Berenice Abbott meets Weegee, A Chance Encounter


Art has a way of overlapping ideas, much like life itself. Photography is no exception and has the peculiar habit of showing us familiar things we may have seen through another photographers lens.  It is a curious phenomenon that photo historians have written about, eloquently, for decades.


The new exhibition Eyes of a Nation: A Century of American Photography features a wonderful image by Berenice Abbott, titled Gunsmith and Police Department, taken in 1979—late in the photographer’s career. Abbot’s image playfully, if not ominously shows an oversized revolver pointed at a Manhattan police station. Guns pointed at police are cause for alarm, making Abbott’s image one that raises questions about urban life in the 20th century. It was the name on the gunsmith sign, however, that caught my attention and encouraged me to find out more about “Frank Lava Gunsmith”. What I learned was surprising, yielding both expected and unexpected results.


After a quick web search, (we suggest — a search engine where you can support MOPA with every search) the first interesting thing we learn about Frank Lava’s Gunsmith shop is that the famed photographer Weegee lived above it. Weegee died 11 years before Abbott made the photograph on exhibit, but an eye opening image of Weegee sitting atop Frank Lava’s sign, 4x5” speed graphic in hand, adds a rich new dimension to Abbot’s photograph. Taken further, the search reveals a street map showing us the expected, that Frank Lava Gunsmith has since faded to memory and is now occupied by a high end boutique. The large wooden revolver is relegated to the annals of history, while the police station still stands in architectural prowess across the street. In the case of MOPA’s current exhibition, the image holds the power to transport us into a world Berenice Abbott may never have imagined.