BERENICE ABBOTT’s accomplishments in the world of photography are wide-ranging and unique. As a photographer, Abbott made important contributions to the art of portraiture, visual documentary, and science photography. As an archivist, she maintained and promoted the work of Euge`ne Atget for nearly 40 years. Equally, she was an educator, inventor, and an important photographic theorist. She maintained that ‘‘the vision of the twentieth century has been created by photography [...] the picture has almost replaced the word as a means of communication’’ (Abbott 1951, 42). Likewise, she believed in the ability of the photograph to record the modern world, supplying novel ways of seeing and new truths.
Abbott spent her youth in Columbus and Cleveland before enrolling at Ohio State University in 1917. After only a year at the college, she grew restless and moved to New York. While there, she shared a Greenwich Village apartment with Djuna Barnes, Malcolm Cowley, and Kenneth Burke and worked at the Provincetown Playhouse. Despite what must have been an invigorating experience, Abbott grew disenchanted with America and in 1921 bought a one-way ticket to France.
During her first two years in Paris, Abbott studied sculpture and drawing, yet failed to maintain a steady income. In 1923, she was introduced to the American-born Dada artist Man Ray who was looking for a photographic assistant. Abbott volunteered and was accepted on the spot. Under Man Ray’s tutelage, Abbott learned about the darkroom, but by her own admission, nothing about the practicalities of photographic techniques. While vacationing in Amsterdam in 1924, she took her first photographs and her devotion to the medium followed quickly. She began to photograph Paris and gained a sizable reputation. Soon the two photographers suffered an acrimonious split after arts patron Peggy Guggenheim bypassed Man Ray and requested a portrait session with Abbott. Although the relationship ended badly, Abbott would later state that Man Ray ‘‘changed my whole life; he was the only person I ever worked for [...] He was a good friend and a fine photographer’’ (O’Neal 1982, 10).
In 1926, Abbott held her first solo exhibition, established her own studio, and flourished. She worked for Vogue magazine, and her clients included artists and writers Jean Cocteau, Max Ernst, Andre´ Gide, James Joyce, Claude McKay, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. ‘‘To be ‘done’ by [...] BERENICE ABBOTT,’’ Sylvia Beach once remarked, ‘‘meant you rated as someone’’ (O’Neal 1982, 12). Turning her back on the accepted standards of portrait photography, Abbott sought to dramatize, not flatter or romanticize her subjects. As she stated:
A portrait can have the most spectacular lighting effect and can be perfect technically, but it fails as a document (which every photograph should be) or as a work of art if it lacks the essential qualities of expression, gesture and attitude peculiar to the sitter [...] Personally I strive for a psychological value, a simple classicism in portraits. (O’Neal 1982, 13)
In 1929, Abbott returned to New York for a brief visit only to find her former home irrevocably altered. She was fascinated by the city’s rapid transformation and decided against returning to Europe. She settled her affairs in Paris and embarked upon one of the most ambitious photographic projects of the twentieth century: to document in a comprehensive and precise manner, the face of modern, changing New York. As she stated in 1932 she sought to dramatize the contrasts of ‘‘the old and the new and the bold foreshadowing of the future.’’ Keenly aware of the scope and essential significance of the nascent modernity and urbanization of the city, Abbott desired to ‘‘crystallize’’ its transition in ‘‘permanent form’’ (O’Neal 1982, 16).
Abbott’s first New York photographs appeared in Architectural Record in May 1930, but during the five years that followed she was unable to procure funding from any of the private and institutional sources she approached. Throughout this period, Abbott supported herself working for such magazines as Fortune and Vanity Fair. In 1934, the New School for Social Research offered her a job teaching photography. She accepted a one-year contract little knowing that the position would supply her main source of income for many of the next 24 years. This year also witnessed the first major exhibition of Abbott’s New York photography. Mounted at the Museum of the City of New York, the show helped raise the profile of Abbott’s New York project and greatly contributed towards a successful funding application.
In 1935, Abbott applied for funding to the Federal Arts Project (FAP). In part, her proposal read: To photograph NYC means to seek to catch in the sensitive and delicate photographic emulsion the spirit of the metropolis, while remaining true to its essential fact, its hurrying tempo, its congested streets, the past jostling the present. The concern is not with an architectural rendering of detail, the buildings of 1935 overshadowing everything else, but with a synthesis which shows the skyscraper in relation to the less colossal edifices which preceded it [...] it is important that they should be photographed today, not tomorrow; for tomorrow may see many of these exciting and important mementos of eighteenth and nineteenth century New York swept away to make room for new colossi. (Abbott 1973, 158)
In September 1935, her project—recently entitled Changing New York—was accepted by the FAP. Abbott was ranked project supervisor and was awarded funding and a small staff. Consequently, Changing New York became an immediate success. The photographs were published in U.S. Camera, Popular Photography, and the Coronet. the New York Times and Life both did extensive features. In December 1937, the Museum of the City of New York held another hugely successful exhibit; yet by December 1938, Abbott had taken her last project photograph and was demoted to assistant project supervisor. By August 1939, she had no staff at all. After proposing to document the 1939 World’s Fair, she was told she could remain on the FAP payroll only as a staff photographer. Choosing independence over employment, Abbott quit the FAP.
In late 1939, Abbott wrote a short memo to herself, the essence of which would occupy her photographic career for most of the next 20 years. Essentially she believed that ‘‘we live in a world made by science’’ and that photography could mediate between (as a ‘‘friendly interpreter’’) science and the layperson in order to articulate and explain how knowledge controls and functions in everyday life (Van Haaften 1989, 58).
Subsequently, Abbott began to experiment with scientific photography and in 1944 she became photo-editor of Science Illustrated. Although she quit the magazine two years later, Abbott continued to photograph scientific phenomena and the 1948 textbook American High School Biology included many of her illustrations. Her science photography inspired her to develop new photographic equipment, lighting methods, and techniques. In 1947, she incorporated The House of Photography to develop and promote her photographic inventions. Often in financial trouble, the company lasted until 1958, during which time Abbott established four patents.
Abbott continued her science photography in the 1950s, but her reputation, along with her finances, languished until 1957, when the launch of the Russian Sputnik sparked a national obsession with science. Abbott, once again in vogue, was hired by the Physical Science Study Committee of Educational Services (PSSCES) to produce images for a new high school textbook. Her science photographs appeared in national and international magazines, and exhibits of her scientific work were shown in exhibitions around the country. In 1960, Abbott appeared on television in a program called The Camera Looks at Science, and the Smithsonian Institution acquired her entire scientific archive. After completing the seminal textbook, Physics (1960), Abbott left the PSSCES. She collaborated with Evans G. Valens on a further three scientific books in the 1960s.
Although Abbott’s photography is often grouped into three distinct periods—portraits, New York, and science photography—she was equally fascinated by the landscape of America. Under the direction of Henry Russell Hitchcock, Abbott traveled America in 1933 recording the buildings of pre-Civil War America and the work of architect Henry Hobson Richardson. In 1935 she traveled to St. Louis with her friend Elizabeth McCausland, before heading into the Deep South. The resultant photographs anticipate much of the work conducted by Roy Stryker at the Resettlement Administration, although Abbott herself found it extremely difficult to intrude into the lives of people burdened with such poverty. In the 1940s, Abbott briefly worked for Stryker at Standard Oil, but had to withdraw due to poor health. In 1943, Abbott documented the work of the Red Rock Logging Company of California and in 1948 released her second New York book, Greenwich Village: Today & Yesterday. In the early 1950s, the photographer conceived a plan to document life along the Route 1 highway. Although she traveled from Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida twice in 1953, and took nearly 400 photographs, the project failed to find a publisher and remains Abbott’s most obscure work. By the 1960s, however, Abbott’s reputation was in the ascendancy and in 1966 she was given carte blanche to produce a photo-guide to the state of Maine, her recently adopted home. Shunning the standard guidebook images of the state, Abbott pointed her camera inshore and focused on the people and industries that made up everyday life in the state.
Abbott often stated that she had always had to balance two careers: her own and that of Euge`ne Atget. Abbott was introduced to Atget’s photography in 1925 and subsequently befriended the aging photographer. As she later noted, ‘‘Atget’s photographs somehow spelt photography for me [...] their impact was immediate and tremendous. There was a sudden flash of recognition—the shock of realism unadorned’’ (Abbott 1964, 1). After Atget’s death in 1927, Abbott acquired his complete archive and began to promote his work. On her return to America, Abbott lobbied to have the French photographer’s work shown alongside her own and, for 40 years, acted as curator and agent for the Atget file, before finally selling the collection to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. Moreover she supported the work of numerous other photographers. She endorsed the work of Mathew Brady, William Jackson, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Nadar, and Timothy O’Sullivan. In 1939, she helped raise the profile of Lewis Hine by organizing an exhibit of his work at New York’s Riverside Museum.
Throughout her life, Abbott wrote about the nature and practice of photography. Much of her thinking is clarified through her long-standing objection to the work and influence of Alfred Steiglitz. Abbott met Steiglitz in 1929 and found him pretentious and condescending. In contrast to Steiglitz as a modernist, Abbott believed there was ‘‘poetry in our crazy gadgets, our tools, our architecture’’ and that photography should fulfill ‘‘civic responsibilities’’: ‘‘the photograph may be presented as finely and artistically as possible, but to merit serious consideration, it must be directly connected with the world we live in’’ (O’Neal 1982, 14, and Abbott 1951, 47). Unlike Stieglitz and his followers of the important ‘‘291’’ Gallery, Abbott saw no connection between painting and photography:
If a medium is representational by nature of the realistic image formed by the 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. (Abbott, ‘‘It Has to Walk Alone’’ 1951, p. 6)
She repudiated the manipulation of images characteristic of avant-gardism and championed realist, that is, documentary content. Photography, she believed, should orient itself towards documentary expression: it should strive towards the real and historical, not the artificial; it should record not imagine. Abbott’s photography exemplified her philosophy. For almost 70 years, Abbott sought to capture the changing nature of everyday life. Through it, she forged an aesthetic of modernist realism that reflected the American scene, the medium of photography, and the essence of the twentieth century.
See also: Atget, Euge`ne; Architectural Photography; Man Ray; Works Progress Administration