Berenice Abbott (1898 – 1991)

Berenice Abbott (1898 – 1991)

Berenice Abbott (July 17, 1898 – December 9, 1991) was born in Springfield, Ohio on the 17th of July 1898. In 1918 she moved to New York after quitting the Ohio State University, and stayed in Greenwich Village where she met various artists and anarchists.

In 1921, Berenice decided to go to Paris, to pursue a career as a sculptor. Soon after that, Man Ray, whom Berenice met previously in New York, also came to Paris. In 1923, when Man Ray was looking for an inexperienced darkroom assistant, Abbott offered that she could take the job, as she was in the need of one at the time. Abbott soon became more interested in the subject and started to teach herself photographic techniques, using the equipment available in the studio. She often invited her friends, on whom she was practising portraiture during her lunch breaks. In 1926, she had her first exhibition in the gallery "Au Sacre du Printemps"; soon she also opened her own studio on the Rue du Bac.

The sitters for Abbott's portraits came mostly from the artistic and literary worlds, and included Jean Cocteau, Max Ernst or James Joyce among others. At the time Berenice also became interested in the work of French photographer, Eugène Atget, whose portrait she took in 1927. Unfortunately soon after that he died and Abbott decided to acquire part of his negatives in order to promote Atget’s photography both in Europe and in US.

In 1929, after a short visit to New York, Berenice decided to move back there as she saw the new photographic potential of the city. Taking inspiration from the work of Eugène Atget, Abbott photographed New York for the next years creating a historical chronicle of many now gone buildings and neighbourhoods of Manhattan. At the beginning she was wandering the streets of New York with a hand-held camera, but soon switched to large-format Century Universal, which produced 8 x 10 inch negatives. Her aim was to capture the transformation of New York into a modern urban centre, by focusing especially on the physical changes that the city and its neighbourhoods had undergone, like the grow of huge skyscrapers which altered the landscape of the place. Her project “Changing New York” was finalised in now iconic book under the same title, which came out in 1939.

One of the less known projects, that Abbott undertook, was photographing American towns along US Route 1 from Florida to Maine, which she travelled in 1951. Later in her life, Berenice moved to Maine, working on photographic projects in that area, in which she remained until her death in 1991.

Berenice Abbott was also fascinated by scientific photography. In 1947 she founded the "House of Photography", created to promote and sell some of her inventions, like distortion easel or telescopic lighting pole. In 1958, she produced a series of photographs for a high-school physics textbook. Abbott was appointed by The Physical Science Study Committee, which wanted her to present theories of science in a clear and accessible way. Berenice achieved this goal by using abstract forms and taking inspiration from Surrealism and her early years of working with Ray Man. Images from this series included The Bouncing Ball In Diminishing Arcs, Transformation of Energy or Wave Pattern With Glass Plate, among others. Some of her scientific photographs were displayed on the recent exhibition in the Science Museum in London: Revelations: Experiments in Photography, about which I wrote in one of my previous posts.

More information about Berenice Abbott and her work can be found on the following websites:

  • Get the Picture: Thinking about Photographs – The Minneapolis Institute of Arts - presents 9 pictures by Berenice Abbott and describes the story behind them
  • Lumiere - Atlanta's Fine Art Photography Gallery - in addition to the collection of photographs, the website also features a short film, in which Berenice Abbott talks about her project “Documenting Science”
  • The New York Public Library Digital Collections website contains over 300 images from the project “Changing New York”
  • Commerce Graphics - presents wide range of Abbott's portrait photography, and works from her projects: “Changing New York”, documenting science, and American towns and society.
  • London's art gallery Beetles+Huxley – includes information about the artist and a collection of Abbott's work, featuring portraits and photographs of New York and science as well as those taken along US Route 1


All above images courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons