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Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)


Berenice Abbott is a photographer known for her social documentation of New York life as well as urban architecture. Born in Ohio and studied at Ohio State University, Abbott did not finish her education and instead moved to Greenwich Village in New York. In Greenwich Village, she began a lifelong tendency of surrounding herself with free thinkers including Hippolyte Havel, Djuna Barnes, Kenneth Burke, and Malcom Cowley. Abbot started her artistic career by experimenting in theater and sculpture with a few ventures into journalism. However, it was not until her time in Europe that her artistic reputation began to flourish.

After studying sculpture in Paris and Berlin, she was hired by Man Ray as a dark room assistant in 1923. Man Ray took Abbot under his wing by allowing her to utilize his studio as well as exhibit her work alongside his own. Sylvia Beach said, “to be ‘done’ by Man Ray or Berenice Abbott meant you rated as somebody.” Abbott’s first solo exhibit in 1926 at Au Sacre Du Printemps was critically acclaimed, and she soon had her own studio in Paris. Once again, she surrounded herself with well-known artistic minds such as Jean Cocteau, James Joyce, Andre Kertesz, and of course, Man Ray. During this period, Man Ray introduced Abbott to Eugene Atget who inspired Abbott’s interest in reflecting urban architecture and life through photography. After Atget’s death, Abbott was able to buy a great deal of his negatives and would continue to publish and promote his work until she sold them to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968.

Abbott returned to New York in 1929 and immediately recognized the photographic potential of the city. She quickly closed her Paris studio and moved back to the United States where she transitioned from a hand-held Kurt-Bentzin Camera to a Century Universal, large format camera. Abbott, following in the footsteps of Atget, began to create a historical chronicle of the architecture and life of Manhattan. Unable to find financial support for her six year Changing New York project, Abbott took on a teaching position at the New School of Social Research but eventually was hired by the Federal Art Project in 1935 to continue her documentation of Changing New York. At the end of her project in 1939, Abbott had produced over 300 photographs to be exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York. In the New York Project, Abbott compared and contrasted how individuals lived and highlighted the diversity of life in New York City without romanticizing the subject. However, the goal of the project was to empower individuals by letting them understand that their behavior created their collective environment. While Abbott produced many works from a study of antebellum architecture to individual portraits, her straight photography approach gave her all her work a sense of objective clarity and realism. Additionally, Abbott’s contribution to the science behind photography, such as the autopole and distortion easel, are standards in the field to this day.

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