Across a career spanning the best part of the twentieth century, Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) produced one of the most significant and varied bodies of photography ever made. She is widely regarded as one of the most important American documentary photographers.
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Gunsmith and Police Station, New York, 1937
Happy’s Refreshment Stand with Two Men, Florida, 1954
Tri-Boro Barber School, 264 Bowery, 1935
Fifth Avenue Houses, Nos. 4, 6, 8, 1936
Triple Bridge, New York, 1950
Under the El at the Battery, New York, 1936
Manhattan Bridge, Lower East Side, New York, 1937
Automat, 977 Eighth Avenue, New York, 1936
Nightview, New York, 1932
Oyster Houses, South Street and Pike Slip, 1931-32
Ferris Wheel, Florida, 1954
Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, New York, 1935
Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio, on 17 July 1898. After graduating from Ohio State University in Columbus, she moved to New York City and, inspired by the blossoming art scene, transferred her studies from Journalism to Sculpture and Painting.
Settling in Greenwich Village, Abbott embraced a bohemian lifestyle, making friends with poets, artists and anarchists. Abbott and her friends frequented the Golden Swan pub, better known as the “Hell Hole”, where they would drink and discuss art and literature. She was “adopted” by the Czech anarchist, Hippolyte Havel, who ran a restaurant on the ground floor of the building where Abbott lived.
After the war artists began to return to Europe and Abbott followed her friends, travelling to France on board the Rochambeau on 21 March 1921. Abbott arrived in Paris with six dollars and a letter of introduction to the writer, André Gide. Becoming embroiled in the circle of avant-garde writers and artists in the lively quarter of Montparnasse, Abbott was charmed by the glamorous European lifestyle but became increasingly impoverished as she travelled between Paris and Berlin to complete her training as a sculptor. She was relieved when Man Ray offered to pay her fifteen francs a day to work as his studio assistant. The Surrealist artist ran a successful portrait studio and taught Abbott to use his darkroom. He was impressed by how well she took to the work and encouraged her to start taking her own portraits during her lunch break. Realising her flair for photography, Abbott became a popular portrait photographer in her own right. When the wealthy arts patron Peggy Guggenheim rang the studio requesting a sitting with Abbott, Man Ray was furious. Abbott was sacked immediately. She would reflect fondly of the famously eccentric artist later though, saying he changed my whole life. “He was the only person I ever worked for, and I was extremely grateful to have the job, to have the opportunity to learn.”
Guggenheim lent Abbott the money to buy her own camera and Abbott set up her own studio where novelists and artists came to have publicity portraits taken. Jean Cocteau, James Joyce, Max Ernst and many others came to be photographed at Abbott’s studio. Her style was more spontaneous and natural than Man Ray’s often highly distorted, abstract images. She wanted to distance herself from the Surrealists’ contortions of the female body and the implicit patronisation of women. “His portraits of men were always good”, she would say, “but he always made women look like pretty objects. He never let them be strong individuals in themselves.” Following on from a successful solo exhibition at a Paris gallery, Abbott’s work was exhibited alongside that of Man Ray, André Kertesz and Germaine Krull in The First Independent Photography Exhibition in 1928.
Man Ray would play another important role in Abbott’s early development as a photographer by introducing her to the work of Eugène Atget. The reclusive photographer refused to acknowledge that his work was art, or even photography, preferring to call his images of Paris streets and gardens “documents pour artistes”. Atget had become something of a legend amongst Man Ray’s circle, being adopted as a proto-Surrealist and a figurehead for the movement. Abbott visited Atget and convinced him to come to her studio to have his portrait taken. The resulting photographs show the elderly photographer to be world-weary, his back stooped and his gaze distant. Having made prints of the photographs, Abbott went to Atget’s studio several days later to show him but discovered that he had died. Fearing that Atget’s colossal collection of prints and glass plates might be lost, Abbott set about trying to acquire them with the financial support of friends. She resultantly became the sole owner of the Atget collection and would toil tirelessly to garner Atget the recognition she knew him to deserve.
Changing New York
Abbott returned to New York in 1929, telling her friends in Paris that she was going for a six-week visit in order to find a publisher for the Atget collection. She found New York in the midst of its second great building boom and bought a small, hand-held camera to take photographs of the city streets which she planned to take back to Paris to show magazine editors. Seeing the massive artistic potential in New York, Abbott returned briefly to Paris and sold all her belongings apart from the Atget collection which she took back to New York. Abbott’s friends thought she was mad to leave her successful business and burgeoning fame in Paris, but she was determined to find a publisher for Atget’s photographs and was eager to return to New York.
Abbott’s own work was inspired by Atget’s, and she dedicated her style to photographing New York City in the same manner, meticulously documenting its streets, buildings, parks and people, supporting herself financially by teaching photography and winning commercial assignments. In 1935, she won the backing of the Federal Art Project and was able to take on assistants, and she called her project Changing New York.
The urban sprawl of New York caught hold of Abbott’s imagination and she devoted herself to capturing the “fantastic” contrasts of the rapidly changing city. She wanted to create “an American art” and was inspired by Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs and their evocation of a moment of American history. She was, however, also aware of the tendency in American art to document progress. Rather than glorifying the technological advancement of the city through the depiction of skyscrapers and monumental construction projects, Abbott sought to expose the extreme contrasts of the city and the tensions that had evolved. She wanted to show the nineteenth and twentieth centuries colliding in a dizzying interplay of cultures. The project is a homage to the city and its inhabitants but also a politically-motivated impeachment against the capitalist expansion that endured in New York despite the misery experienced by millions during the Great Depression.
In 1951 Abbott undertook a 6,500 kilometre road trip to the cities and towns along US Route 1. She began in Fort Kent, Maine, and travelled to Key West, Florida, along the Atlantic seaboard. With a similar approach to her Changing New York project, she sought to capture the individual character of the places and produced a substantial portfolio of documentary photographs depicting the idiosyncrasies of small town America. Abbott returned to New York with 2,400 negatives that formed her view of “the American Scene”. The US Route 1 photographs show the omnipresent role of the car in American culture that she thought to be damaging the American landscape. She planned to publish the photographs in a book but never did and they have subsequently become one of the most unjustly overlooked elements of her oeuvre.
Having fallen in love with the state during her Route 1 road trip, Abbott moved to Blanchard, Maine, in 1966. She continued to work in Maine and produced a book, A Portrait of Maine, in 1968. Abbott’s reputation in the art market began to flourish and demand for her prints increased among dealers and galleries. In 1970 the Museum of Modern Art, New York, held an exhibition of her photographs. This was a significant moment for Abbott as the museum’s previous Director of Photography, Edward Steichen, had repeatedly snubbed her, notably by excluding her work from the ground-breaking Family of Man exhibition in 1955. Abbott sold her negatives and prints to Ronald A. Kurtz, an aerospace metals executive, in 1985. Kurtz bought the rights to Abbott’s entire body of work and formed Commerce Graphics, named after the street on which Abbott and art critic Elizabeth McCausland had lived for years. In 1989 a huge exhibition at the New York Public Library celebrated Abbott’s sixty-year career. She died on the 10th of December 1991 from heart failure at ninety-three years old in Monson, Maine.