1024px blossom restaurant 103 bowery by berenice abbott in 1935
Bowery restaurant, 1935. [Photo by Berenice Abbott]

Views into past on Lexington

By Peter McDermott

Most enthusiasts of photography take their time moving around the streets of New York, camera in hand. Not Michael Di Cerbo — most days he is whizzing by on his bicycle, as he has been doing for his almost 50 years in the city. Such is his dedication to this activity that on one of his many trips to his immigrant mother’s homeland — she was from was near Scotstown, Co. Monaghan — he cycled over 1,000 miles.

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Di Cerbo, currently, is the go-to guy at the Old Print Shop on Lexington Avenue (at 30th Street) to talk about Berenice Abbott, one of most celebrated ever of the city’s photographers.

Born in Ohio in 1898, Abbott would have a long life, but she is perhaps most famous for two early episodes in her photographic career. When in Paris in the 1920s, she made her name taking photographs of notables in the world of the arts. Her portraits of James Joyce are among some of her best known from that time. Then, back in the U.S., she undertook from 1935 the project that became the 1939 volume “Changing New York,” which forms the basis on the current show on the 2nd floor of the Old Print Shop.

“I don’t think she has a weak composition,” said Di Cerbo, who is himself a painter of note.

Abbott had ambitions to be a sculptor, but made money in New York as a model and through that work met Man Ray and other leading photographers and artists. She also found work in the theatre world; for instance, getting a small walk-on part in a Eugene O’Neill play.

She became seriously ill during the post-war influenza epidemic and was taken from the theatre one night to St. Vincent’s Hospital.

During her convalescence, the determined and independent-minded Abbott decided New York had little to offer and, in 1921, like quite a few young Americans of the day headed for Europe. There, she worked with Man Ray as his assistant and quickly established herself as a talent in the medium.

Pike and Henry Streets, in Manhattan, in the 1930s. [Photo by Berenice Abbott]

The most significant Paris composition for Abbott personally was likely the one she took of 70-year-old photographer Eugène Atget, a few months before his death in 1927. Like her, Atget changed direction early on. He was originally an actor but an illness of the vocal cords weakened his voice and he took up photography as a profession in the late 1880s. It was only at the end of his life, however, that his work received any kind of recognition and then it was mainly from largely unknown emergent artists like Abbott and fellow American Walker Evans, who also spent time in Paris. Both were influenced by the Frenchman’s unsentimental documentary style.

Abbott bought most of Atget’s prints and negatives and hoped to get a publisher for the work back in New York. The photographer was astonished at the changes over the eight years she’d been away from the city and came up with a plan to document its streets and buildings. She eventually won funding from the Federal Art Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), for “Changing New York,” which in 1937 became an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.

Walker, meanwhile, documented the effects of the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Di Cerbo pointed out one photograph on the wall that is not officially part of “Changing New York.” It’s an Abbott shot of the front of the Old Print Shop from 1945. She was a regular at the 1893-founded store that moved to its current location in 1925, when she was in Paris taking portraits of James Joyce.

Abbott’s work, though, was never on sale at the Old Print Shop during her lifetime – she died in 1991 -- simply because it didn’t do photography until the turn of the millennium.

Eugène Atget's photographs of Paris very often have no human beings, but here some are packed in to view an eclipse in 1912. His work had a huge influence on American photographers Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans.

An Abbott exhibition there in 2004 did very well, selling about 60 of the 90 photographs on show. “She was gay and that was from her lover’s estate,” Di Cerbo said.

He is also an admirer of the work of other photographers featured in the collections of the Old Print Shot, such as Margaret Bourke-White, who was born in the Bronx to an Irish Catholic mother and a Jewish father. But asked what his favorite of all of the many artists whose work is found there, he said: “Oh that’s easy. Martin Lewis.”

He took out an unframed print by the artist born in Australia in 1881, who worked closely with Edward Hopper. “That’s $12, 500,” he said, “But you can pay up to $65,000 for his work.”

Di Cerbo is yet another artist who switched from what he thought was his calling. The New Jersey native started out as an architect, but realized quickly that it wasn’t for him temperamentally. But it has influenced work, which it’s been said, turns “urban grandeur into geometric forms with patterns of light and dark that allude to the soaring architecture of skyscrapers.”

He’s less well-known for his landscapes, some of which he’s done in places like County Mayo.

“My parents met because of WW II. She was working in Belfast and he went off to France,” he said. “They were married in Ireland.”

His father was one of seven brothers from an Italian family in East Harlem.

“It was a very different culture,” he said of the transition for his mother. “But my grandmother was an immigrant and they became very close. So it worked out fine.”

On the first of his trips to meet his Casley relatives, one cousin, a colonel in the army in Dublin, was a little suspicious of him.

“I showed up with long hair and a beard and he wasn’t comfortable with that,” he recalled with a laugh.

Another trip was part of an extended European honeymoon with his ex-wife, while the long cycling trip took place in 1985. He’s now close to a network of relatives in Ireland, but particularly his first cousin Brian Casley.

Back home, Di Cerbo eventually gave up his downtown artist’s loft for a place uptown – though it does involve for a cyclist negotiating some steep hills -- and also abandoned in the early 21st century his job as a college professor when he didn’t get tenure. He went instead to work for the company that represented him: the Old Print Shop.

“It’s much more interesting,” the painter said.

For more information, go to oldprintshop.com.

Manhattan skyline at South Street and Jones Lane at Pier 11. [Photo by Berenice Abbott]