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Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott

Bernice Abbott (1898-1991) was one of the most gifted American photographers of the 20th century.

Berenice Abbott's work spanned more than 50 years of the twentieth century. At a time when "career women" were not only unconventional but controversial, she established herself as one of the nation's most gifted photographers. Her work is often divided into four categories: portraits of celebrated residents of 1920s Paris; a 1930s documentary history of New York City; photographic explorations of scientific subjects from the 1950s and 1960s; and a lifelong promotion of the work of French photographer Eug'e Atget. As a woman and a serious artist, Abbott faced numerous obstacles, not least of which was denial of the recognition she was due. Only recently has the high quality of her work been adequately appreciated. As one writer put it, "She was a consummate professional and artist."

Bernice Abbott was born into a world of rigid social rules, especially for women, who were expected to accept without question certain cultural dictates about clothing, manners, proper education, and other areas of everyday life. Abbott was an independent and somewhat defiant girl who hated such arbitrary constraints. One of her earliest acts of "rebellion" was to change the spelling of her name; Bernice became Berenice. "I put in another letter," she told an interviewer, "made it sound better."

Abbott's childhood was not especially happy. Her parents divorced when she was young, and though Abbott remained with her mother, her brothers were sent to live with their father. She never saw them again. This was a severe blow and may partly explain why Abbott never married or had her own family. She said she never wed because "marriage is the finish for women who want to work," and in her era this was largely true.

"Reinvented" herself in New York

At age 20 Abbott headed for New York City to "reinvent" herself, as one writer put it. She rented an apartment, studied journalism, drawing, and sculpture, and formed a circle of friends, many of whom were "bohemians" rebelling against the strict social rules of the day. Friends who remembered her from those days said Abbott was shy and "looked sort of forbidding." After three years Abbott had had her fill of New York and decided to go to Paris, something unmarried young women rarely did by themselves. In fact, that such a move was sure to generate controversy probably contributed to Abbott's decision to pursue it.

Photography became her calling

In Paris Abbott studied sculpture, but she ultimately found it unsatisfying. In 1923 photographer Man Ray, whom she had known in New York, offered her a job as his assistant. Abbott knew nothing about photography but accepted the job. "I was glad to give up sculpture," she said. "Photography was much more interesting." She worked for Man Ray for three years, mastering photographic techniques sufficiently to earn commissions of her own. Indeed, her work became so successful that she decided she had finally found her calling and opened her own studio.

Photographic portraits had become quite fashionable in Paris, and Abbott gained a solid reputation. She photographed some of the most distinguished people of the day, including Irish writer James Joyce; French writer, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau; and Princess Eug'ie Murat, granddaughter of French emperor Napoleon III. Her works have been called "astonishing in their immediacy and insight," revealing much of the personality of her sitters, especially women. Abbott herself commented that Man Ray's photographs of women made them "look like pretty objects"; she instead allowed their character to come through.

Championed work of Eug'e Atget

While her star was on the rise, Abbott "discovered" some pictures of Paris that she called "the most beautiful photographs ever made." She sought out the photographer, an aged, penniless man named Eug'e Atget. For almost 40 years Atget had been making a poor living photographing buildings, monuments, and scenes of the city and selling the prints to artists and publishers. Abbott's keen eye detected the originality of these photos, and she befriended the old man. When Atget died in 1927, Abbott arranged to purchase all of his prints, glass slides, and negatives—more than a thousand items in all. She became obsessed with this massive collection, spending the next 40 years promoting and preserving Atget's work, arranging exhibitions, books, and sales of prints to raise money. She donated the collection to New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1968, by which time she had almost singlehandedly brought Atget from total obscurity to worldwide renown. Some critics have claimed that Abbott's devotion to Atget's works hampered her career. But she denied this, insisting, "It was my responsibility and I had to do it. I thought he was great and his work should be saved."

Photographs documented New York City

Abbott's career took a new turn when she returned to New York in 1929. Inspired by Atget's work and by the excitement she felt in the air, she began a new project: photographing the city as no one ever had. She spent most of the 1930s lugging her camera around, shooting pictures of buildings, construction sites, billboards, fire escapes, and stables. Many of these sites disappeared during the 1930s as a huge construction boom in New York swept away the old buildings and mansions to make way for modern skyscrapers. Several of these photos were published in a 1939 book called Changing New York. In it Abbott wrote, "To make the portrait of a city is a life work and no one portrait suffices, because the city is always changing. Everything in the city is properly part of its story—its physical body of brick, stone, steel, glass, wood, its lifeblood of living, breathing men and women."

This task of documenting the city was not an easy one, especially for a woman. Abbott was "menaced by bums, heckled by suspicious crowds, and chased by policemen." Her most famous anecdote of the period came from her work in the rundown neighborhood known as the Bowery. A man asked her why a nice girl was visiting such a bad area. Abbott replied, "I'm not a nice girl. I'm a photographer." Finances presented further obstacles, and she spent her own money on the project until 1935, when the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration began to sponsor her work. Until 1939 she was able to earn a salary of $35 a week and enjoyed the participation of an assistant. When funding ran out, however, she had to abandon the project.

Took on scientific community

Abbott continued working during the 1940s and 1950s, though largely outside the spotlight. She became preoccupied during this period with scientific photography, hoping to record evidence of the laws of physics and chemistry, among other phenomena. She took courses in chemistry and electricity to expand her understanding. Again her iron determination served her well.

The scientific community looked on her efforts with suspicion, both because of its skepticism about photography's usefulness and its hostility toward women who ventured into the virtually all-male enclave of science. She spent years trying to convince scientists and publishers that texts and journals could be illustrated with photographs, fighting the conventional belief that drawings were sufficient. In all, as Abbott told an interviewer, the project was a minefield of sexism: "When I wanted to do a book on electricity, most scientists … insisted it couldn't be done. When I finally found a collaborator, his wife objected to his working with a woman. … The male lab assistants were treated with more respect than I was. You have no idea what I went through because I was a woman."

Photographs showed beauty in science

Political events rescued Abbott when the Soviet Union launched the first space satellite in 1957, initiating the "space race." The U.S. government began a new push in the field of science. In 1958 Abbott was invited to join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Physical Science Study Committee, which was charged with the task of improving high school science education. At last Abbott was vindicated in her insistence on the value of photography to science. Her biographer, Hank O'Neal, has said that her scientific photos were her best work. This is a subject of some debate, but many agree that she was able to uniquely demonstrate the beauty and grace in the path of a bouncing ball, the pattern of iron filings around a magnet, or the formation of soap bubbles.

In her later years Abbott did some photography around the country, in particular documenting U.S. Route l, a highway along the East Coast from Florida to Maine. During this project she fell in love with Maine and bought a small house in the woods of that state, where she lived for the rest of her life. As the popularity of photography grew in the 1970s and her life's work became recognized, Abbott was visited there by a string of admirers, photography students, and journalists. She became something of a legend in her own time, honored as a pioneer woman artist who conquered a male-dominated field thanks to "the vinegar of her personality and the iron of her character." But perhaps most importantly, students of the medium recognized the talent and artistry behind Abbot's work, among which reside some of the prize gems of twentieth-century photography.

Further Reading

Abbott, Berenice, Berenice Abbott, Aperture Foundation, 1988.

Abbott, Berenice, Berenice Abbott Photographs, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990.

O'Neal, Hank, Berenice Abbott: American Photographer, McGraw-Hill, 1982. □

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Abbott, Berenice

Berenice Abbott (bĕr´ənēs´), 1898–1991, American photographer, b. Springfield, Ohio. Abbott turned from sculpture to photography in 1923. She was assistant to Man Ray in Paris (1923–25), where she made an extraordinary series of portraits of the artistic and literary celebrities of the 1920s. She began her great documentation of New York City in 1929; many of the best photographs were collected in her book Changing New York (1939). In 1958, she produced a stunningly beautiful set of photographs for a high-school physics text that some critics consider her finest work. She discovered the work of Eugène Atget in 1925 and labored successfully to secure him international recognition.

See her Photographs (1970).

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Abbott, Berenice

Abbott, Berenice

(b. 17 July 1898 in Springfield, Ohio; d. 11 December 1991 in Monson, Maine), major American photographer noted for her documentary record of New York City.

Abbott was the daughter of Charles E. Abbott and Alice Bunn. Her parents divorced soon after her birth and she was raised alone by her mother, separated from her three siblings until the age of six. After the divorce, her mother moved with her to Columbus, Ohio, where Abbott attended public schools, rarely seeing her father. She attended Ohio State University for one term in the fall of 1917 then dropped out. Moving to New York City, she supported herself as a waitress, artist’s model, and actress in the Province town Playhouse in Greenwich Village. In Manhattan, she met the surrealist photographer and artist Man Ray, who became an important influence on her. When he offered her employment as a darkroom assistant, Abbott relocated to Paris, France, to work with him in 1923. There she met the photographer Eugene Atget Realizing the immense value of his work and influenced by his formal portraits of everyday life, Abbott purchased Atget’s negative files and images after his death in 1927. She also set up a portrait studio at which she created psychological images of major artists, such as James Joyce and Jean Cocteau, and of the collector Peggy Guggenheim. She held her first solo show at the Galerie au Sacre du Printemps in 1926.

Abbott forged her own artistic philosophy and increased her stature among modernists by attacking soft-focus pictorialism in favor of documentary photography drawn from the examples of the French pioneers Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (“Nadar”) and Atget. From Atget, she learned the importance of refusing commissions and picking one’s own subjects, and she was inspired by his epic chronicling of Parisian life, lessons she would apply in New York City.

In 1929 Abbott returned to the United States for a brief visit but was stunned by the changes occurring in New York City. She determined to photograph them as Atget had recorded Parisian cityscapes. She then arranged to have her massive collection of Atget’s work shipped to New York. Thirty-five years later she published the monograph The World of Atget (1964), considered one of the finest commentaries by one photographer on another. In 1968 she sold the collection to the Museum of Modern Art.

Living again in Greenwich Village, Abbott supported herself by magazine commissions. Abbott revealed Atget’s influence and her own creativity in an eight-year study of New York’s buildings and residents. Working first with a handheld camera, she then purchased an 8-by-10-inch view camera with which she sacrificed the speed and flexibility of the small camera for added detail and control. A historian of photography, she studied the work of Mathew Brady, David Octavius Hill, Nadar, and Atget to comprehend, in her words, “the sources of an authentic photographic tradition,” taking important lessons from each artist. As did her forebears, Abbott experienced financial difficulty. She proved too temperamental for a job at Fortune magazine and had to abandon a stylish apartment she had rented at the luxurious Hotel des Artistes off Central Park West. She enjoyed the patronage of Lincoln Kirstein and Julien Levy, who showed some of her work at the newly established Museum of Modern Art. Levy then opened a gallery where he presented Abbott’s first one-person show in 1932.

Abbott spent the first years of the Great Depression vainly seeking grant support from museums, foundations, and private donors for her New York City project. In the fall of 1933, she began teaching photography at the New School for Social Research, a post that she held until 1958. The following year she collaborated with the architectural historian Henry Russell Hitchcock on two projects. The first recorded the Victorian architecture of H. H. Richardson for the Museum of Modern Art, while the second involved preparing an exhibition of pre—Civil War architecture for Wesleyan University. These projects provided needed funds and sharpened Abbott’s style as direct, selfless, and functional.

In 1934 Abbott gained exposure in another one-person show in New York City and in This Is New York, a guide-book edited by Gilbert Seldes that featured twelve Abbott photographs, including the iconic Midtown Night View. Her first major break occurred in 1934, when the Museum of the City of New York mounted a major exhibition of her work. That same year, Abbott met Elizabeth McCausland, an art critic, who became her lifelong companion. The pair traveled around the eastern United States together and applied unsuccessfully for a joint Guggenheim Foundation Grant to photograph and write about the rest of the country.

Sponsored by the Museum of the City of New York, Abbott secured a post in the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which allowed her to photograph New York City full time. Influenced by Lewis Mumford’s Sticks and Stones: A Study of American Architecture and Civilization (1924), which espoused a sociological analysis of city life, Abbott constructed a three-part organization of her study, including “material aspect,” “means of life,” and “people and how they live.” Abbott then accumulated ideas for subjects, sought permission for restricted sites and cajoled residents to use their homes for better street angles, and considered the best times of day for shooting. Teaching, commissions, and freelance jobs also altered her routine. The type of cameras she used limited her progress: her lack of a miniature camera, for example, curtailed her ability to photograph crowd scenes. She constantly played with the organization of the project, which left some parts unfinished and added an air of chaos; a key conceptual omission in her work was a section on middle-class housing. She also waged and overcame several bureaucratic battles with the Federal Art Project (FAP), the division of the WPA that administered her project.

Despite these problems, Abbott’s work drew significant notice, including stories in Life magazine, special exhibits by the WPA, and a second exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, titled “Changing New York,” in 1937. At the end of the 1930s, the WPA lost its political battle for survival, and Abbott grew anxious about an income. Wrangling with the government was easy compared to the battles that she and McCausland encountered with E. P. Dutton, the publisher selected for the exhibition book. McCausland was more explicitly left-wing than Abbott, and the editors at Dutton rejected all of the former’s plans for book layout, editorial composition, and focus. In the final run, Abbott had little control over the book’s design. Moreover, the FAP paid her little for required prints and then issued more images without her permission. The great personal costs and limited financial reward did not detract from the enormous achievement of the project, published as Changing New York in 1939.

Abbott made no further studies of New York except for a collection published as Greenwich Village: Today and Yesterday in 1949, with text written by Henry W. Lanier. Another project, intended to compare her earlier urban studies with 1950s landscapes, lapsed when she could not find a publisher. As her mastery of technique became more complete, Abbott published A Guide to Better Photography (1941) and The View Camera Made Simple (1948). Her artistic interests then turned to scientific photography of physics and biology. She worked from 1944 to 1949 as picture editor of Science Illustrated. Abbott created new techniques and equipment to shoot images of magnetic fields, soap bubbles, and penicillin developing in a petri dish. She patented several methods, including the Supersight Process, which made direct photographs on 16-by-20-inch negatives that created virtually grainless images when transformed into contact sheets. Her sociological photography lapsed. A new project documenting the American panorama down U.S. Route 1 from Maine to Florida, accompanied by poems by Muriel Ruykeser, was largely completed but remains unpublished.

Abbott became famous in the 1950s for her scientific images. In 1958 she joined the Physical Science Study Committee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to help develop a textbook that would teach basic principles of physics to high school students. The text, Physics, appeared in 1960, and Abbott’s explanatory photographs were widely exhibited in schools and museums for the next thirty years. In 1965 McCausland died, and Abbott left New York City to live in Monson. In 1968 she published a book, A Portrait of Maine, with text written by Chenoweth Hall. With the arrival of photography as a collectible art form in the 1970s, Abbott received new appreciation, and she published a limited portfolio of her earlier works. Dover Books produced an inexpensive reprint of Changing New York, retitled New York in the 1930s (1973), which further popularized her work. In 1989 the New York Public Library mounted the initial retrospective of her work, accompanied by a catalog edited by Julia Van Haaften.

Abbott died of congestive heart failure in Monson. She left no survivors. In 1997 the Museum of the City of New York published a complete edition of Changing New York.

Abbott’s influence on twentieth-century American photography is immense. Compatible with the visions of Walker Evans and the WPA photographers, her clear, concise, yet populist approach to urban scenes and people influenced the later work of William Klein, Robert Frank, and Garry Winograd. Her sharply defined images are by far the best available record of New York life at midcentury. The critic Hank O’Neal has contended that the reputation of Abbott’s scientific photography may someday outstrip her cityscapes. As a female photographer, her recording of urban humanity anticipated the work of Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin.

There is no full biography of Abbott. The standard accounts are in editions of her photography, including Hank O’Neal, Berenice Abbott, American Photographer (1982); and Julia Van Haaften, ed., Berenice Abbott, Photographer: A Modern Vision (1989). Berenice Abbott: Changing New York appeared in a full version edited by Bonnie Yochelson in 1997. Articles include Elizabeth McCausland, “Camera Eye Records Ever ‘Changing New York,’” Springfield Sunday Union and Republican (24 Oct. 1938); Julia Newman, “Berenice Abbott—Pioneer, Past and Present,” U.S. Camera (Feb. 1960); and Erwin Leiser, “Berenice Abbott,” Du (Jan. 1981): 35–38. An obituary is in the New York Times (12 Dec. 1991). Her photographs are in public and private collections all over the world.

Graham Russell Hodges

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