Through the eyes of Berenice Abbott
Respected photographer Berenice Abbott is known for capturing the ever-changing face of New York City with her camera in the 1930s, at the time it was undergoing rapid change.
While Abbott lived a full and independent life with her partner, art critic Elizabeth McCausland, Abbott made sure that the story behind each of her photographs took center stage.
Berenice Abbott: The accidental photographer
Born in Springfield, Ohio on July 17, 1898, Abbott had such a lonely, unhappy childhood that the first chance she had, she left home and enrolled at Ohio State University to study journalism.
As she wasn’t happy in school as well, she joined a friend in New York in 1918 and worked jobs like being a waitress and a yarn dyer. It was while she lived in Greenwich Village that she took up sculpture.
Unfortunately, she realized that she wouldn’t be able to sustain a living with scuplture in New York by 1921. She then bought a one-way ticket to Paris to study under sculptor Emile Bourdelle.
While in Paris, she met Man Ray, a friend from New York who was opening his own portrait studio and who needed a darkroom assistance. Abbott volunteered and this was the start of her own photography career.
Berenice Abbott: The photographer as artist
Abbott made her own photography techniques and worked long to perfect them as Man Ray didn’t teach her any.
“One day he did, however, suggest that I ought to take some myself; he showed me how the camera worked and I soon began taking some on my lunch break. I would ask friends to come by and I’d take pictures of them,” she said.
“I had no idea of becoming a photographer, but the pictures kept coming out and most of them were good. Some were very good and I decided perhaps I could charge something for my work,” she added.
Abbott was a natural. But as she became more successful, this soon caused friction between the two friends. She soon opened her own portrait studio in her home had her own first solo exhibition in 1926.
Berenice Abbott: Her major opus
One of those that influenced Abbott was photographer Eugene Atget. When he died, Abbott worked to become the caretaker of the archive of Atget’s work and then his top promotoer.
Abbott returned to the US in 1929 and, inspired by Atget’s work in photographing old Paris, decided she wanted to do the same with New York.
She opened a portrait studio in the Hotel des Artistes and her work began to appear in magazines. She was also hired to teach a photography course at the New School for Social Research.
However, she realized the scope of her project would involve more of money. Thus, she gave a proposal to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and its Federal Art Project (FAP) in 1935.
That was the year that she hooked up with McCausland, and that was also the year that the she received funding for her Changing New York Project. She finally completed the project and published the images in a book in 1939.
Berenice Abbott: Her later works
By this time, she was now one of the country’s well-respected photographer. She was a sought-after portraitist, taking pictures of New York writer Janet Flanner, writer Djuna Barnes, and bisexual poet Edna St. Vincent Millay
Abbott bought a house in Maine in the late 1950s, where she settled down with McCausland. The two lived together for 20 years.
She died in 1991. The New York Times had this to say about her in her obituary: “Her pictures…provide a remarkably thorough record of the city in all its diversity.”