Berenice Abbott

“The world doesn’t like independent woman, why, I don’t know, but I don’t care.”

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), born in Springfield, Ohio, American photographer, best known for her documentary images of New York City in the 1930s and 1940s.

After graduating from Lincoln High School in Springfield, the young Abbott had a barber cut off the long, thick braid which hung down her back before starting at university in the autumn. The effect of such a drastic change was palpable; she notes how “my bobbed hair startled the campus”, and indeed it was this first stylistic step that would give Abbott her new and liberating identity. “A handful of students from New York at once mistook me for a ‘sophisticate’,” she writes. “We became friends, and a new life began for me.”Source

Abbott intended to be a journalist but moved to New York City in 1918 into the thriving creative centre of Greenwich Village, to study sculpture. In New York, she lived with author Djuna Barnes and she became acquainted with radical artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, whom she taught how to dance. In 1921 all three relocated to Paris, France. Abbott studied sculpture with Antoine Bourdelle and Constantin Brancusi in Paris from 1921 to 1923, and at the Kunstschule (art school) in Berlin, Germany, in 1923.Source While studying, Abbott became involved in Dadaist publications and took up jobs as a model to support herself, working with artists such as Nickolas Muray and her friend Man Ray. It was during her time in Paris that Abbott bumped into Man Ray on the street one day – by this time he had also relocated to the French capital – looking for a darkroom assistant who “understood nothing about photography”. Abbott fit the bill, and began work at once. Source This experience led her to photography, and in 1926 she opened her own portrait studio. Source  She “took to photography like a duck to water,” later declaring that “I never wanted to do anything else”. Following Man Ray’s lead, Abbott began a career in portraiture, shooting headshots for artists. One job naturally led to another, and with the encouragement of her new teacher and the generous funding of the art heiress Peggy Guggenheim – who also funded the work of her ex-roommate Barnes – Abbott’s confidence and success grew. Within a year her photographs were being exhibited to great acclaim; before long, like her tutor Man Ray, she was taking photographs of some of the most exciting and influential figures in Paris at the time, her benefactors including Guggenheim, Coco Chanel, Max Ernst, Andre Gide, Phillippe Soupault, Jean Cocteau and Marie Laurencin, to name but a few. Source Abbott’s portraits are straightforward and eloquent.Source She was described, enchantingly, by the French writer Jean Cocteau (one of her many subjects) as being like “a chess game between light and shadow.”Source 

André Salomon and Pierre Charbonnier

“Photography can only represent the present. Once photographed, the subject becomes part of the past.”

— Berenice Abbott

Through Man Ray, she met Eugène Atget, whose photographs of the transformation of Paris from the ancien regime through the mid-1920s impressed her with their methodical technique and intuitive inflections of artistry. Upon Atget’s death, she collaborated with Julien Levy, of New York’s Julien Levy Gallery, to buy most of Atget’s negatives and prints, bringing them back to New York in 1929. For more than forty years Abbott tirelessly promoted Atget’s work. It is largely through her efforts that this great fin-de-siècle French photographer is still known today.Source

Arriving back in New York in 1929, Abbott was struck by the rapid transformation of the built landscape. On the eve of the Great Depression she began a series of documentary photographs of the city that, with the support of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project from 1935 to 1939, debuted in 1939 as the traveling exhibition and publication Changing New York. She published a second series in 1949, Greenwich Village Today and Yesterday. Source Abbott’s interest in realism in her practice overlaps with the general shift in photographic practice that occurred in the 1920s and 1930s away from beauty and the pursuit of universal ideals and toward an interest in the artifacts, scenes, and patterns of unexceptional daily life. And like many young photographers of her generation, Abbott avoided lush surfaces, did not perfectly and painstakingly produce her prints, and shunned content (such as still lifes or abstracted views of nature) that lent itself to lavish production procedures, in order to oppose what she believed was the growing exclusivity of “Art” photography.Source

Abbott taught photography at the New School for Social Research from 1935 to 1958, and experimented with scientific photography, using it to illustrate principles of physics such as the bending of light as it passes through different substances. Her scientific photographs were published in several high school physics textbooks in the 1960s. In 1966 Abbott moved to Maine and began a series of photographs documenting life along U.S. Route 1, a road that runs from Maine to Florida.Source

“Photography helps people to see.”

— Berenice Abbott

For the rest of her life Abbott advocated for a documentary style of photography as exemplified in the Changing New York project, while also continuing to promote the work of Atget. Her work was included in many influential exhibitions of the era, including the Salon de l’escalier, 1928; Fotografie der Gegenwart, 1929; Film und Foto, 1929; and Photography: 1839–1937 as well as in a solo-exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1932. In 1970, The Museum of Modern Art hosted a career retrospective. Source

Some portraits


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