Who was Berenice Abbott?
Born as Bernice Abbott, she was a famous American photographer well-known for her monochrome photography of New York City architecture and urban designs of the 1930s. After studying in Ohio, she moved to New York City to study sculpture where she came across many modernist visionaries including Man Ray. Abbott began studying photography in the early 1920s under supervision of Man Ray with whom she worked as a photographic assistant. While working with him, she came across the works of photographer Eugene Atgel, whose influence is quite apparent in her work. Soon after, she established her own Portrait studio where she photographed various artists and literary figures living in Paris at that time. Abbott established the ‘Photo League’ with fellow American photographer Paul Strand in 1936. Thereafter, she took a job of a teacher at New York school for social research until 1958. Abbot’s photographs of New York appeared in the exhibition, ‘Changing New York’, at the Museum of the City in 1937 and in the late 1950s, she began to take photographs that illustrated the laws of physics. Her works revolutionized the field of documentary photography and she continued photography until her death in 1991.
Childhood & Early Life
She was born in Springfield, Ohio and brought up by her divorced mother. She was the youngest of four children - two boys and two girls.
Her mother started moving the family frequently to Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland, after her second divorce.
Her sister got married at an early age to get away from home but it did not prove successful due to conflicts.
After finishing her Grade school in Cleveland, she attended the Cleveland’s Lincoln high school where she took college preparatory courses. In 1917, she graduated from the school – a few months later the United States entered into the World War I.
In February 1917, she enrolled in the Ohio State University, Columbus in a journalism course. But she had to discontinue the course as the literature professor, who taught her and other students, was dismissed as he was a German.
In 1918, she moved with her college friends to New York’s Greenwich Village where she was adopted by the anarchist Hippolyte Havel. She shared an apartment with several others including writers, philosophers and literary critics.
She soon lost interest in journalism and became interested in theater and sculpture as a result of interaction with artists like Eugene O’ Neil, Man Ray and Sadakichi Hartmann. She even became actively involved with the Provincetown Playhouse.
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In 1921, she moved to Europe. Along with her work in visual arts, she also published poetry in the experimental literary journal ‘Transition’. Around this time, she adopted the French spelling of her first name, ‘Berenice’ at the suggestion of Djuna Barnes.
In 1923, she was introduced to photography by Man Ray who hired her as a darkroom assistant at his portrait studio in Montparnasse. She worked for him for four years in Paris and through this she discovered her talent as a photographer.
In 1929, she returned to New York and gave up Portrait photography and took to documentary photography using the city as her subject. In the following year, she undertook a project to capture the transformation of New York into a modern urban center.
In 1935, she moved into Greenwich Village with art critic Elizabeth Mc Causland with whom she lived until her death. Causland helped Abbott in many ways from contributing articles on her photography to supporting her during low times.
From 1988 to 1990, several anthologies of her work were published including ‘Berenice Abbott: Sixty Years of Photography’, published by Thames and Hudson in London and McGraw hill in New York.
In 1926, she had her first solo exhibition in the Parisian gallery; Le Sacre du Printemps, which featured her portrait photography in which she captured personalities associated with art movements. Portraits of author James Joyce, artist Marx Ernst, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay were featured and in the same year, she started her own studio on the rue du Bac. In 1928, she returned to Paris after studying photography in Berlin for a short time. She started a second studio there on rue Servandoni.
From 1935 to 1939, she began a series of documentary photographs of New York City as part of a Federal Works Project Administration initiative. She published her photographs as a book entitled ‘Changing New York’ at the end of the project.
In 1940, she became picture editor for ‘Science Illustrated’. She included scientific images in her subject matter and worked with it for the next twenty years. During this period, she produced a series of photographs for a high-school physics text-book and also started the ‘House of Photography’ to promote and sell some of her inventions such as distortion easel and an auto pole.
In 1966, she moved to Maine and continued as a science photographer and her works displayed the rise in development in technology. After two years, she published her last book, ‘A portrait of Maine’, covering photographs of natural scenery and life in rural communities.
Awards & Achievements
She won a ‘deutscher fotobuchpreis award’ which is a German photo book prize for her exemplary performance in the field of visual-led book publishing, the one which particularly originated in Germany.
In 1991, she was inducted in the Ohio Women’s hall of fame for her black-and-white photography of New York City architecture and urban design of the 1930s.
‘Under the El at the Battery’, ‘Night view’ and the ‘Portrait of James Joyce’ are among the most notable photographs taken by her.