Berenice Abbott: Immortalizing modernization

Berenice Abbott immortalized the passage of time as nobody had. Full of rebellion against a period that was small-fitted for her free spirit, she took photos of a past on which the world was being built

Berenice Abbott immortalized the passage of time as nobody had. Full of rebellion against a period that was small-fitted for her free spirit, she took photos of a past on which the world was being built, a present that was momentary and an inaugural, still unknown future, capturing the definition of modernization in images: the rapid changes of the epoque and its customariness.

Berenice Abbott was born on July 17, 1898 in Springfield, Ohio. She went to the Ohio State University where she began studying journalism, a career she ended up abandoning. Her destiny was in Greenwich Village, where she would be in contact with the artists and intellectuals of the time. In 1918, she moves to New York City where she explored sculpture and drawing on her own for four years. During her stay in Greenwich she had several jobs, from yarn dyer to waitress. Initially, she had no intention of being a photographer. 

Abbott by Hank O’Neal in New York City, November 18, 1979 | Image source: Wikipedia

By 1921 she grows tired of New York, after realizing that she could not make a living with sculpture. She decides to buy a ticket without return to Paris to try her luck in her sculpture career, but it didn’t flourish. Man Ray, who would mark her future, met Berenice in New York and moved to Paris a year after Abbott. There, he opens a studio to make a living. To Ray’s surprise, although Paris was the cradle of photography, there were not many working photographers.

In 1924, after a brief period in Berlin, Abbott meets Man Ray who offers her an assistant position in his studio, and that is where she learns all the rudiments of photography. Man Ray wanted someone without previous knowledge of photography, someone he could form and mold to his tastes and style, and Berenice, who needed a job, fulfilled that requirement perfectly. That marked the beginning of her career as a photographer. 

A year later, Abbot settles in her own studio where she portrays great intellectuals for magazines such as Vogue or Vu, as well as aristocrats, artists, writers and other characters of the time. Her reputation grew very rapidly, and by 1926, she had her first solo show at the Sacre du Printemps gallery in Paris. During that period, she met the French photographer Eugene Atget, who left a very strong impression on her. After the death of Atget in 1927, Berenice saves all his prints and negatives by buying them with her own money, and in the following years she promoted his work.

Despite her success, she found herself wishing to return to New York, the city that had already dazzled her and was undergoing a radical transformation. Berenice returns to New York in 1929, and is surprised to see its rapid modernization. Inspired by Atget’s documentation in Paris, she decides to photograph the city as well as making portraits. That same year, she photographed iconic buildings such as the Flatiron or the Rockefeller Center, as well as docks and bridges.

After the Wall Street Crash, she was part of the Federal Art Project made by the Works Progress Administration, which allowed her to document the brief coexistence between old buildings and new steel and glass skyscrapers. A great contrast between the “old village” and the modern. Those images were published in 1939.

When she felt that her mission of portraying the urban was over, she began to be interested in science. She convinced the people in charge of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to let her photograph and document their experiments, in addition to renewing physics books with her innovative and refreshing images of the movement of waves with lamps, water or a bouncing ball. She herself ended up building tripods, cameras and objects during her time working at MIT.

She was the first photographer to be admitted in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her free, modern and experimental glance traveled naturally from one to another of the different disciplines she portrayed with her photographs. Abbott was also a teacher in the New School for Social Research of New York, in addition to publishing books (the best-known being ‘Changing New York’). She died in 1991, after receiving important awards and recognition from all her students and colleagues.

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