Berenice 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 in Ohio 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. She moved to New York City, where she studied sculpture and painting. In 1921 she traveled to Paris and studied sculpture with Emile Bourdelle. While in Paris, she became an assistant to Man Ray
, who wanted someone with no previous knowledge of photography. Abbott took revealing portraits of Ray
's fellow artists.
Abbott was part of the straight photography movement, which stressed the importance of photographs being unmanipulated in both subject matter and developing processes. She also disliked the work of pictorialists who had become popular during a substantial span of her career, leaving her work without support from this school of photographers. Most of Abbott's work was influenced by what she described as her unhappy and lonely childhood. This gave her the strength and determination to follow her dreams.
Throughout her career, Abbott's photography was very much a reflection of the rise in the development of technology and society. Her works documented and extolled the New York landscape. This was guided by her belief that a modern-day invention such as the camera deserved to document the 20th century.
The film Berenice Abbott: A View of the 20th Century
, which showed 200 of her black and white photographs, suggests that she was a "proud proto-feminist"
; someone who was ahead of her time in feminist theory. Before the film was completed she questioned, "The world doesn't like independent women, why, I don't know, but I don't care."
She identified publicly as a lesbian and lived with her partner, art critic Elizabeth McCausland, for 30 years.
Berenice Abbott's life and work are the subject of the 2017 novel The Realist: A Novel of Berenice Abbott
, by Sarah Coleman.
Let us first say what photography is not. A photograph is not a painting, a poem, a symphony, a dance. It is not just a pretty picture, not an exercise in contortionist techniques and sheer print quality. It is or should be a significant document, a penetrating statement, which can be described in a very simple term—selectivity.
-- Berenice Abbott
Berenice Abbott was born and raised in Ohio where she endured an erratic family life. In 1918, after two semesters at Ohio State University, she left to join friends associated with the Provincetown Players, in Greenwich Village. There she met Djuna Barnes, Kenneth Burke, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Little Review editors Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, and other influential modernists. From 1919-1921, while studying sculpture, Abbott supported herself as an artist's model, posing for photographers Nikolas Muray
and Man Ray
. She also met Marcel Duchamp, and participated in Dadaist publications.
Abbott moved to Paris in 1921, where she continued to study sculpture (and in Berlin), and to support herself by modeling. During 1923-1926, she worked as Man Ray
's darkroom assistant (he had also relocated to Paris) and tried portrait photography at his suggestion. Abbott's first solo exhibition, in 1926, launched her career. In 1928 she rescued and began to promote Eugène Atget
's photographic work, calling his thirty years of Parisian streetscapes and related studies "realism unadorned."
In 1929 Abbott took a new artistic direction to tackle the scope (if not the scale) of Atget
's achievement in New York City. During 1929-38, she photographed urban material culture and the built environment of New York, documenting the old before it was torn down and recording new construction. From 1934-58, she also taught photography at the New School. During 1935-39, Abbott worked as a "supervisor" for the Federal Art Project to create Changing New York
(her free-lance work and New School teaching commitment made her ineligible for unemployment relief) .
From 1939-60, Abbott photographed scientific subjects, concluding with her notable illustrations for the MIT-originated Physical Sciences Study Committee's revolutionary high school physics course. In 1954, she photographed along the length of US 1; the work never found a publisher. In 1968, Abbott sold the Atget archive to the Museum of Modern Art
in New York, and moved permanently to her home in central Maine (bought in 1956 and restored over several decades) .
1970 saw Abbott's first major retrospective exhibition, at the Museum of Modern Art
. Her first retrospective portfolio appeared in 1976, and she received the International Center of Photography
's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989. She died at home in Monson, Maine in December 1991.
Source: New York Public Library
I took to photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else. Excitement about the subject is the voltage which pushes me over the mountain of drudgery necessary to produce the final photograph.
-- Berenice Abbott
In 1929, Abbott returned to the United States, where she embarked on her best-known body of work--a documentation of New York City for which she developed her famous bird's-eye and worm's-eye points of view. She worked on the project independently through the early years of the Depression, and in 1935, secured funding from the Federal Art Project (a part of the Works Progress Administration). Her pictures were published as Changing New York
(1939), which was both critically and commercially successful; it remains a classic text for historians of photography.
One of Abbott's later final projects was an illustration of a scientific phenomenon, produced in the 1950s in collaboration with the Physical Sciences Study Committee based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although not as well known as her New York work, these pictures are exquisite examples of her acumen for technical experimentation and her natural instinct for combining factual photographic detail with stunning artistic accomplishment. With their clear visual demonstration of abstract scientific principles, the photographs were chosen to illustrate physics textbooks of the 1950s and 1960s.
Source: International Center of Photography