“Photography can only represent the present. Once photographed, the subject becomes part of the past.”Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott & sculpture

Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, OH. In her late teens, she moved to New York to school to learn sculpture. There she met Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, both of whom were leaders of the avant-garde movement. She moved to Paris to continue her studies. After a short time in Berlin, she returned to Paris to become Ray’s assistant. It was here she would become a master photographer.

By 1926, she mounted her first solo show in Paris featuring portraits of the avant-garde of Paris including James Joyce (opening photo upper left corner.)

On Photography: Berenice Abbott, 1898-1991
Berenice Abbott in Paris 1928 (Gamma-Keystone)

Berenice Abbott & Eugene Atget

While at Man Ray Studio in 1925 she discovered the photographs of Eugene Atget. She photographed him is 1927 (opening photo second from top left). Shortly after the session she took his finished portrait to him only to find out he had just died. She was devastated.

She was able, with the help of a long time friend of Atget, Andre Calmettes and Julien Levy of the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, to buy most of Atget’s 8000 prints and 1500 glass plate negatives taking them to New York in 1929. This remains a pillar of Abbot’s legacy to avant-garde photography. She championed Atget’s work for more than 40 years.

Berenice Abbott and the changing New York City

Abbott was impressed with the growth of the city and began documenting just before the Great Depression and continuing throughout the 1930s and 40s. Her work was supported by the WPA’s (Works Progress Administration) Federal Art Project.

She continued working in this documentary style for the rest of her life. The Julien Levy Gallery presented a solo show of her work in 1932. She explored photography in many forms. Her portrait shot around 1930 was distorted in the darkroom circa 1950 (opening photo, bottom row lower left corner.)

MIT’s Physical Sciences Study Committee collaborates with Abbott

One of Berenice Abbot’s last projects was in the 1950s was working with MIT to make photographs of motion and waveforms (opening photo 2 lower corner photos). She combined scientific facts with smart photographic observation to create visuals demonstrating the abstract concepts. Her work in this field illustrates the textbook “Physics” published in the 50s and 60s.

In her words

Berenice Abbott had opinions on photography and creativity. Here are three quotes …

“Let us first say what photography is not. A photograph is not a painting, a poem, a symphony, a dance. It is not just a pretty picture, not an exercise in contortionist techniques and sheer print quality. It is or should be a significant document, a penetrating statement, which can be described in a very simple term — selectivity” (Infinity magazine, 1951).

“Does not the very word ‘creative’ mean to build, to initiate, to give out, to act — rather than to be acted upon, to be subjective? Living photography is positive in its approach, it sings a song of life — not death.”

“I took to photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else. Excitement about the subject is the voltage which pushes me over the mountain of drudgery necessary to produce the final photograph.”The Berenice Abbott Portfolio, Preface, 1976.

Source material for this On Photography: MoMA, ICP, New York Times

More quick looks at the lives of influential photographers are in On Photography.