Berenice Abbott (July 17, 1898 – December 9, 1991), née Bernice Alice Abbott, was an American photographer best known for her portraits of between-the-wars 20th century cultural figures, New York City photographs of architecture and urban design of the 1930s, and science interpretation in the 1940s to 1960s.
Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio and brought up there by her divorced mother, née Lillian Alice Bunn (m. Charles E. Abbott in Chillicothe OH, 1886).
She attended Ohio State University for two semesters, but left in early 1918 when her professor was dismissed because he was a German teaching an English class. In Paris, she became an assistant to Man Ray, who wanted someone with no previous knowledge of photography.
Trip to Europe, photography, and poetry
Her university studies included theater and sculpture. She spent two years studying sculpture in Paris and Berlin. She studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris and the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. During this time, she adopted the French spelling of her first name, “Berenice,” at the suggestion of Djuna Barnes. In addition to her work in the visual arts, Abbott published poetry in the experimental literary journal transition. Abbott first became involved with photography in 1923, when Man Ray hired her as a darkroom assistant at his portrait studio in Montparnasse. Later, she wrote: “I took to photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else.” Ray was impressed by her darkroom work and allowed her to use his studio to take her own photographs. In 1921 her first major works was in an exhibition in the Parisian gallery Le Sacre du Printemps. After a short time studying photography in Berlin, she returned to Paris in 1927 and started a second studio, on the rue Servandoni.
Photograph by Abbott of her friend Margarett Sargent taken in Paris in 1928
Abbott’s subjects were people in the artistic and literary worlds, including French nationals (Jean Cocteau), expatriates (James Joyce), and others just passing through the city. According to Sylvia Beach, “To be ‘done’ by Man Ray or Berenice Abbott meant you rated as somebody”. Abbott’s work was exhibited with that of Man Ray, André Kertész, and others in Paris, in the “Salon de l’Escalier” (more formally, the Premier Salon Indépendant de la Photographie), and on the staircase of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Her portraiture was unusual within exhibitions of modernist photography held in 1928–1929 in Brussels and Germany.
Abbott’s photograph of Janet Flanner in 1925
In 1925, Man Ray introduced her to Eugène Atget’s photographs. She became interested in Atget’s work, and managed to persuade him to sit for a portrait in 1927. He died shortly thereafter. She acquired the prints and negatives remaining in Eugène Atget’s studio at his death in 1927. While the government acquired much of Atget’s archive — Atget had sold 2,621 negatives in 1920, and his friend and executor André Calmettes sold 2,000 more immediately after his death — Abbott was able to buy the remainder in June, 1928, and quickly started work on its promotion. An early tangible result was the 1930 book Atget, photographe de Paris, in which she is described as photo editor. Due to a lack of funding, Abbott sold a one-half interest in the collection to Julien Levy for $1,000. Abbott’s work on Atget’s behalf would continue until her sale of the archive to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. In addition to her book The World of Atget (1964), she provided the photographs for A Vision of Paris (1963), published a portfolio, Twenty Photographs, and wrote essays. Her sustained efforts helped Atget gain international recognition
Changing New York
Bowery restaurant photograph for Changing New York, 1935.
In early 1929, Abbott visited New York City, ostensibly to find an American publisher for Atget’s photographs. After New York when she was doing portrait photography most of the time, she moved on to documentary photography. Upon seeing the city again, Abbott recognized its photographic potential. She went back to Paris, closed up her studio, and returned to New York in September. She was a central figure that created bridge with photographic hubs in New York City. Her first photographs of the city were taken with a handheld Kurt-Bentzin camera, but soon she acquired a Century Universal camera which produced 8 × 10 inch negatives. Using this large format camera, Abbott photographed New York City with the diligence and attention to detail she had so admired in Eugène Atget. Atget died in 1927 and she bought all his work which contained over 5000 negatives and glass slides from him and brought it to New York in 1929. Her work has provided a historical chronicle of many now-destroyed buildings and neighborhoods of Manhattan. Her work appeared in an exhibition “Changing New York” at the Museum Of City in 1937. This was a book made to show the transformation of New York City. She focused more on the physical part of the transformation rather than the mental part of it, such as the change of neighborhoods and the replacement of skyscrapers to low rise buildings.
Abbott worked on her New York project independently for six years, unable to get financial support from organizations (such as the Museum of the City of New York), foundations (such as the Guggenheim Foundation), or individuals. She supported herself with commercial work and teaching at the New School of Social Research beginning in 1933.
Manhattan skyline in 1936
In 1935, Abbott was hired by the Federal Art Project (FAP) as a project supervisor for her “Changing New York” project. She continued to take the photographs of the city, but she had assistants to help her both in the field and in the office. This arrangement allowed Abbott to devote all her time to producing, printing, and exhibiting her photographs. By the time she resigned from the FAP in 1939, she had produced 305 photographs that were then deposited at the Museum of the City of New York. Abbott’s project was primarily a sociological study embedded 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 vice 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).
Encampment of the unemployed, New York City, 1935
Abbott’s ideas about New York were highly influenced by Lewis Mumford’s historical writings from the early 1930s, which divided American history into a series of technological eras. Abbott, like Mumford, was particularly critical of America’s “paleotechnic era”, which, as he described it, emerged at end of the American Civil War, a development called by other historians the Second Industrial Revolution. Like Mumford, Abbott was hopeful that, through urban planning efforts (aided by her photographs), Americans would be able to wrest control of their cities from paleotechnic forces, and bring about what Mumford described as a more humane and human-scaled, “neotechnic era”. Abbott’s agreement with Mumford can be seen especially in the ways that she photographed buildings that had been constructed in the paleotechnic era—before the advent of urban planning. Most often, buildings from this era appear in Abbott’s photographs in compositions that made them look downright menacing.
In 1935, Abbott moved into a Greenwich Village loft with the art critic Elizabeth McCausland, with whom she lived until McCausland’s death in 1965. McCausland was an ardent supporter of Abbott, writing several articles for the Springfield Daily Republican, as well as for Trend and New Masses (the latter under the pseudonym Elizabeth Noble). In addition, McCausland contributed the captions for the book of Abbott’s photographs entitled Changing New York which was published in 1939. In 1949, her photography book Greenwich Village Today and Yesterday was published by Harper & Brothers.
Ralph Steiner wrote in that Abbott’s work was “the greatest collection of photographs of New York City ever made.”
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