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Artists Berenice Abbott
Berenice Abbott Photo

Berenice Abbott

American Artist

Movement: Straight Photography

Born: July 17, 1898 - Springfield, Ohio

Died: December 9, 1991 - Monson, Maine

Berenice Abbott Timeline

Quotes

"I like this picture so well because it re-creates for me some of the feeling I got from the original scene - and that is the real test of any picture."
Berenice Abbott
"Half the fun of photography is fooling around, mixing solutions, playing with papers, exercising tangible authority over silent partners of photography - film, paper, chemicals."
Berenice Abbott
"Unless you see the subject first, you won't be able to force the camera...to see the picture for you. But if you have seen the picture with your flexible human vision, then you will be on the road to creating with the camera a vision equivalent to your own."
Berenice Abbott
"By going to France I found myself and my own country - I just sort of thank God for France - vive la France!"
Berenice Abbott
"The minute I touched New York, I had a burning desire to photograph this city of incredible contrasts, the city of stone needles and skyscrapers, the city that is never the same, but always changing - New York."
Berenice Abbott
"When I saw New York again, and stood in the dirty slush, I felt that here was the thing I had been wanting to do all my life."
Berenice Abbott
"I try to photograph the city without sentimentality or illusions. I want to show its contrasts and contradictions."
Berenice Abbott

"To me photography is a means, perhaps the best means of our age - of widening knowledge of our world. Photography is a method of education, for acquainting people of all ages and conditions with the truth about life today."

Synopsis

Berenice Abbott was an American photographer known for her portraits and documentary photographs which stressed the communicative, even educational value of the photographic print. She pursued a realist vision in recording history and her own historical experience in order to potentially affect change in her audience. Her photographs purposely facilitated the interaction and dialogue between the photographer, the photographic print, and the viewer. Abbott's realist approach to photography stems from her career as a portrait photographer in Paris as well as the influence of Eugène Atget's photographic realism. After eight years in Paris, Abbott moved to New York in 1929 to document the modern transformation of the city. The resulting book Changing New York (1935-1938) received critical acclaim and has continued to resonate to this day.

Key Ideas

For Abbott, the photographic image had to be honest, contingent, and objective to be communicative. In her own words, straight photography is: "precision in the rendering and definition of detail and materials, surfaces and textures; instantaneity of observation; acute and faithful presentation of what has actually existed in the external world at a particular time and place."
Abbott identified how photography, in particular science photography, could act as a friendly interpreter of the world to laymen and women. She accomplished this task through her photo book on Changing New York that summarized the city's modern transformation, and her science photography. Her ability to capture scientific subjects and endow them with popular appeal and scientific correctness enabled her to make physics visually comprehensible.
As collector and guardian of Eugène Atget photographic archive, Abbott performed her most significant task in preserving the legacy of this early modern photographer. She tirelessly promoted his work for more than forty years. And it is because of Abbott's efforts that Atget is still known today.

Biography

Berenice Abbott Photo

Childhood and Education

Bernice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio into a troubled lower middle-class family. She was the youngest of four children. When her parents broke up in 1900, Abbott was separated from her three older siblings. She was raised like an only child from age two until age twelve, when both sides of her family resettled in Cleveland, Ohio. Even then she hardly saw her father, who was a cement salesman in Cleveland. He provided neither guidance nor understanding.

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Berenice Abbott Biography Continues

Important Art by Berenice Abbott

The below artworks are the most important by Berenice Abbott - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Eugène Atget (1927)
Artwork Images

Eugène Atget (1927)

Artwork description & Analysis: In this portrait, Eugène Atget, with a bemused expression on his face, stares out at the camera. The elderly French photographer presents himself formally dressed in a suit and tie under a thick dark overcoat and in his right hand, which rests on his thigh, he holds a pair of glasses. Yet, the personal interaction between Abbott and Atget is the actual subject of this portrait, partially revealed in Atget's facial expression.

The photo-historian Gaëlle Morel contends that, "through her compositions, Abbott succeeded in formulating a genuine aesthetic, with its rejection of commercial conventions. The absence of décor and the fact that the background is more often than not reduced to a neutral section of wall tend to isolate the subject, emphasizing his or her bearing, physical position, and facial expression."

This portrait is significant since Abbott was the only artist to have taken a formal portrait of Atget. Abbott considered Atget, "...the most important forerunner of the whole modern photographic art." She dedicated part of her career to promoting and including Atget's work into the most important modern photography exhibitions in late twenties and thirties.

Photo-Gelatin silver print - Collection of International Center of Photography, New York, New York

Jean Cocteau, Paris (1927)
Artwork Images

Jean Cocteau, Paris (1927)

Artwork description & Analysis: Berenice Abbott portrays Jean Cocteau, French surrealist artist, poet, writer, and filmmaker, sitting in bed with a somewhat vacant expression, which mirrors the expression on the paper mâché doll head he cradles in his left arm. Cocteau and the paper mâché doll are covered by a white sheet and the white, neutral color of the bed linens plays off the striped wallpaper on the background wall. As a whole this image echoes the contradictory pairings of objects and humans often found in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte.

This photograph is one in a series of portraits Abbott took of Jean Cocteau, sitting or lying in bed. The series, rather than a single photograph, Abbott contended, could best capture the complexity of a person's character. On another level, it points to Abbott's interest in the interplay between the visible and invisible aspects of character. Cocteau addresses this very issue from a surrealist viewpoint by drawing out the complicated relationship between his body as object and himself as subject. While Cocteau chose to frame himself in this way, Abbott reacted to both his appearance and unconscious self in the taking of the photograph.

Portraiture served as Berenice Abbott's primary livelihood while living in Paris in the mid-1920s. It marks the formative phase of Abbott's realist photography, which she practiced throughout her career. Abbott's approach to the practice of portraiture owes much to Man Ray in terms of flattering soft-focus, artificial lighting to create a sense of mystery and depth, among other details. Yet unlike Man Ray, Abbott used the portrait as a vehicle to reveal the sitter's character, as gleaned through their communicative expression, physical presence, and intellectual depth. Abbott's approach to portraits and her desire to highlight the unique qualities of her subjects can be seen as laying the foundation for artists working today such as Gillian Wearing who uses portraits to make statements about the relationship between public and private identities.

Gelatin silver print - Collection of The New York Public Library, New York, New York

Nightview, New York (1932)
Artwork Images

Nightview, New York (1932)

Artwork description & Analysis: Abbott's photograph depicts the city of New York at night, which is identified in the title. The white of the lights in the buildings and headlights of cars on the streets below contrast starkly with the solid structures of the numerous buildings that dominate the city. Taken between 4:30 and 5:00 pm, when the office lights remained on and the city was slightly darkened, Abbott scouted the exact view from an upper floor of the Empire State building. She calculated the exposure for 15 minutes, using only the light that emanated from the city below. On December 20, 1934, Abbott captured New York at night to represent the emergence of this modern city, characterized here by its illumination, as seen from the dizzying heights of a skyscraper.

Upon returning to America from Paris in 1929, Abbott was immediately struck with New York City. She once stated, "New York is the face of the modern city, bred of industrial centralization. Our age is ruthless, hard, competitive, tense, greedy. It shows as much in the faces of buildings as in the faces of people. That character I have sought to recreate in my photographs." This image, perhaps her most well-known, remains a visually exciting example of the many hundreds of photographs Abbott produced to document New York City, which were published in her book Changing New York (1939).

Gelatin silver print - Collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

More Berenice Abbott Artwork and Analysis:

Canyon: Broadway and Exchange Place, New York City, July 16, 1936 (1936) Gunsmith and Police Department Headquarters, 6 Centre Market Place and 240 Centre Street, New York City, February 4, 1937 (1937) Multiple beams of light (1946-60) Roadsign, Route 1, Maine (1954)


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Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Berenice Abbott
Interactive chart with Berenice Abbott's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Man RayMan Ray
Eugène AtgetEugène Atget
Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-LoringhovenBaroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
Louis Lozowick

Personal Contacts

Robert C. Cooke
Julien LevyJulien Levy
Peggy GuggenheimPeggy Guggenheim
Elizabeth McCausland
Walker EvansWalker Evans

Movements

Documentary PhotographyDocumentary Photography
SurrealismSurrealism
DadaDada
Modern SculptureModern Sculpture
Modern Drawing

Influences on Artist
Berenice Abbott
Berenice Abbott
Years Worked: 1918 - 1991
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp
Douglas Levere
Man RayMan Ray
Thelma Wood

Personal Contacts

Julien LevyJulien Levy
Peggy GuggenheimPeggy Guggenheim
Elizabeth McCausland
John Storrs
Gerald Wendt

Movements

Modern PhotographyModern Photography
Science Photography
Modernism and Modern ArtModernism and Modern Art

Useful Resources on Berenice Abbott

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Berenice Abbott: A Life in Photography Recomended resource

By Julia Van Haaften

written by artist

A Portrait of Maine

By Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott: Changing New York Recomended resource

By Bonnie Yochelson; photographs by Berenice Abbott

More Interesting Books about Berenice Abbott
Berenice Abbott, 93, Dies; Her Photographs Captured New York in Transition Recomended resource

By Charles Hagen
The New York Times
December 10, 1991

Berenice Abbott: Rebels of Paris

By Prudence Peiffer
NYR Daily
March 4, 2017

Berenice Abbott: the photography trailblazer who had supersight Recomended resource

By Sean O'Hagan
The Guardian
March 10, 2015

Not a Nice Girl: On Berenice Abbott Recomended resource

Julia Van Haaften
The Paris Review
April 10, 2018

More Interesting Articles about Berenice Abbott
Art with Mati and Dada - Berenice Abbott

In this contemporary animated children's series focused on the lives of artists, a girl and her friend visit Berenice Abbott in her house in Maine where she shows them her science photographs and explains her artistic process.

Berenice Abbott: Documenting Science

In this video clip a narrator reads a selection of Berenice Abbott's statements about art while images of her science photographs are shown.

Berenice Abbott: "Photographs" (2012) Recomended resource

In this video Curator Gaëlle Morel discusses the life and art of Berenice Abbott while touring the exhibition, "Berenice Abbott (1891-1991), photographs" at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, France. The exhibition was on view from February 21 through April 29, 2012.

in pop culture

New York Changing, Photographing Time: Douglas Levere at TEDxUniversity at Buffalo Recomended resource

Photographer Douglas Levere discusses his project and related book which involves his recreating through his own photographs the images Berenice Abbott took in the 1930s for her Changing New York project. Begun in 1997, Levere's motivation was to show how the city has changed since Abbott first took the images six decades before.

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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