‘Columbus Circle, Manhattan.’
Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio, the “Home City” then best known for its Masonic Lodges and farming equipment, in July 1898. Her parents split when Berenice was young, leaving her mother Lilly to raise her daughter on her own.
Abbott grew up wanting to be an artist. She figured she’d be a sculptor and signed-on for classes at Ohio State but dropped out after two semesters in 1918. Ohio was dullsville compared to the exciting lights and freedoms of Paris with its freedoms and long list of bohemian artists, writers, and dancers who’d made the city their home. Abbott skipped town. Moved to Europe. Spent a couple of years studying art and sculpture in Paris and Berlin.
She arrived in Paris at the right time. With the end of the First World War, a whole new generation of tyro artists and writers moved in to stake their claim on immortality. The cobbled boulevards were bordered with scrums of “creative types” expounding their revolutionary thoughts and ideas between gasps of Gitanes and vin rouge.
Abbott hooked up with a band of men and women who were in the process of making history. One introduction led to another and led to another and so on. She hung out with Djuna Barnes—who herself had arrived in Paris with an introductory letter to James Joyce. It was Barnes who told Abbott to change her birth name Bernice to the more exotic Berenice. Abbott met Man Ray, Sylvia Beach (the American owner of the famed bookshop Shakespeare and Co.), Jean Cocteau, and photographer Eugène Atget, among many others.
Abbott began her career as Man Ray’s photographic assistance in 1923. She took to photography like “a duck to water,” she later said, and never looked back. Man Ray was impressed by her flair and skill in the darkroom. Abbott was taking portraits and soon had a series of small exhibitions of her own work. But after looking at flâneur photographer Atget’s work, a whole new world of possibilities opened up to her.
Atget was a highly eccentric individual with weird notions about food and cleanliness. He lived off a diet of milk, bread, and sugar most of his life. Abbott essentially “discovered” Atget and realized he was a brilliant photographer. After his death, she snapped up as much of his work as she could, fearing it would be lost to the public forever. Atget took photographs that triggered memory. He wandered the streets of Paris with his camera and tripod and snapped those seemingly odd, inconsequential moments that when captured resonated with a potent tension and hidden drama.
When Abbott traveled to New York in 1929, she instantly saw the potential of photographing the city as Atget had captured Paris—but through her own personality and obsessions. She started documenting New York as it changed from an old 19th-century city to the high-rise, skyscraper city of the future. The buildings changing from statements of individual wealth and success to the collective growth and worth of the thousands of people who lived and worked together in the city.
Abbott called her project Changing New York. She supported herself during for six years while she walked the streets of Manhattan carrying her Century Universal camera taking pictures of the “fantastic” contrasts between the old buildings falling into ruin and the modern blocks rising like a New Jerusalem. Abbott’s photographs of New York during the 1930s was described by pioneering documentarian and filmmaker Ralph Steiner as “the greatest collection of photographs of New York City ever made.” Her photographs redefined the city and influenced generations of photographers and filmmakers on how they represented New York.
Berenice Abbott was one of the handful of brilliant photographs whose work not only captured life in the twentieth century but changed our aesthetic appreciation of it.
‘Brooklyn Bridge, Water and Dock Streets, looking south-west, Brooklyn.’
See more of Berenice Abbott’s New York, after the jump…