Born on July 17, 1898 in Springfield, Ohio, Berenice Abbott is best known for her powerful black-and-white photographs of New York City in the 1930’s. Her pictures of buildings, houses, trains, warehouses and store fronts, provide an incredible record of New York City during that period.
Abbott studied briefly at Ohio State University before traveling first to New York and then, in 1921, to Europe to study sculpture and drawing. Her interest in photography began when she arrived in Paris in 1923 to work as a darkroom assistant for the American Surrealist Man Ray. In 1925, she took up portrait photography and opened her own studio in 1926. She quickly achieved success with her compelling portraits of artists and writers such as James Joyce, Janet Flanner and Jean Cocteau.
Abbott’s first major photographic project, began in 1929, shortly after she returned from Paris. Her documentation of New York, a growing and changing city, is some of Abbott’s best work. Many of her well-known New York images were taken as part of The Federal Art Project from 1935 to 1939 (a collection that was later published as “Changing New York”). She continued to photograph New York City for over 27 years.
In 1939, Abbott began what many consider to be her most ambitious project and which spanned more than twenty years. Believing science to be a valid subject for artistic statements, she set out to illustrate that photography was the medium uniquely qualified to unite art with science. During this period, Abbott produced thousands of photographs as well as designing and patenting scientific equipment, including two cameras. In 1958, she was recognized by the Physical Science Study Committee of Education Services, in Cambridge, Massachusetts and worked with them for three years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to create a physics text book.
Throughout her career, Abbott recorded the American scene in other states as well, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and in the Deep South. In 1953, she photographed her journey from Fort Kent, Maine, to Key West, Florida, and back, documenting a changing America from along the Route One Highway.
Abbott was also known as the person responsible for the present-day fame of the French photographer Eugene Atget, whom she met in Paris two years before his death in 1927. Abbott purchased his works, brought them with her to New York, and arranged exhibitions, print sales and the publication of several books. Atget’s photographs, which documented the architecture and street scenes of Paris, had a significant influence on the development of American photography.
In 1966, Abbott moved permanently to Maine, but maintained a connection to New York through her collaboration with the New York Public Library, which sponsored a major retrospective exhibition of her work in 1989. Berenice Abbott died in Maine on December 9, 1991 at the age of 93.
Sources: New York Times, Commerce Graphics