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Art HERstory: Berenice Abbott


Art HERstory: Berenice Abbott

Art HERstory: Berenice Abbott

When it comes to chasing your dreams, you don’t always have a pack of supporters racing alongside you. We’ve all felt alone in this world of 6 billion at one point or another. Fortunately, we always seem to find someone who shares our interests and doesn’t mind tagging along. Berenice Abbott (1898-1991)was one such dreamer. She made things happen with or without a support system. As a result of her tunnel vision she captured the city of New York in a way that cannot be duplicated.

Manhattan Skyline: I. South Street and Jones Lane, Manhattan (1936). The city where dreams come true!

Manhattan Skyline: I. South Street and Jones Lane, Manhattan (1936). The city where dreams come true!

Journalism was Berenice’s initial artistic love. She made her way to New York’s Greenwich Village with some of her pals from Ohio State University to begin her career. She shared a place with writer Djuna Barnes, philosopher Kenneth Burke, and critic Malcolm Cowley. A crew of creatives! It didn’t take very long for Berenice to become inspired by the city. She shifted her interest from writing to theatre and sculpture.

In 1921, Europe because Berenice’s temporary home. She spent two years between Berlin and Paris studying sculpture. She also contributed poetry to Transition, a literary journal published in Paris. While in limbo between written and visual art, friend Emmanuel Radnitzky (also known as Man Ray) hired Berenice to be his personal darkroom assistant at his portrait studio. Ray was proud of his pupil and let her use his studio to take pictures of her own. In 1926 Berenice opened her own studio and held her first solo exhibition.

‘I took to photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else.’ -Berenice Abbott

Man Ray also introduced Berenice to her idol, Eugène Atget. She admired Atget’s style of photography. She was moved by how he captured the city as is. Unedited. In 1929 Berenice returned to NYC to find a publisher for his photos. Mr. Atget had passed on, but Berenice wanted his legacy to live on. Well, the visit turned into the rekindling of a flame.

NightView, New York (1932). Obviously New York was as beautiful then as it is now.

NightView, New York (1932). Obviously New York was as beautiful then as it is now.

Berenice set to follow in Eugène’s footsteps and document her city how she saw it. She was a part of the straight photography movement. This movement was adamant about photos being unmanipulated.  She immediately returned to Paris, packed her things, closed her studio, and took it back to the Apple.

Court of the First Model Tenement, New York (1936). Berenice's New York was one of industrialization. She saw skyscrapers climbing higher over time and the first apartment building going up brick by brick. It was all unfamiliar to her so she documented it with her lens.

Court of the First Model Tenement, New York (1936). Berenice's New York was one of industrialization. She saw skyscrapers climbing higher over time and the first apartment building going up brick by brick. It was all unfamiliar to her so she documented it with her lens.

Berenice dedicated her time and camera to New York City for six years. It had to be a bittersweet time for her because she was doing what she loved but had no support. Organizations such as the Museum of the City of New York, the Guggenheim Foundation, friends, and family refused to provide Berenice with any type of monetary help. To keep her head above water she accepted a commercial gig as a photographer for Fortune and taught at the New School of Social Research.

George Washington Bridge from Riverside Drive at 178th Street (1936). These man-made marvels were foreign to the people of the 1930s. Berenice thought it important to document the development of NYC with her photography.

George Washington Bridge from Riverside Drive at 178th Street (1936). These man-made marvels were foreign to the people of the 1930s. Berenice thought it important to document the development of NYC with her photography.

In 1935, Berenice applied to what became the Federal Art Project. Her application was accepted and she was the only photographer assigned a staff to her own project. She was the head honcho. The FAP gave Berenice a salary of $145 a month, a 1930 Ford Sport Roadster, they even provided her with two new cameras. She got her break!

Newsstand, 32nd Street and Third Avenue, Manhattan. I HAD to share this photograph. So much to read in such little space! Its like a dream come true!

Newsstand, 32nd Street and Third Avenue, Manhattan. I HAD to share this photograph. So much to read in such little space! Its like a dream come true!

Outside of photography, Berenice was in inventor. A few of her creations included a distortion easel, which distorted images being developed, and the telescopic lighting pole (now known as the autopole), to which lights can be attached at any level. She sold her items in her boutique, ‘House of Photography.’ Thanks to poor marketing the store quickly lost money and closed.

Behavior of Waves (1960). This image is from a number of photographs Berenice took for a physics textbook. Cool huh?

Behavior of Waves (1960). This image is from a number of photographs Berenice took for a physics textbook. Cool huh?

Berenice Abbott pursued her idea of happiness and finally attained it. Although she didn’t always have someone to back her up, she kept doing what she loved. Berenice’s photography is some of my favorite. You guys know I’m a sucker for black and white photography as is. You can own much of her work without a hefty pricetag by purchasing Changing New York, a book of Berenice’s photographs. I’m on my way to Barnes & Noble NOW!

Image Layout: Phaymiss

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