Developing Boston: Berenice Abbott & Irene Shwachman Photograph a Changing City

Developing Boston: Berenice Abbott & Irene Shwachman Photograph a Changing City

August 28 – December 30, 2023 in the Calderwood Gallery

During the mid-twentieth-century, two photographers captured Boston’s developing landscape: Berenice Abbott and Irene Shwachman. Abbott, an acclaimed photographer, produced a 1934 photographic survey of Boston’s nineteenth-century buildings. Twenty-five years later, Shwachman, a lesser-known yet crucial city chronicler, began “The Boston Document” (1959–1968). This self-directed photographic series pictured Boston’s redevelopment.

The twentieth century witnessed great change in Boston’s topography. The city’s crooked, narrow streets were widened to make way for increased automobile traffic. Human-scaled buildings and small open spaces were usurped by skyscrapers and monumental plazas. The city’s skyline of spires and domes became punctuated with tall, boxlike office buildings. 

Photographing at different times in Boston’s history, Abbott and Shwachman’s series each explore ways of viewing, dissecting, and preserving Boston. Abbott approaches Boston from a distance, offering stoic views, oscillating between straightforward and oblique angles. Shwachman, a student of Abbott’s, amended her teacher’s approach by photographing Boston through a personal, subjective lens to highlight the city’s dynamism.

Examining how the photographers consider presence, tempo, materiality, and change within the city, Developing Boston invites visitors to explore Boston’s past, present, and future, and find their place within the city. 

As a coda to the exhibition, the Athenaeum collaborated with teen artists from Artists For Humanity to create photographs that explore Boston’s continued redevelopment in the twenty-first century. These images illustrate photography’s critical role in understanding, remembering, and preserving Boston and its many iterations. 

The collaboration with Artists For Humanity is supported by the Mass Cultural Council.

This exhibition is generously funded by the Polly Thayer Starr Charitable Trust.

Mapping Berenice Abbott’s Boston

Our friends at the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library published Mapping Berenice Abbott’s Boston, a companion to this exhibition. Using the Map Center’s Atlascope technology, Lauren Graves, exhibition curator, mapped the buildings in Abbott’s work as a way to explore different ways of viewing Boston’s history.

Related Programming

See the full list of related programming, including curator-led gallery talks.