Abbott, Berenice (1898–1991)

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Abbott, Berenice (1898–1991)

American photographer, outspoken proponent of photographic realism, and archivist of the work of Eugéne Atget. Name variations: changed the spelling of her first name from Bernice to Berenice. Born Bernice Abbott on July 17, 1898, in Springfield, Ohio; died at her home in Monson, Maine, on December 10, 1991; daughter of Charles E. and Alice (Bunn) Abbott; attended Ohio State University for a year and a half; never married; no children.

Traveled to New York City to study sculpture (1918); continued studies in Europe, under Bourdelle in Paris and at the Kunstschule in Berlin (1921); worked as assistant to American photographer Man Ray in Paris (1923–25); established her own reputation in portraiture (1925–29); returned to New York and began her masterwork: a photographic documentation of the city (1929); also taught photography at the New School for Social Research in New York (1934–58); purchased home in Maine (1956) and moved there permanently (1968).

Selected works:

Changing New York (NY: E.P. Dutton, 1939; reprinted as New York in the Thirties, NY: Dover, 1973); A Guide to Better Photography (NY: Crown, 1941); The View Camera Made Simple (Chicago: Ziff-Davis, 1948); Greenwich Village Today and Yesterday (NY: Harper, 1949); New Guide to Better Photography (NY: Crown, 1953); Eugéne Atget Portfolio: Twenty Photographic Prints from his Original Glass Negatives (1956); The World of Atget (NY: Horizon Press, 1964); Magnet (Cleveland, Ohio: World, 1964); Motion (Cleveland: World, 1965); A Portrait of Maine (NY: Macmillan, 1968); The Attractive Universe (Cleveland: World, 1969); Berenice Abbott Photographs (NY: Horizon Press, 1970); Berenice Abbott: The Red River Photographs (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1979); Berenice Abbott Photographs (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990).

Selected exhibitions:

"Portraits Photographiques" (Au Sacre du Printemps, Paris, 1926); "Photographs for Henry-Russell Hitchcock's Urban Vernacular of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties" (Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1934); "Changing New York: 125 Photographs" (Museum of the City of New York, 1937); "Pageant of Photography" (Golden Gate Exposition, San Francisco, 1940); "Science Photographs" (Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1960, and widely circulated); "Women, Cameras and Images III" (Hall of Photography, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.); and many more.

Berenice Abbott's theory on photography—"It has to walk alone; it has to be itself"—has come to summarize her photographic legacy. But as Erla Zwingle first pointed out, the fiercely independent Abbott could have been speaking of her personal life as well.

Photography can never grow up if it imitates some other medium. It has to walk alone; it has to be itself.

—Berenice Abbott

The pattern of standing alone and remaining true to herself was established early. Abbott left home at the age of 19 to attend Ohio State University; little is known about what came before. Her biographer Hank O'Neal reports only that Abbott's childhood was unhappy, for her parents divorced when she was an infant and she was raised alone by her mother, rarely seeing her father and separated from her sister and two brothers. Though O'Neal suggests that Abbott and her siblings were reunited when Abbott was six, Zwingle's feature article for American Photographer, published several years later, mentions only brothers and reports that Abbott never saw them again. Whichever the case, Abbott discouraged discussion of her early life. She allowed only occasional tantalizing glimpses, such as the fact that she had changed her own first name. The pronunciation of "Bernice," she explained to Zwingle, was unpleasant: "Burrnees." Adding a letter "made it sound better."

Ohio State failed to provide the escape Abbott sought. She stayed for just one semester, finding the structured lifestyle oppressive, the faculty uninspiring, and compulsory courses irrelevant. On borrowed train fare, she headed for New York to join Susan Jenkins , a friend and former classmate who, along with her fiancé Jimmy Light, kept a spacious Greenwich Village apartment by taking roomers. Undaunted by the flu epidemic and blizzard that greeted her, Abbott set out to pursue her interest in journalism by enrolling in Columbia University. Again the factory conditions of higher education failed to provide the intellectual challenge she sought; she withdrew after one week and began casting about for a new direction.

That new direction, which would become such a singular focus of her life, did not emerge for some time, though the seeds of it were planted during her three years in Greenwich Village. It was a period of adjustment for the shy young Midwesterner. She was considered by acquaintances of the time as somehow out of her element. Writer Agnes Boulton remembers "a thin, interesting, pallid, and dazed young girl … who seemed indeed to belong to another world." Wrote Boulton:

Abbott supported herself with odd jobs in the restaurants and garment factories of New York City. More importantly, her roommates introduced her to bohemian society. She helped out at the Village's famous Provincetown Playhouse where Jimmy Light was a director, and even played a minor role in Eugene O'Neill's The Moon of the Caribbees. The large apartments she and the Lights shared, first on MacDougal Street and later on Greenwich Avenue where they were joined by the writer Djuna Barnes and critics Malcolm Cowley and Kenneth Burke, were favorite gathering places of Village literati. Among the influential friends she gained was Hippolyte Havel , who claimed her as a "daughter" and 20 years later was able to get her into the all-male McSorley's saloon to photograph.

During this period, Abbott became interested in sculpture, and her work in the theater pushed her more firmly in that direction. While in rehearsal for a now-forgotten play, the entire cast was stricken with Spanish influenza. Some did not survive. Already in a weakened condition due to work and diet, Abbott spent six weeks gravely ill in St. Vincent's Hospital and, upon her release, could scarcely walk. After a long convalescence at the Dobbs Ferry, New York, home of wealthy cousin Guy Morgan, she returned to the city with new priorities: a place of her own and sculpting.

Taking two rooms on "Clothesline Alley," she focused on developing as a sculptor. Among her new artist friends and early supporters was the surrealist Marcel Duchamp, who commissioned a set of chesspieces. More important, Duchamp introduced Abbott to the photographer Man Ray. The three became a threesome, frequenting Village restaurants and dance clubs together, but the greater consequence of these relationships would be realized some years later in Paris when Man Ray put a camera in Berenice Abbott's hands.

It was another influential artist friend, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven , who inspired Abbott to go to Europe to study sculpture with the likes of Bourdelle and Brancusi. Abbott had concluded that she could not live off her work in New York, and she was no longer willing to take mundane employment. In a spirit reminiscent of her earlier escape to the city, Abbott set sail for France on a one-way ticket, with a handful of dollars in her pocket, in March of 1921. She would return to New York eight years later a successful photographic portraitist.

When she arrived in Paris, there were few photographers, and photography was the prodigal child of the arts. It might have remained thus except for the arrival of Man Ray later in 1921. However, it was not until 1924, after Abbott had pursued sculpting with marginal success in Paris and even less in Berlin, that she had a life-changing conversation with Ray. He was among the first she encountered upon her return from Berlin, where she—symbolically, as it turned out—abandoned a large sculpture on the station platform when she had to run to catch her train to Paris. Ray was unhappy with his darkroom assistant, a young man who knew too much about photography to be sufficiently malleable in the artist's hands. Fortunately, Abbott knew nothing about photography, and when she asked, "How about me?" Ray hired her on the spot.

It took another year before Ray literally put a camera into her hands. Abbott had become by then a highly skilled technician. Having taken to the work, she learned quickly and invested long hours in the mastery of developing and printing. Ray loaned her a small Brownie-type camera that she took on holiday to Amsterdam and there made her earliest photographs. Some, in fact, "turned out"; her work in photography from the beginning showed an exceptional sensibility with the medium. In his biography, Berenice Abbott: American Photographer, O'Neal quotes her remembrance of the influence of Man Ray:

Man Ray did not teach me photographing techniques. He took the portraits on the balcony in his studio while I was in the dark-room. One day he did, however, suggest that I ought to take some myself; he showed me how the camera worked and I soon began taking some on my lunch break. I would ask friends to come by and I'd take pictures of them. The first I took came out well, which surprised me. I had no idea of becoming a photographer, but the pictures kept coming out and most of them were good. Some were very good and I decided perhaps I could charge something for my work. Soon I started to build up a little business.

Abbott always sought to minimize the competition between herself and Ray, but her success as a portraitist eventually led to their parting company. When Peggy Guggenheim requested a sitting from Abbott rather than Ray, he would not allow it, contending that those who could afford his prices ought to sit for him. Though Abbott had been paying Ray for the materials she used and had continued to do all the darkroom work for his prodigious output, squeezing in her own after hours, she now felt the need to work alone. With loans and help from Guggenheim and others, she set up a studio and began building a remarkable clientele; the portraitist phase of her photographic career was off and running.

Finding historical phases in the works of many artists involves tracking the development of technical skill or a distinctive creative voice. Berenice Abbott's photography exhibited both from the beginning. In her case, historical phases have to do largely with subject matter that inspired her in changing social contexts. The three phases that comprise her photographic contribution as artist are the Paris portraits; the documentation of New York City and later documentary projects; and the photographs of scientific phenomena. As Man Ray had discovered, there was a healthy market for portraiture in Paris, but virtually none for other forms of photographic expression. Abbott's life as a portraitist clearly grew out of her association with Ray and thrived in this context, for there was no shortage of writers, poets, artists, philosophers, philanthropists, and other cultural luminaries, including expatriate Americans, in Paris in the 1920s. There are many whose portraits by Abbott remain to this day their definitive representations, including James Joyce, Jean Cocteau, André Gide, Janet Flanner, Princess Eugéne Murat , Peggy Guggenheim, Djuna Barnes, Marie Laurencin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, A'Lelia Walker , and Eugéne Atget.

Freytag-Loringhoven, Elsa von (1875–1927)

Danish-French poet. Name variations: Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven. Born in Denmark in 1875; died of asphyxiation in 1927 at age 52.

As reported by Janet Flanner in Paris Was Yesterday, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was by birth a "great Danish lady" and "by marriage various nationalities." An advocate of modern art and a published poet in the Little Review, she also posed for many artists, including William Glackens, Robert Henri, and George Bellows. After the Bolshevik Revolution effectively wiped out her fortune, Elsa was found selling newspapers in Germany. When sympathetic Parisian friends paid for a room and put her up, "she and her little dog were asphyxiated by gas in the night," writes Flanner, "both victims of a luxury they had gone too long without."

It must be conceded that certain of Abbott's portraits of men are among her most known and reproduced. For example, James Joyce is his Abbott

portrait. But that is surely because some of the men she photographed were more famous than many of the women. In fact, critics tend to agree that she had a particular sensibility for photographing women, and, by her own analysis, it was one of the aspects of her work that separated her from her teacher. As she reported to Zwingle, "Ray's portraits were good, but he always made the women look like pretty objects. He never let them be strong characters in themselves." Abbott declined to flatter anyone, or to instruct them in ways to pose themselves to good advantage. One reviewer's description of an unidentified Abbott portrait of a woman displayed in the First Salon of Independent Photographers (May 24–June 7, 1928, Paris) conveys the result, albeit with perhaps a touch more sentiment than Abbott herself would approve: "[W]ith the most naked, the most modest, the least pretentious truth, this human representation evokes a spiritual emotion. It is a bare countenance, bathed by the morning light, which stands out, which presents itself. In simplicity here is her soul to gaze at, given as simply as a handshake." Abbott's women sitters present themselves to her camera in many ways—assertive, hesitant, direct, distracted—but always on their own terms and never as decorative mannequins. (Interestingly, it was the critical acclaim Abbott's entries into this exhibition received and the critical panning Man Ray's received that drove the final wedge between them.)

While Man Ray was Abbott's teacher of technique, Eugéne Atget was her inspiration. She first encountered Atget's work through Ray, who owned several Atget prints, and she describes her response in The World of Atget: "There was a sudden flash of recognition—the shock of realism unadorned." After establishing her own studio, Abbott sought out Atget, bought a few of his prints, and encouraged friends to do the same. The following year, she asked to take his photograph. He agreed, and the three photographs she made are the only ones of him except for a snapshot from his youth. By the time she took prints to his home for him to see, he had died.

Abbott had been virtually alone in supporting Atget. Even Ray advised her against helping the reclusive, dedicated, maverick photographer who had made recording everyday life in and about Paris his life's work. Moreover, he photographed in a particular way: with a minimalist, realist eye, eschewing all technical tricks and experimentations, all artistic affectations. This was Abbott's own philosophy, which she theorized and definitively expressed in the article "It Has To Walk Alone," first published in Infinity in 1951. Indeed, she became a leading proponent of the view that because photography's forté was the direct, sharply focused, unblinking, documenting eye, therefore photography's greatest expressive achievement was the unflinching record of life as it is. Attempts by many of her contemporaries to secure the status of photography as art by such manipulations as soft focusing, scratching negatives, and treating prints with chemicals for special effects were viewed by Abbott as insults to the medium and its audience.

Abbott not only fulfilled the aesthetic vision she shared with Atget but, in a sense, she completed his career as well, for she purchased his entire accumulation of prints and negatives, and worked tirelessly for decades, sometimes at the expense of her own career, to fix his place in history. That the Atget archive was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in 1968, after 50 years in Abbott's care, is testimony to her success. As Zwingle notes, it is ironic that this woman, who never married and never regretted it, for she viewed marriage as "the finish for women who want to do their work," should have given so much to a single man. That the subject of her commitment should be another "loner" dedicated to his work and a vision, having no regard for trend and popularity, is entirely in keeping with her character.

The clearest, fullest expression of the Abbott ideology remains her powerful and unique documentation of New York during a period of explosive growth. She returned to the city in 1929 in order to photograph it, having visited earlier the same year and been swept away by its exhilarating pace and rapidly changing appearance. Back in Paris, she closed a highly successful studio, sold most of her things, carefully packed the Atget collection, her studio equipment and art objects, bought a small camera for street use, and set sail.

The difficulties she encountered would have quickly deterred a less driven person. Abbott was not prepared for the cost of living in New York City. She set up a portrait studio, which was to fund the documentary project, but she was much less successful than she had been in Paris; her reputation in the United States was modest, her fees high, and she proudly refused to advertise. Moreover, when the stock market crashed, the portrait business suffered. But she persisted, spending one day a week on the street with her camera (the small one was soon exchanged for a large view camera), supplementing her income by selling some of the early results to magazines.

For six years, Abbott sought funding for the project that she began to call "Changing New York." Among those who turned her down were the Guggenheim Foundation, the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Historical Society, and 30-some privately solicited patrons of the Museum of Modern Art. Nevertheless, she continued to photograph with urgency, except when financial circumstances forced her to engage in more lucrative ventures. One of these interruptions was a two-part project with the architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock. Together, they documented the buildings of Henry Hobson Richardson and recorded American cities from Boston to Savannah as they had been before the Civil War. This latter work clarified for Abbott the distinctiveness of New York City and gave her a new sense of urgency to capture its metamorphosis on film.

Finally in September 1935, just after she had begun teaching photography part-time at the New School for Social Research in New York City, the Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) approved Abbott's "Changing New York" proposal. For the next four years, Abbott would receive funding for supplies and a staff, and a salary for herself ($145 per month) to carry out her ambition. As O'Neal notes, her extraordinary portrait of a city's transformation is testimony to what government funds can do when put into the hands of an artist who is then left alone. Tardily recognizing the worth of the project, the Museum of the City of New York mounted a huge exhibition—110 of the best photographs—in December 1937, to wide enthusiasm and recognition for Abbott.

The project culminated in a book, Changing New York (1939), also well received, but whose proceeds went to the FAP. Thereafter, the FAP's support declined rapidly; in the fall of 1939, Abbott resigned and essentially closed a chapter of her life and career. That she had embodied her philosophy of photography in the work is evident. Upon seeing the Museum of New York exhibition, writer-photographer Carl Van Vechten wrote to her: "[T]hey were all completely magnificent. They all compose. They have clarity and sympathy. Technically they are flawless. Most of all they definitely are lacking in any strain after novelty or angle. I must say I find you are pretty much the master (or mistress) of all living photographers."

There were other documentary projects: a tour through the poor, rural South with writer-critic and supporter Elizabeth McCausland , which foreshadowed the extensive depressionera work produced by Roy Stryker's Resettlement and Farm Security Administrations, and a summer of traveling U.S. Route 1 from Maine to Florida. This latter tour produced an enormous document that remains Abbott's most unrecognized work, for she never found a publisher for the book proposed. But the next major commitment Abbott made was to a marriage between art and science. Again she faced difficulties. Again she persisted and ultimately produced the body of work which, along with the early human portraits and the New York City portrait, comprises Berenice Abbott's threefold contribution as an artist.

"Like a flea attacking a giant" is how Abbott later characterized her turn to science as the subject with enough substance to inspire and engage her mind and camera for the next several decades. Lacking any formal training in science, she acquired physics and chemistry texts, and immediately realized that the illustrations in them were poor. She resolved to interpret science for the layperson, to photograph scientific phenomena with both "popular appeal and scientific correctness," as she wrote in an early statement of purpose.

Unfortunately, in an age in which science was full of hope and promise, no one else was interested. It was not until 1944—after four years of countless overtures and appeals, several publication projects that failed for lack of support, and ongoing experimentation supported by her commercial work and teaching—that Abbott gained a toehold in the scientific community: she was hired to be photography editor for Science Illustrated, then a small, struggling magazine. Indeed, the position lasted for only a year; the magazine was sold to a new publisher who dismissed Abbott as part of a major reorganization. Nevertheless, the scientific work continued. Abbott became an inventor: photographic technology of the day was not adequate to the task she had set herself. She needed, for example, lighting that moved in order to capture a wrench spinning through velvet-black space. She needed a camera that would tilt at heretofore unimagined angles in order to capture an enlarged eye refracted many times over in a parabolic mirror, without including the stand that held the mirror.

Finally in October 1957, persistence and dedication paid off. Inspired by a newspaper account of the Soviet launch of Sputnik, which criticized the United States for falling behind in science, Abbott renewed her appeals. The first call, to Robert C. Cook of the Bureau of Population Reports in Washington, D.C., produced a referral to Doubleday, publishers of a new textbook planned by the Physical Science Study Committee of Educational Services, Inc. (PSSC), which was to revamp the study of high-school physics. When she was hired to illustrate it, her life changed dramatically once again. With the finest equipment available, under the direction of a professional scientist who respected her ability, and with a salary that freed her from worry and distraction, Abbott began producing a body of work that gained a wider audience. In his biographical statement that accompanied an illustrated article written by Abbott for Art in America, photography editor and historian Beaumont Newhall wrote of the pictures: "In her approach to photography as an ally of physics, all the drama, beauty and arresting suspense of the physical laws and the natural phenomena are excitingly presented."

The work with the PSSC brought Berenice Abbott wide recognition and, for the first time, financial security. She was now in her 50s and her health was deteriorating. Abbott had never been robust, and several bouts with pneumonia, years of smoking, and New York City smog had taken their toll. On a mid-1950s' trip to Maine, which she had discovered while documenting U.S. Route 1, Abbott had purchased a dilapidated stagecoach inn and had been gradually restoring it. After surgery to remove part of a lung and doctor's orders to stop smoking and leave the city, the pace of work on the house picked up. In the early 1960s, she began spending more and more time there, first commuting to the city to do studio and darkroom work, then completing the move of all her equipment to Maine in 1966.

But her work was not yet finished. Abbott documented Maine, not just the postcard pretty coastal parts so popular with other photographers, but the inland industries and people as well. These photographs were published as the book A Portrait of Maine. She produced additional works from the Atget collection, and assisted with various retrospectives and publications of her own life and work. She ventured back to Paris for an exhibition of her portraits, astonishing the young photographers who had assumed the artist had died but who gathered to listen in delight to her tales of Paris life early in the century. She played ping pong and softball with her friends and neighbors, and in her 90th year visited New York City to be made an Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government.

As O'Neal concludes, the range and variety of her accomplishments are surely unique. She recognized and rescued the seminal work of a French street photographer from certain oblivion, and, with hard work that she might well have devoted to her own career, ensured his place in history. She began teaching out of necessity, continued for 25 years, and, in the process, established one of the first and best photography programs in higher education. She produced several photography textbooks and dozens of inventions. As a photographer, she moved from portraiture to documentary to science's artist, producing in each some of the most memorable images of her—and our—time.


Abbott, Berenice. Berenice Abbott/Photographs. Foreword by Muriel Rukeyser . Introduction by David Vestal. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990.

——. "It Has to Walk Alone," in Photographers on Photography. Edited by Nathan Lyons. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966 (first published in Infinity, Vol. 7, no. 11, 1951).

O'Neal, Hank. Berenice Abbott: American Photographer. Introduction by John Canaday. Commentary by Berenice Abbott. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1982.

Stretch, Bonnie Barrett. "No More Softball," in ARTnews. Vol. 87. October 1988, p. 20.

Zwingle, Erla. "A Life of Her Own," in American Photographer. Vol. 16. April 1986, pp. 54–67.

suggested reading:

Berenice Abbott: Documentary Photographs of the 1930s. Exhibition catalog. Essay by Michael G. Sundell, Guest Curator. Cleveland, OH: The New Gallery of Contemporary Art, 1980.

Hagen, Charles. "Berenice Abbott," in Artforum. Vol. 23 March 1985, p. 95.

Hambourg, Maria Morris. "Photography Between the Wars: Selections from the Ford Motor Company Collection," in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. Vol. 45. Spring 1988, pp. 1–56.

Kramer, Hilton. "Berenice Abbott," in Art & Antiques. Vol. 9. February 1992, pp. 75–77.

Starenko, Michael. "I to eye—Self portrait: The photographer's persona, 1840–1985," in Afterimage. Vol. 13. January 1986, p. 17.

Woodward, Richard B. "Berenice Abbott's Many Lives," in ARTnews. Vol. 91, February 1992, p. 29.


The Museum of Modern Art; The Brooklyn Museum; National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution; Lunn Gallery-Graphics International, Washington, D.C.; New Gallery for Contemporary Art, Cleveland, Ohio; and many more public and private collections. Before her death, Abbott turned over her cameras, prints, and negatives to collector Ronald Kurtz, East Rutherford, New Jersey.

related media:

Berenice Abbott: A View of the 20th Century (56 min.), a film by Kay Weaver and Martha Wheelock , Ishtar Films, 1992.

Bette J. Kauffman , Assistant Professor of Communications, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania

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Abbott, Berenice (1898–1991)