Biography: Berenice Abbott undertook an extraordinary
range of work in her remarkably productive career. She was first
and foremost a photographer, best known for her portraits and
documentary photographs of American life and society. But one
can also think of her as an inventor, an archivist and a historian,
as well as a writer and teacher.
After experimenting with sculpture in her early twenties, Abbott
left America for Paris where she began her photographic career
in 1923 as the darkroom assistant and apprentice to Man Ray. Later
she established her own portrait studio, where she photographed
many of the celebrated literary and artistic figures of the day.
Abbott championed "straight" photography, that is,
using no special effects. She argued that, by the very nature
of its realistic image, photography was documentary and, as such,
found its best expression in clearly focused, highly detailed
images. Abbott maintained that this relatively new art form could
never grow up if it imitated other media.
While in Paris Abbott became interested in the work of the French
photographer Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget. A pioneer of historic
documentation, Atget devoted a large part of his life to recording
the changing life and architecture of Paris through carefully
composed photographs. After his death Abbott bought Atget's collection
of ten thousand glass plates and prints, subsequently launching
a campaign to preserve his work. Atget also provided Abbott with
the inspiration for her next project: the documentation of New
York in the 1930s.
When she returned to New York, Abbott was struck by an environment
in transition, where she observed "the present jostling with
the past." Her determination to document what she saw eventually
resulted in the publication Changing New York (1939), funded by
the Federal Art Project.
In the 1940s and 1950s Abbott turned her attention to science
because, as she said, "we live in a scientific age and I
thought that photography should do something about it." In
1958 she was commissioned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(MIT) to illustrate a series of physics textbooks. Her pictures
of soap bubbles, wave patterns, bouncing balls, twirling wrenches
and light beams illustrate basic mathematical principles. In many
cases her images even allow abstract notions, such as averages,
to be visualized. During the course of her work Abbott successfully
developed new photographic techniques, as well as building and
patenting several new cameras.
Abbott photographed the American actress and director Eva Le
Gallienne in 1927. Le Gallienne not only played many of the classical
roles but also made great efforts to increase the audience for
serious drama. To this end she founded the Civic Repertory Theatre
in 1926. Abbott never formally posed her sitters, preferring instead
to convey the essence of her subjects through a telling gesture,
a characteristic expression or a revealing detail of costume or
accessory. Here, the dramatic slanted pose, the intense stare
and the rich fabric of the dress all work to convey the theatrical
personality of the actress.
More on Berenice Abbott:
Extensive Gallery of Abbott's Work
Films : Berenice Abbott - A View of the 20th Century
Film about Abbott and her work during the 20th Century
Abbott's Changing New York
Museum of the City of New York exhibit, March 14-June 21,
New York project.
More about Changing New York 1935-1938.