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Berenice Abbott

Pioneering portrait and urban photographer Berenice Abbott was born on July 17, 1898 in Springfield, Ohio. Charles and Alice Bunn Abbott separated shortly after their daughter - originally named Bernice – and fifth child was born, and so she was raised in an impoverished, single-parent household. The young girl's childhood was spent in Columbus and Cleveland. She enrolled at Ohio State University to study journalism, but after a year, she dropped out and moved to New York City to attend Columbia University, but only lasted there one week.

She was clearly not suited for the collegiate environment, but felt more at home in the bohemian artist community of Greenwich Village, where she exchanged ideas with several writers including Eugene O'Neill, Malcolm Cowley, and Djuna Barnes. Miss Abbott modeled for local artists and played supporting roles in productions at Provincetown Playhouse.

After a near-fatal illness, Miss Abbott began studying sculpture, embraced the Dada artistic philosophy, and became the protege of avant-garde photographer Man Ray. In early 1921, she moved to Paris, and struggled for two years until she began working as Man Ray’s photographic assistant. It was in Man Ray's darkroom where she received her professional education and developed various black-and-white photographic techniques that would become her trademark. She began taking her own photographs during a 1924 vacation in Amsterdam and never looked back. Her photographs of Paris were well received and when she acquired an important patronage in modernist art collector Peggy Guggenheim, this created a rift with Man Ray that ended their professional association and personal relationship. Miss Abbott's first portrait exhibit was held in 1926, and two years' later, she became an esteemed member of the First Salon of Independent Photographers.

In 1929, Miss Abbott returned to a very different New York City, and was immediately inspired by the modern architecture. For the next decade, she applied the techniques of her idol - Parisian photographer Eugene Atget - to the Big Apple. During the Great Depression, freelance assignments were rare, and so in 1934 Miss Abbott accepted a temporary position photographing pre-Civil War architecture, which enabled her to master the 8 x 10 Century Universal view camera, which became her camera of choice. She then traveled the streets of New York, taking the photographs that secured her Modernist legacy. Miss Abbott's unique way of shooting up or down skyscrapers at unique angles emphasized the city’s imposing landscape.

As her career progressed, Miss Abbott became increasingly involved in left-wing political activities, much to her professional detriment. She was refused a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation for her Portrait of America series, but finally received financial support from the Federal Art Project for her Changing New York collection in 1935. These photographs were published in several important industry publications as well as in Life magazine and The New York Times.

After writing the successful textbook, A Guide to Better Photography (1941), Miss Abbott focused upon scientific photography and became at the photo editor of Science Illustrated. Her later years were spent teaching, writing, and inventing various types of photographic equipment for which she received four patents. When 93-year-old Berenice Abbott died on December 9, 1991, she was revered as a twentieth-century visionary who believed the truth about the modern world was not revealed in words, but in pictures.


Ref.:
2007 The Annotated Mona Lisa, 5th Ed. (Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC), p. 184.

2006 Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Taylor & Francis Group), pp. 1-4.

2004 Notable American Women, A Biographical Dictionary: Completing the Twentieth Century (Boston: Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College), Vol. V, pp. 1-2.



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