Profiles in Black & White: Berenice Abbott

In Article, Black and White Photography on January 30, 2014 at 1:12 pm

         “Photography can only represent the present. Once photographed, the subject becomes part of the past.”

                                                                                                –Berenice Abbott

Under the El at the Battery, Berenice Abbott

Under the El at the Battery, Berenice Abbott

Berenice (born Bernice) Abbott was a straightforward woman with strong convictions. Her art was a reflection of this as were her extracurricular activities beyond the lens. By the time she passed away in 1991, Abbott’s life contributions to art paralleled, if not as vastly, that of photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, despite lacking much of the latter’s funding and disliking his pictorial style altogether.

Two photographers played a notable role in Abbott’s formation as a photographer. After bouncing from Ohio State University – where she studied for a year – to New York in 1918 – where she pursued journalism, theater and sculpture – Abbott found herself in Europe in 1921. After two years of exploring writing and sculpture in Berlin and Paris, Abbott took a job as a dark room assistant to artist Man Ray. Under him, Abbott would discover her love and talent for photography and additionally be exposed to the Dada movement. 1926 would mark her first solo exhibition at the Au Sacre du Printemps gallery. Man Ray would also introduce to her the second major influence in Eugene Atget. Up until this time, Atget had made a meager living photographing Paris and its surroundings to sell to other artists and publishers. Forty years of photography had tallied itself into a massive portfolio for Atget. When he died in 1927, not long after Abbott had been able to take a portrait of Atget, Abbott acquired nearly 1,500 glass-plate negatives and many thousands of prints from his studio. Abbott would share her collection and is credited as the primary reason for Atget’s posthumous rise in profile. Atget’s formally beautiful yet direct style would also be influential on the development of American photographers such as Walker Evans.

Stylistically, Abbott’s career can be mostly broken into three different periods. After discovering her talent under the hands of Man Ray, most of her work was focused in the realm of portraiture, with many of her subjects being part of the avant-garde art movements. This included Jacques Cocteau, James Joyce and Max Ernst. After delving into the realm of Atget and a move back to a fast-changing New York City in the 1930s, Abbott became enamored with capturing the metropolis’ evolution. The New York Times’s Charles Hagen wrote in her obituary that these pictures highlighted modern photographic traits such as dynamic framing, flattened pictorial space, steep angles and heavy detail. She also blended sociological documentation with more classic artistic aesthetics.

During this era as she was hired as a supervisor for the Federal Art Project “Changing New York.” The FAP had commissioned this project under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s stimulus package in order to give unemployed artists work. Abbott produced over 300 images in about 4 years. Along with her long time partner Elizabeth McCausland, Abbott used her standing to advocate for better urban planning, than what was the standard since the end of the Civil War, to create a more humane environment for the city’s growing population.

Soap Bubbles

Soap Bubbles

While “Changing New York” tends to be what Abbott is remember the most for, she continued to evolve and produce for many more years. She would travel with McCausland all over the Atlantic coast to photograph small towns and the arriving automobile architecture that was increasing in demand. She also became increasing involved in the world of science, helping operate Science Illustrated for over two decades. A notable set of photographs by Abbott during the period enlightened the viewer on the laws and methodologies of physics.

Never one to shy away from speaking her mind, Abbott advocated for photography to be used a method of documentation. She felt that its highly descriptive nature was in itself to be prized; photography should not be sullied by affecting the characteristics of other mediums such as painting or drawing.

Berenice Abbott Photography

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