I highly recommend this book to anyone who has even a passing interest either in New York or photography-or both. It reveals much about New York in recent years, about Douglas Levere's fanatical and skillful photographic obsession; and it reminds us of Abbott's remarkable accomplishment during the 1930s.
In a CNN interview, Levere described his re-photography project modestly as a snapshot of New York at the end of the last century that we can compare to Abbott's snapshot of New York in the 1930s. Through such a comparison, he said, we can learn "what we've done to this place we call New York." While this is true, his use of the term "snapshot" suggests a kind of intuitive casualness, which is far from the truth, at least in terms of Levere's own photographs. Although Abbott's views of New York were sometimes taken intuitively and occasionally even randomly, Levere's photographs are anything but. One immediately senses and appreciates his faithful replication of every shadow, every angle, every framing, and every bit of lens distortion in Abbott's original photographs. His scrupulous attention to the details in her work is especially remarkable because Abbott's techniques did not make his task easy. She created vexing puzzles not only by tampering with some of her lenses (to double their magnification, according to the book's introduction), but also by taking some of her Financial District photographs blindly over the edge of tall buildings because of her fear of heights.
It is striking that Levere's project is so different from Abbott's in process, but similar to a certain extent in effect. Abbott's project was primarily a sociological study imbedded within modernist aesthetic practices. She sought to create a broadly inclusive collection of photographs that together suggest a vital interaction between three aspects of urban life: the diverse people of the city; the places they live, work and play; and their daily activities. It was intended to empower people by making them realize that their environment was a consequence of their collective behavior (and visa versa). Moreover, she avoided the merely pretty in favor of what she described as "fantastic" contrasts between the old and the new, and chose her camera angles and lenses to create compositions that either stabilized a subject (if she approved of it), or destabilized it (if she scorned it). Levere, on the other hand, started with Abbott's camera location, camera angle, lens, time of day and time of year, and recorded what appeared within his camera's viewer. Clearly Levere's images seem unlike Abbott's in intent. Yet because of the broad range of new and old subjects that he has recorded, when juxtaposed with the even older subjects in Abbott's images, his project, too, creates a similar fantastic impact.
Moreover, despite the near-randomness of Levere's subjects, one imagines that Abbott would be pleased that his photographs are able to tell us much about the culture of late twentieth-century New York. By comparing his work to hers, we are repeatedly reminded that New York is, like all vital cities, an ever-changing manifestation of the people who live there: their enterprise, love and fashions as well as their dereliction and spite. Such an interpretation is reinforced by Bonnie Yochelson's richly insightful captions. But Levere's project will be even more significant than that for future historians. Because his project began in 1997 and ended in 2002, it also offers us one of the best (though unintended-and perhaps for this very reason twice-as-compelling and ten times as chilling) records of New York in the months leading up to, and immediately following, September 11, 2001, when the entire world was reminded that New York is a manifestation, too, of people who do not live there at all.