New York Through the Lens of Berenice Abbott
On the 17th of July 1898, American photographer Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio. In 1918, she came to New York to study journalism. But her interest soon turned to sculpture. Disappointed with the commercial approach prevalent in American at the time, she decided to go to Europe. “I was scared of New York,” she said, “scared of America. …I wasn’t commercial. I never dreamed about how much money I could make – it never occurred to me. And America was so commercial, that’s why I left.” (Melissa A. McEuen, Seeing America: Women Photographers Between the Wars). Encouraged by the baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, she bought a one-way ticket to Paris, where she planned to take up sculpture studies. It was a life-changing decision, which she later recalled as follows: “In March 1921 I set sail on the great big sea, like Ulysses, and I said to myself, ‘Whatever happens, happens.’” (McEuen). Her courage paid off. In Paris, she found her new destiny – photography. From 1923 to 1925 she worked as an assistant to the iconic American photographer Man Ray and it was in his studio where she began to make portraits of her friends – writers and artists of Paris’s intelligentsia in the 1920s. “Paris,” Abbott said, “had a quality in those days that you can’t have in an overcrowded place. People were more people. No one was rushed. …We had the illusion that we could go ahead and do our work, and that nothing would ever come along to stop us. We were completely liberated.” (McEuen)
Abbot’s Parisian adventure was formative in terms of her future career. She photographed the ‘cream’ of European elite, amongst whom were Jean Cocteau and James Joyce, and soon the general perception was that, “To be ‘done’ by Man Ray or Berenice Abbott meant you rated as somebody”. (Van Haaften, “Portraits”, Berenice Abbott, Photographer). Once she decided to go back to America in 1929, she did this as an established photographer with a clear vision and technique, and a soaring reputation. The years of separation from America also gave her the much needed perspective on New York. She claimed: “If I had never left America, I would never have wanted to photograph New York. But when I saw it with fresh eyes, I knew it was my country, something I had to set down in photographs.” (McEuen). Abbott’s decision to start her photographic account of America was partially prompted by meeting Eugene Atget, the French photographer who had made a series of photographs of Paris over several decades. No one had done anything comparable to Atget’s direct record of Paris’s architecture, and this project appealed to Abbott very much. She found much inspiration in Atget’s work, which she later translated in her explicit pictures of New York.
“Abbott hoped to comb Manhattan from Harlem to the Brooklyn Bridge, and she wanted her pictures of the city to stand apart from some of those her popular predecessors in the American photography world had created. Her methods and her independence kept from joining the Alfred Stieglitz followers, a group she evaluated as a “powerful cult” guided by one man’s “stupendous ego.” She avoided the soft-focus style of pictorialists like Doris Ulmann, because she thought they made “pleasant, pretty , artificial pictures in the superficial spirit of certain minor painters.” Since Abbott made no pretenses about the documentary tone of her images, New York’s art photography circles chose not to include her. She succeeded in spite of them, pointing to her dependence upon “a relentless fidelity to fact and a deep love of the subject for its own sake.” Neither trait, however, illuminates her modernist sensibilities. Claiming “fidelity to fact” put her in the same camp as other 1930s documentarians, who worked in a cultural context dependent upon the public’s belief in the ability of the camera to record truth and to show circumstances as they actually existed. Choosing the city itself for a large-scale documentary project placed Abbott in a distinguished line of observers who had for nearly one hundred years pondered the city’s possibilities and then created and disseminated visual messages to audiences hungry for definitions of the urban landscape and its inhabitants.” (McEuen)
Once she had managed to capture New York as it had never been pictured before, Abbott turned to scientific photography. In the 1940s and 1950s, she developed her own equipment and techniques to help produce photographs which illustrated physical visual phenomena such as the refraction of a beam of light through a prism. Her personal, precise style of documentary photography, however, remains the epitome of her career as a photographer.