Berenice Abbott’s accomplishments in the world of photography are wide-ranging and unique. As a photographer, Abbott made important contribut- ions to the art of portraiture, visual documentary, and science photography. As an archivist, she maintained and promoted the work of Euge`ne Atget for nearly 40 years. Equally, she was an educator, inventor, and an important photographic theorist. She maintained that ‘‘the vision of the twentieth century has been created by photography [...] the picture has almost replaced the word as a means of communication’’ (Abbott 1951, 42). Like- wise, she believed in the ability of the photograph to record the modern world, supplying novel ways of seeing and new truths.
Abbott spent her youth in Columbus and Cleveland before enrolling at Ohio State Univer- sity in 1917. After only a year at the college, she grew restless and moved to New York. While there, she shared a Greenwich Village ap- artment with Djuna Barnes, Malcolm Cowley, and Kenneth Burke and worked at the Province- town Playhouse. Despite what must have been an invigorating experience, Abbott grew disenchant-
ed with America and in 1921 bought a one-way ticket to France.
During her first two years in Paris, Abbott stud- ied sculpture and drawing, yet failed to maintain a steady income. In 1923, she was introduced to the American-born Dada artist Man Ray who was looking for a photographic assistant. Abbott volunteered and was accepted on the spot. Un- der Man Ray’s tutelage, Abbott learned about the darkroom, but by her own admission, nothing about the practicalities of photographic techniques. While vacationing in Amsterdam in 1924, she took her first photographs and her devotion to the med- ium followed quickly. She began to photograph Paris and gained a sizable reputation. Soon the two photographers suffered an acrimonious split after arts patron Peggy Guggenheim bypassed Man Ray and requested a portrait session with Abbott. Although the relationship ended badly, Abbott would later state that Man Ray ‘‘changed my whole life; he was the only person I ever worked for [...] He was a good friend and a fine photogra- pher’’ (O’Neal 1982, 10).
In 1926, Abbott held her first solo exhibition, established her own studio, and flourished. She worked for Vogue magazine, and her clients included artists and writers Jean Cocteau, Max Ernst, Andre ́ Gide, James Joyce, Claude McKay, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. ‘‘To be ‘done’ by [...] Berenice Abbott,’’ Sylvia Beach once remarked, ‘‘meant you rated as someone’’ (O’Neal 1982, 12). Turning her back on the accepted standards of portrait photography, Abbott sought to drama- tize, not flatter or romanticize her subjects. As she stated:
A portrait can have the most spectacular lighting effect and can be perfect technically, but it fails as a document (which every photograph should be) or as a work of art if it lacks the essential qualities of expression, gesture and attitude peculiar to the sitter [...] Personally I strive for a psychological value, a simple classicism in portraits.
(O’Neal 1982, 13)
In 1929, Abbott returned to New York for a brief visit only to find her former home irrevo- cably altered. She was fascinated by the city’s rapid transformation and decided against returning to Europe. She settled her affairs in Paris and em- barked upon one of the most ambitious photo- graphic projects of the twentieth century: to document in a comprehensive and precise manner, the face of modern, changing New York. As she stated in 1932 she sought to dramatize the contrasts of ‘‘the old and the new and the bold foreshadow- ing of the future.’’ Keenly aware of the scope and essential significance of the nascent modernity and urbanization of the city, Abbott desired to ‘‘crystal- lize’’ its transition in ‘‘permanent form’’ (O’Neal 1982, 16).
Abbott’s first New York photographs appeared in Architectural Record in May 1930, but during the five years that followed she was unable to procure funding from any of the private and institutional sources she approached. Throughout this period, Abbott supported herself working for such magazines as Fortune and Vanity Fair. In 1934, the New School for Social Research of- fered her a job teaching photography. She ac- cepted a one-year contract little knowing that the position would supply her main source of income for many of the next 24 years. This year also witnessed the first major exhibition of Ab- bott’s New York photography. Mounted at the Museum of the City of New York, the show helped raise the profile of Abbott’s New York project and greatly contributed towards a successful fund- ing application.