American photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) once said in 1951 that “Photography can never grow up if it imitates some other medium...it has to walk alone; it has to be itself.” She stood by this statement her whole life, backing the idea that photography is solely a descriptive medium through her portraits, cityscapes and scientific photographs. Abbott had a passion for preserving things as they were, without a pose, without a manipulation - but with sincerity and drive to find the shot through her own means and innovative ways.
Abbott went from growing up in Ohio to exploring Greenwich village in 1918, where she met influential modernists of the time and became an artist’s model where she posed for photographers such as Nikolas Muray and Man Ray. She was not initially drawn to photography, but to sculpture and theater as she later attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris and the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. While living in Paris, she not only adopted the French spelling of her name- ‘Berenice’, but also happened upon becoming Man Ray’s darkroom assistant in 1923. Man Ray was an extremely influential artist of the time, being a founder of the Dada movement while also an esteemed fashion and portrait photographer. This job opened Berenice’s eyes to the photography world, quickly learning and soon able to shoot her own portraits by using Man Ray’s equipment. Abbott states, “I took to photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else." She went on to opening her own studio on the Left Bank with help from Peggy Guggenheim and Robert McAlmon. In this studio, Berenice crafted well known portraits of famous literary figures and artists alike, mixed in with fashion creatives and Parisian avant-garde. Her subjects, such as James Joyce or Jean Cocteau, pose with causality as Abbott worked to create a trust between her and the subject. This trust led to telling gestures within the photographs which were presented at her first solo show in 1926 at the gallery Le Sacre du Printemps in Paris.
Paris also brought Abbott to another passion in her life, the preservation of her late friend Eugène Atget’s photographic work. Without Abbott’s acquiring of Atget’s work through collaboration with Julien Levy of New York’s Julien Levy Gallery and her tireless promotion of it, the world may not know of Atget’s documentary works today. This was her labor of love for years, a constant seeking to find recognition in the art world for the photographs Atget took of Paris as it transformed from the ancien regime to the mid-1920s. This documentation of cityscapes is said to influence Abbott’s largest and most recognized body of work, Changing New York.
This body of work was brought about by Abbott’s eventual return to the United States in 1929 and her newfound curiosity for New York’s vastly transformed landscapes. This series began on the eve of the Great Depression as she documented for years the changing elements of New York as the old was torn down and the new was erected. Her bird’s-eye and worm’s eye point of views became her unique photographing style and she eventually was funded in 1935 by the Federal Art Project (a part of the Works Progress Administration), a Depression-era government program for unemployed artists. Around 1934, Abbott started to originate the photography program at the New School for Social Research, therefore making her a “supervisor” of the publishing of her book Changing New York, with which she had help from her life companion, art critic Elizabeth McCausland (1899-1965). The FAP ended up distributing her book to schools, libraries and public institutions within the metropolitan area.
Abbott then pursued scientific practices as she was a part of the illustration of scientific phenomenon, a project produced in the 1950s with support from the Physical Sciences Study Committee based at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). When she interviewed for the position, she told Dr. Elbert P Little, the conductor of the study, “Scientists are the worst photographers in the world”,convincing him of her talents and importance on his team. A small selection of her photographs went on to be published in an American educational book called Physics. She not only made striking scientific images, but also dabbled in inventing certain tools for artistic purposes such as an enlarging easel and a telescopic lighting pole-now known as an ‘autopole’, which allows lights to be attached at any level. These inventions were made possible by her founding of the “House of Photography” corporation (1947-1959), which was closed due to poor marketing and a loss of important designers.
Abbott has been recognized so often for her work, such as a retrospective in 1970 at the Museum of Modern Art and receiving the International Center of Photography’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989. Throughout her many accomplishments and extremely wide range of passionate pursuits within the art and science world, Abbott truly made her mark. Abbott relocated to Maine later in her life due to lung damage from air pollution and remained there until her death in 1991.
Written by Emilee Prado
Sources of photos stated with photographs.
Thumbnail photo: Berenice Abbott by Man Ray, Paris, 1924