Tips for Documentary Photography

Learn with Berenice Abbott (1898-1991)

Berenice Abbott, a renowned twentieth century photographer, viewed taking pictures as a way to document reality deeply, honestly, and accurately. On a radio interview, she once said, “Documentary photography tries to get at the root of things. . . . We cannot go on just looking at things on the surface. . . . This means getting at things as they really are, which is not always pretty; in fact, almost never pretty.”

She maintained this objective approach to photography when working on Changing New York, a photo project that focused on the radical transformation of New York City from 1929 through the 1930s.[1] She captured 300-plus photos that show the city’s architecture, a diverse array of people, and their way of life amidst change.

View a selection of Abbott’s work below, with helpful insights you can apply to your own photography.

Abbott photographed the transformation of New York City into an urban metropolis. She documented old, historical buildings before they were torn down and skyscrapers constructed in their stead

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Image courtesy of The Digital Public Library of America’s Changing New York archive.