It seems I have found another female photographer amongst the great. Berenice Abbott falls neatly into the ‘classic Black and White’ image makers I am so fond of – this time the attention is more focussed on architecture than anything else, but I’m not one to complain!
Berenice Abbott was born on the 17th of July, 1898 in Springfield, Ohio and brought up there by her divorced mother. She went to public schools in Columbus and Cleveland and attended the Ohio State University, but left in early 1918; she moved with friends to New York’s Greenwich Village, where she was ‘adopted’ by the anarchist Hippolyte Havel. At first she pursued journalism, but soon became interested in theater and sculpture, perhaps because of her interaction with artists Eugene O’Neill, Man Ray and Sadakichi Hartmann.
Abbott went to Europe in 1921, spending two years studying sculpture in Paris and Berlin. During this time, she adopted the French spelling of her first name, “Berenice,”. She first became involved with photography in 1923, when Man Ray, looking for somebody who knew nothing about photography (and thus would do as he said), hired her as a darkroom assistant at his portrait studio in Montparnasse. Later she would write: “I took to photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else.” Ray was impressed by her darkroom work and allowed her to use his studio to take her own photographs. In 1926, she had her first solo exhibition (in the gallery “Au Sacre du Printemps”) and started her own studio on the rue du Bac. After a short time studying photography in Berlin, she returned to Paris in 1927 and started a second studio, on the rue Servandoni.
Abbott’s subjects were people in the artistic and literary worlds, including French nationals (Jean Cocteau), expatriates (James Joyce), and others just passing through the city. According to Sylvia Beach, “To be ‘done’ by Man Ray or Berenice Abbott meant you rated as somebody”. Abbott’s work was exhibited with that of Man Ray, André Kertész, and others in Paris, in the “Salon de l’Escalier” (more formally, the Premier Salon Indépendant de la Photographie), and on the staircase of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
In 1925, Man Ray introduced her to Eugène Atget‘s photographs. She became a great admirer of Atget’s work, and managed to persuade him to sit for a portrait in 1927. He died shortly thereafter. While the government acquired much of Atget’s archive — Abbott was able to buy the remainder in June 1928, and quickly started work on its promotion. An early tangible result was the 1930 book Atget, photographe de Paris, in which she is described as the photo editor. Abbott’s work on Atget’s behalf would continue until her sale of the archive to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. In addition to her book The World of Atget (1964), she provided the photographs for A Vision of Paris (1963), published a portfolio, Twenty Photographs, and wrote essays.Her sustained efforts helped Atget gain international recognition.
In early 1929, Abbott visited New York City ostensibly to find an American publisher for Atget’s photographs. Upon seeing the city again, however, Abbott immediately saw its photographic potential. Her first photographs of the city were taken with a hand-held Kurt-Bentzin camera, but soon she acquired a Century Universal camera which produced 8 x 10 inch negatives. Using this large format camera, Abbott photographed New York City with the diligence and attention to detail she had so admired in Eugène Atget. Her work has provided a historical chronicle of many now-destroyed buildings and neighbourhoods of Manhattan.
Abbott worked on her New York project independently for six years, unable to get financial support from organizations (such as the Museum of the City of New York), foundations (such as the Guggenheim Foundation), or even individuals. She supported herself with commercial work and teaching. In 1935 however, Abbott was hired by the Federal Art Project (FAP) as a project supervisor for her “Changing New York” project. She continued to take the photographs of the city, but she had assistants to help her both in the field and in the office. This arrangement allowed Abbott to devote all her time to producing, printing, and exhibiting her photographs. By the time she resigned from the FAP in 1939, she had produced 305 photographs that were then deposited at the Museum of the City of New York. In 1935 Abbott moved into a Greenwich Village loft with the art critic Elizabeth McCausland, with whom she lived until McCausland’s death in 1965.
Not only was Abbott a photographer, but she was also a contributor to science; she started the “House of Photography” in 1947 to promote and sell some of her inventions. These included a distortion easel, which created unusual effects on images developed in a darkroom, and the telescopic lighting pole, known today by many studio photographers as an “autopole,” to which lights can be attached at any level. Owing to poor marketing, the House of Photography quickly lost money, and with the deaths of two designers, the company closed.
In 1954 she was photographing Route One along the Atlantic coast and discovered the state of Maine where she photographed the small towns and growing auto-mobile-related architecture. She bought a house there in 1956 and moved into it permanently twelve years later.
Abbott was part of the straight photography movement, which stressed the importance of photographs being unmanipulated in both subject matter and developing processes. She disliked the work of pictorialists such as Alfred Stieglitz. Throughout her career, Abbott’s photography was very much a display of the rise in development in technology and society. Her works documented and praised the New York and wider American landscape, guided by her belief that a modern day invention such as the camera deserved to document the 20th century.
She wrote down some of her beliefs clearly in the article, “It Has to Walk Alone,” which appeared in Infinity magazine in 1951; parts of it were reprinted by Nathan Lyons in his 1966 book, Photographers on Photography. In a few essential sentences she tells us:
“Photography can never grow up if it imitates some other medium. It has to walk alone; it has to be itself.
“If a medium is representational by nature of the realistic image formed by a lens, I see no reason why we should stand on our heads to distort that function. On the contrary, we should take hold of that very quality, make use of it, and explore it to the fullest.”
Berenice Abbott died in 1991.
My favourite images:
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