that this exhibition helps Bostonians and visitors alike to find their place in the city.”Building on this documentary photography exhibition, the Boston Athenaeum has also partnered with Artists For Humanity to add to the exhibition a selection of contemporary images of Boston made over the last two years, bringing teenage AFH photographers and their visual take on Boston into conversation with the seminal works of Abbott and Shwachman.“Boston Athenaeum was so invested in the teens’ vision—from start to finish,” said AFH’s Photography Director Mary Nguyen, “They trusted that the teens were the experts in representing their own city through their lenses. The teens felt empowered, embraced, and celebrated as artists, and as young people, by such a historic institution and a great partner.”“This will be the first time having my artwork in an exhibition outside of AFH,” said AFH Teen Photographer, Victoria “Tori” Kutta. “Being able to tour a famous place like Boston Athenaeum, where thousands of people visit, and then exhibit my own photography there—it’s surreal!”AFH’s Studio team is so proud of their artwork being added to the Athenaeum’s collections, continuing the photographic story of Boston started by Abbott and Schwachman.More about Berenice Abbott and Irene Shwachman:Berenice Abbott (1898 – 1991) was commissioned in 1934 by architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock to photograph American cities along the east coast, including Boston. She spent the next few decades continuing to photograph American cities, most notably, New York. When she returned to the Boston area in 1958, the Athenæum’s then-director, Walter Muir Whitehill, asked Abbott to reprint her 1934 Boston series to help the Athenaeum meet its goals of preserving imagery of the city’s past and collecting the work of contemporary artists.Irene Shwachman (1915 – 1988) began her nine-year, self-directed project “The Boston Document” in 1959, during which she documented a Boston amid change, growth, progress, and decline. Shwachman considered “The Boston Document”, totaling over 3,500 negatives, her “contribution to America.” The collection captures the demolition of Boston’s West End neighborhood and other renewal projects. In 1962, the Boston Athenæum hosted an exhibition of “The Boston Document” and continued acquiring Shwachman’s work throughout the decade. The Boston Athenaeum today holds the largest collection of Shwachman photographs outside of her archive at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona.In a 1972 letter, Shwachman wrote to Stephen Jackerie, the Worcester Art Museum’s Associate Photography Curator: “In the back of my mind I have always had a wish to have my prints shown with Berenice Abbott’s” – a dream that, 51 years later, is now coming true at the Athenaeum.This exhibition, Developing Boston: Berenice Abbott and Irene Shwachman Photograph a Changing City, is generously funded by the Polly Thayer Starr Charitable Trust. The Mass Cultural Council supports the collaboration with Artists For Humanity. 

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