Text from David Vestal, Berenice Abbott, Photographer
BERENICE ABBOTT WAS BORN IN SPRINGFIELD, OHIO, IN 1898.
She went to public schools in Columbus and Cleveland, and to Ohio State University. In 1918 she left for New York to study sculpture on her own - not with any teacher. She has always been independent. She moved on to Europe in 1921, still studying sculpture; first to Paris, then to Berlin, then back and forth. From 1923 to 1925 she worked as assistant to the American photographer in Paris, Man Ray.
During her years of portrait photography in Paris, 1925 to 1929, she established an enviable reputation, which was solidified in 1926 by her first one-man show of photographs: Portraits Photographiques. She photographed everyone who was anyone, and did it superbly. The pictures are both beautiful and honest-a rare combination in portraiture. "Successful" portrait photographs tend to be one or the other, not both. The most celebrated portrait photographers are often those most skilled and shameless in flattering-that is, obliterating-their victims. The person is erased and replaced by a fantasy. You won't find much flattery in Abbott portraits. She has concentrated on finding the best in people and trying to understand exactly who they are.
She first saw photographs by Eugene Atget in 1925. Nearly forty years later she wrote, in The World of Atget: "Their impact was immediate and tremendous ... a sudden flash of recognition-the shock of realism unadorned ......
She soon met Atget. In 1927 he came to her studio at 44 rue du Bac to be photographed, wearing a huge new overcoat. When she had made the first prints of his portraits, she went to show them to him, but found his apartment empty. Atget had died. His old friend, the actor André Calmette, inherited his photographs.
In the fall of 1928 Calmette sold Atget's work to Berenice Abbott; he saw that she loved those photographs. How right he was. She took care of the work for forty years and did all she could-it was a great deal-to win recognition for Atget. Thanks to her, he is securely recognized as one of the great photographers.
Eminently successful in Paris, she may have become homesick. In 1929 she left Europe; in the New Yorker's words, "taking herself and her talent back to New York and the Hotel des Artistes." Once there she discovered a passion for New York. Professionally, she photographed a series of American businessmen for Fortune, and, on her own initiative, began to document New York City with her camera. Later she photographed scientific subjects for Life: the three preoccupations represented in this book are not new.
In 1930 she had a one-man show of her photographs at the Contemporary Art Club at Harvard, the first of many. She has exhibited almost continuously in the United States ever since. The same year, she arranged for the publication of one of the first books of Atget's work, and furnished most of the pictures. Atget, Photographe de Paris, with a preface by Pierre MacOrlan, was published in New York by E. Weyhe.
Another phase of her career began in 1934 when she began to teach photography one evening a week at the New School for Social Research in New York. She continued to teach there until 1958.
Photographing New York City took first place from 1935 to 1939 when she supervised and photographed a document, "Changing New York," for the Federal Art Project. This culminated in 1939 in the book, Changing New York, with photographs by Berenice Abbott and a text by Elizabeth McCausland, published by E. P. Dutton. More than half of the places photographed on this project have since been demolished.
In 1954 she was photographing Route One along the Atlantic coast and discovered the state of Maine. She bought a house there in 1956 and moved into it permanently twelve years later.
In 1958, still in New York, she began work on a huge project for the Physical Science Study Committee of Educational Services, Inc. The photographs of physical phenomena were largely produced then.
Berenice Abbott is a photographer with sensibility. She's aware, receptive, sensitive, and has common sense. Her work is refreshingly straightforwardstrong, clear pictures with art but without pretense. Berenice has no use for purple prose or precious prints. She belongs to no school or movement.
She wrote down some of her beliefs so clearly that it would be foolish not to quote her. The article, "It Has to Walk Alone," appeared in Infinity magazine in 1951; parts of it were reprinted by Nathan Lyons in his 1966 book, Photographers on Photography. She tells what she's up to in a few essential sentences:
"Photography can never grow up if it imitates some other medium. It has to walk alone; it has to be itself.
"If a medium is representational by nature of the realistic image formed by a lens, I see no reason why we should stand on our heads to distort that function. On the contrary, we should take hold of that very quality, make use of it, and explore it to the fullest."That is what Berenice Abbott does.
[NOTE: Present tense indicates the printing of this book prior to Ms. Abbott's death in 1991]
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