Berenice Abbott. American, 1898 – 1991

Abbott was an American Photographer best known for her black and white photographs of New York City architecture and urban design of the 1930s.

Artist Statement

To chart a course, one must have a direction. In reality, the eye is no better than the philosophy behind it. The photographer creates, evolves a better, a more selective, more acute seeing eye by looking ever more sharply at what is going on in the world.

- Berenice Abbott

Changing New York; Photographs by Berenice Abbott, 1935-1938
NYPL Digital Gallery

Photographer Berenice Abbott proposed Changing New York, her grand project to document New York City, to the Federal Art Project (FAP) in 1935. The FAP was a Depression-era government program for unemployed artists and workers in related fields such as advertising, graphic design, illustration, photofinishing, and publishing. A changing staff of more than a dozen participated as darkroom printers, field assistants, researchers and clerks on this and other photographic efforts. Abbott's efforts resulted in a book in 1939, in advance of the World's Fair in Flushing Meadow NY, with 97 illustrations and text by Abbott's fellow WPA employee (and life companion), art critic Elizabeth McCausland (1899-1965). At the project's conclusion, the FAP distributed complete sets of Abbott's final 302 images to high schools, libraries and other public institutions in the metropolitan area, plus the State Library in Albany. Throughout the project, exhibitions of the work took place in New York and elsewhere. After decades of lapse, the founding of the National Endowment of the Arts in 1965 revived the FAP's ideals.

Abbott was born and raised in Ohio where she endured an erratic family life. In 1918, after two semesters at Ohio State University, she left to join friends associated with the Provincetown Players, in Greenwich Village. There she met Djuna Barnes, Kenneth Burke, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Little Review editors Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, and other influential modernists. From 1919-1921, while studying sculpture, Abbott supported herself as an artist's model, posing for photographers Nikolas Muray and Man Ray. She also met Marcel Duchamp, and participated in Dadaist publications.

Abbott moved to Paris in 1921, where she continued to study sculpture (and in Berlin), and to support herself by modeling. During 1923-1926, she worked as Man Ray's darkroom assistant (he had also relocated to Paris) and tried portrait photography at his suggestion. Abbott's first solo exhibition, in 1926, launched her career. In 1928 she rescued and began to promote Eugène Atget's photographic work, calling his thirty years of Parisian streetscapes and related studies "realism unadorned."

In 1929 Abbott took a new artistic direction to tackle the scope (if not the scale) of Atget's achievement in New York City. During 1929-38, she photographed urban material culture and the built environment of New York, documenting the old before it was torn down and recording new construction. From 1934-58, she also taught photography at the New School. During 1935-39, Abbott worked as a "supervisor" for the Federal Art Project to create Changing New York (her free-lance work and New School teaching commitment made her ineligible for unemployment relief).

From 1939-60, Abbott photographed scientific subjects, concluding with her notable illustrations for the MIT-originated Physical Sciences Study Committee's revolutionary high school physics course. In 1954, she photographed along the length of US 1; the work never found a publisher. In 1968, Abbott sold the Atget archive to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and moved permanently to her home in central Maine (bought in 1956 and restored over several decades).

1970 saw Abbott's first major retrospective exhibition, at the Museum of Modern Art. Her first retrospective portfolio appeared in 1976, and she received the International Center of Photography's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989. She died at home in Monson, Maine in December 1991.


Berenice Abbott
J. Paul Getty Museum

The challenge for me has first been to see things as they are, whether a portrait, a city street, or a bouncing ball. In a word, I have tried to be objective. What I mean by objectivity is not the objectivity of a machine, but of a sensible human being with the mystery of personal selection at the heart of it. The second challenge has been to impose order onto the things seen and to supply the visual context and the intellectual framework-that to me is the art of photography.
- Berenice Abbott

At age seventy-seven Berenice Abbott thus explained her approach to making images. She learned photography in the 1920s in Paris, as a studio assistant of fellow American expatriate Man Ray. She soon opened her own portrait studio, where she photographed artists and intellectuals living in Paris, including James Joyce and Eugène Atget. After Atget's death, Abbott was instrumental in promoting his work by preserving his prints and negatives and arranging for publications and exhibitions of his photographs. She returned to the United States and began to photograph the architectural landscape of New York City, which resulted in the publication Changing New York. She taught at the New School for Social Research in New York from the 1930s until 1958.

Berenice Abbott, 93 Died; Her Photographs Captured New York in Transition
New York Times, December 1991
by Charles Hagen

Berenice Abbott, a pioneer of modern American photography, died yesterday at her home in Monson, Me. She was 93 years old.

She died of congestive heart failure, said Hank O'Neal, her biographer.

Miss Abbott is best known for her powerful black-and-white photographs of New York City in the 1930's. In these pictures, she used the tools of modernist photographic style -- including dynamically framed compositions, flattened pictorial space, high angles, and great detail - to capture the enormous energy and variety of the city.

Perhaps her most famous picture, a view of New York at night taken from the top of the Empire State Building, presents the city as a glittering tapestry of light, with massive buildings thrusting up from the criss-crossed streets. In her New York photographs, many of which were collected in the book "Changing New York" (1939), Miss Abbott also provided an invaluable historical record of the physical appearance of the city at a time when it was undergoing rapid transformation.

birth 1898
death 1991

Ohio State University for two semesters until 1918

public collections
Art Institute of Chicago
Brooklyn Museum of ART, NY
Cincinnati Art Museum, OH
Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
Dallas Museum of Art, TX
Harvard University Art Museum, MA
Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Library of Congress, Washington DC
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN
Museum of the City of New York, NY
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC
New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe, NM
Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
Princeton University Museum of Art, NJ
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA
Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC
Springfield Museum of Art, OH
Tacoma Art Museum, WA
Walker Art Center, Minnesota


Berenice Abbott A View of the 20th Century Film Review; Black and White and Fervent
by Stephen Holden
New York Times, December 1994

"The world doesn't like independent women," muses the 92-year-old photographer Berenice Abbott in Martha Wheelock and Kay Weaver's handsomely filmed documentary of her life. "Why, I don't know, but I don't care."

Abbott, a self-described loner who died in 1991, shortly after the film was completed, was a giant of American photography. The film, which uses over 200 of her black-and-white photographs, presents her as a proud proto-feminist who near the end of her life declares matter-of-factly, "There is nothing smarter than an old woman."

"Berenice Abbott: A View of the 20th Century," which opens today at Cinema Village, surveys Abbott's six-decade career, during which she underwent an astounding creative metamorphosis. She was born in Springfield, Ohio, and moved to Paris in the early 1920's, becoming Man Ray's photographic assistant. After striking out on her own, she compiled a photographic Who's Who of the Parisian literary and art worlds. Among the famous photographic portraits shown in the film are those of Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide, James Joyce and Janet Flanner.

Upon moving to New York City in 1929, Abbott reinvented herself as a documentary portrayer of the American landscape and especially New York during the Depression. Her beautifully composed studies of the city around the time that Rockefeller Center was under construction found as much visual poetry in a newsstand or a grocery store window as in a view of a boat passing in front of the skyline.

Her blend of classicism and documentary realism, the film reveals, owed much to the French photographer Eugene Atget, whose work she championed aggressively. Expressing her esthetic views with a terse vehemence, she asserts that photography that isn't documentary "isn't photography."

In the 1950's, Abbott entered the third major phase of her career with her ground-breaking scientific photography. Among the pictures shown in the film are her lucid and elegant studies of electricity, magnetism, water waves and multiple light beams.

In the spirit of Abbott's work, the film celebrating that work is a model of clear, balanced portraiture. The commentary by scholars, curators and critics is interwoven with her own common-sense observations with a concision that wastes few words. Abbott reiterates several times that the value of a photographic image ultimately depends on choosing the right subject. And the resonance of the work shown in the film demonstrates that her choices were almost always right.

The one area the film leaves unexplored is Abbott's personal life. No significant personal relationships are mentioned or even alluded to. The impression left by the film is of a proud, thorny woman who early in life became so immersed in her work that she came to look down on the interpersonal realm as a trivial distraction from higher pursuits.

By contrast, "Beyond Imagining: Margaret Anderson and The Little Review," a shorter film sharing the bill with "Berenice Abbott," celebrates its subject's personal relationships. In Wendy Weinberg's portrait of the woman who founded the influential avant-garde magazine The Little Review and who was prosecuted for serializing James Joyce's "Ulysses," Anderson emerges as a fearlessly flamboyant and charismatic editor given to grandly hyperbolic enthusiasm.

The film devotes considerable time to exalting her longtime lesbian relationships with Jane Heath, with whom she ran The Little Review and whom she called "the world's greatest talker," and with Georgette Leblanc, the soprano and actress with whom she later lived in France until the outbreak of World War II.

Although "Beyond Imagining," like "Berenice Abbott," presents its subject as a feminist role model, it suggests that Anderson and Abbott, whose paths crossed, were temperamental opposites. Work for Abbott was a solitary, pioneer like mission. For Anderson, it was a passionate adventure to be shared with an equally free-spirited companion.

BERENICE ABBOTT A View of the 20th Century Produced, edited and directed by Martha Wheelock and Kay Weaver; director of photography, Ms. Wheelock; released by Ishtar Films. Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 57 minutes. This film is not rated. WITH: Berenice Abbott (herself) and commentary by Hilton Kramer, Dr. Daniel Walkowitz, Dr. Michael Sundell, Dr. Philip Morrison, Julia Van Haaften and Maria Morris Hamburg.

BEYOND IMAGINING Margaret Anderson and The Little Review Written, produced, edited and directed by Wendy L. Weinberg; director of photography, Ms. Weinberg; music by Michael Aharon; released by Women Make Movies. Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 30 minutes. This film is not rated. WITH: Marcia Saunders (Voice of Margaret Anderson).

Books of photographs by Berenice Abbott

New York in the Thirties by Berenice Abbott, Publisher: Dover Publications, 2013

Paris Portraits 1925-1930 by Berenice Abbott, Publisher: Steidi, 2013

Berenice Abbott: Changing New York (Hardcover) by Bonnie Yochelson (Author), Berenice Abbott (Photographer), Publisher: Dutton/Federal Works Art Project; 1ST edition (1939)

Berenice Abbott: American Photographer (an Artpress book) Hardcover by Hank O'Neal (Author) , Berenice Abbott (Author), Mcgraw-Hill (February 1985)

Greenwich Village, Today & Yesterday. Photographs by Berenice Abbott, by Henry Wysham Lanier and Berenice Abbott  (Authors)  Paperback – Harper, January 1, 1949

A Portrait of Maine. New York: Macmillan, 1968. With text by Chenoweth Hall.

Berenice Abbott: An Independent Vision, Claein Books, by George Sullivan

"Berenice Abbott." Germany/New York: Steidl, 2008. Berenice Abbott. Edited by Hank O'Neal and Ron Kurtz ISBN 3-86521-592-0

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