Berenice Abbott, Writing Her Own History - The New York Times

Skip to content

The New York Times

Lens | Berenice Abbott, Writing Her Own History

Lens: Photography, Video and Visual Journalism

Follow Lens:

Slide Show
View Slide Show9 Photographs

Berenice Abbott, Writing Her Own History

Berenice Abbott, Writing Her Own History

Credit Berenice Abbott Archive, Ryerson Image Center. Ronald Kurtz, administered by Commerce Graphics Ltd.

Supported by

Featured Posts

Slide Show
View Slide Show9 Photographs

Berenice Abbott, Writing Her Own History

Berenice Abbott, Writing Her Own History

Credit Berenice Abbott Archive, Ryerson Image Center. Ronald Kurtz, administered by Commerce Graphics Ltd.

Berenice Abbott, Writing Her Own History

By Laurence Butet-Roch May. 6, 2015 May. 6, 2015

Laid out on the counter were portraits of the famous and the nameless, unpretentious wedding pictures, grandiose industrial architectural details, midcentury American scenes and close-ups of a brain, a wrench and a creepy-crawler. Next to them, a few yellowed notes. One, signed by the French writer Jean Cocteau, declared: “She exposes her delicious memory. She is a chess game between light and shadow.”

The subject? His friend, the noted 20th century photographer Berenice Abbott.

Although her work was celebrated in a 2012 retrospective at the Jeu de Paume in Paris and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, much has yet to come to light because for nearly three decades a significant portion of her archive belonged to a private collector, Ronald Kurtz. But now that this trove is part of the Ryerson Image Center’s collection, its riches will offer invaluable insights into the life and work of a pioneering, intriguing and tireless artist.

Born in Springfield, Ohio in 1898, Abbott grew up modestly, raised by her single mother. She wanted to become a sculptor, and like many of her generation with similar aspirations, crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search of a more vibrant art scene. She landed in Berlin before meeting Man Ray, who hired her as an assistant in Paris. He taught her the trade and allowed her to use the space to develop her own portrait practice.

“She didn’t come from a wealthy family,” said Gaëlle Morel, the curator at Ryerson. “She didn’t have much of a choice: If she wanted to be an artist, she would have to work. Photography allowed her to become a working artist.”

Photo Walker Evans portrait of Berenice Abbott. Circa 1930.Credit Berenice Abbott Archive, Ryerson Image Center. Ronald Kurtz, administered by Commerce Graphics Ltd.

Writers like James Joyce and André Gide came to have head shots taken; enterprising socialites like Peggy Guggenheim and Sylvia Beach sat for her. Within five years, Abbott opened her own studio, was regularly published in Vogue and Vu and had her first exhibition at the influential gallery Au Sacre du Printemps. Many were seduced by her minimalist aesthetic, which led the eye straight to the subject’s body language and facial expression.

The 351 glass prints — and nearly as many corresponding contact prints — preserved in her archive reveal her unexpected methods. Rather than frame the sitter exactly as he would appear in the print, Abbott gave him room to breathe — so much so that odd objects can be seen, blurred, in the foreground and corners. She also didn’t shy away from resorting to dramatic lighting, creating sinister-looking shadows behind her muses.

Once in the darkroom, she often cropped drastically, removing unwanted elements. She was not attempting to correct mistakes, but was acting deliberately. Using a long focal length eliminated distortions, and lighting always served a calculated purpose. For instance, the stark contrast that defines the portraits of Coco Chanel or the writer Janet Flanner stressed the strong features of these convention-defying women.

“We are not afraid of vast archives,” Ms. Morel said. “We want to approach photography by going beyond the masterpieces. We want to see the negatives, the cameras, the notes, the papers, the mock-ups, the scrapbooks, all the elements that impart the work with even more meaning.”

While cataloging some of the 6,000 prints, 7,000 negatives and countless pieces of correspondence, personal journals, business records and other ephemera, Charlene Heath, the archives assistant, stumbled upon photographs of weddings and families, which almost brought her to tears.

“These images fill the negative space that exists between all the known icons,” she said. “They help us understand Abbott just a little more. She did weddings. She photographed children. That was her bread and butter. It reminds us what it means to be a photographer and to try to get by.”

Similarly, a 1933 letter signed by Hardinge Scholle, the director of the Museum of the City of New York, proves that even despite her growing reputation, Abbott had trouble financing her grand projects. By then she had returned to the United States and sought to capture the rapid evolution of Manhattan.

“In regards to your idea of photographing New York City from the point of view of preserving a record of its ever changing physical as well as sociological aspect, it seems to me that it would be a most important contribution,” Scholle wrote. “We have always wanted such a record in this Museum but have not been able to raise the necessary funds.”

Photo Hank O’Neal’s last portrait of Berenice Abbott. Monson, Me. July 17, 1991.Credit Courtesy of Berenice Abbott

Undeterred, Abbott took on teaching and commercial jobs to sustain her passion. Eventually, in 1935, she received support from the Federal Arts Project in the form of a monthly salary of $145, assistants, a secretary and a car. For four years, she was finally able to focus on “Changing New York,” an ambitious undertaking inspired by the work of Eugène Atget, whom she vigorously championed.

As other elements from the archives demonstrate, Abbott went on to engage with other aspects of photography, from designing a utilitarian vest to inventing her own set of lenses, cameras and enlargers. Her images also captured everything from scientific feats to the social landscape along the highway that runs from Maine to Florida.

“Abbott was always very interested in the technical aspects of photography and thus welcomed any opportunity to experiment with it,” Ms. Morel said. “Though it has been recognized and studied, I think few people realize the contribution she made to the history of photography. Not only was she a good photographer, she was also a thinker. She understood that to find your place in history, you have to write your own.”


Follow @nytimesphoto on Twitter. Lens is also on Facebook.

Next in Lens:

Pictures of the Day — May 5, 2015

Featured Posts

Pictures of the Week

View all Pictures of the Week