Thursday, July 8, 2010


Berenice Abbott (1898-1991)

Abbott belonged to what Gertrude Stein labeled "the lost generation" of Americans who came of age during World War I and rejected parental expectations to pursue a life of art. Born July 17, 1898, in Springfield, Ohio, "Bernice" spent an unhappy childhood with her divorced mother, separated from her father and five siblings. In an autobiographical sketch, she told of her "first act of rebellion":
"The day after I graduated from Lincoln High School in Cleveland, Ohio, I had the barber cut off the long, thick braid which hung down my back...and with its departure came a great sense of relief. I felt lighter and freer.... Shortly thereafter I arrived at Ohio State University in Columbus.... My bobbed hair startled the campus. A handful of students from New York at once mistook me for a "sophisticate," a worldly New Yorker. All this because of my short hair. We became friends, and a new life began for me."
Abbott left Ohio State in early 1918 to follow her new friends James Light and Susan Jenkins to New York, which Malcolm Cowley, another new friend, later called "the homeland of the uprooted."
A chance meeting with Man Ray, who had also moved to Paris in 1921, set the course of Abbott’s future. Man Ray’s portrait studio in Montparnasse was thriving, but he complained bitterly that his darkroom assistant refused to follow instructions. He was seeking a replacement "who knew nothing of photography." Abbott met that qualification, and the next morning she began the first steady job of her life, at a salary of ten francs (less than two dollars) a day. At first, her desire to succeed was based on her desperate financial need, but she quickly found that she loved the work. Her training in drawing and sculpture lent her prints sensitivity to volume. Man Ray was impressed, too, and soon raised her salary to twenty-five francs a day. Abbott stayed with him for more than two years: "I slaved for Man Ray, but I was glad to do it. I was very glad to have the experience."
Instead of increasing her salary further, Man Ray offered Abbott his studio to make her own portraits, and soon her reputation rivaled his. Their styles differed—Man Ray excelled at stylization and abstract composition, while Abbott sought naturalness and spontaneity—and many sitters who hired Man Ray wished to pose for Abbott as well. "To be ‘done’ by Man Ray or Berenice Abbott meant you rated as somebody," remarked Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the avant-garde bookstore Shakespeare & Co…..
(A Fantastic Passion for New York By Bonnie Yochelson at MUSEUM OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK)
In January 1929, after eight years in Europe, thirty-year-old Berenice Abbott returned to the United States for what was planned as a short visit. When she arrived, she was seized by a "fantastic passion" to photograph New York City, a passion she pursued against great odds for the next decade. The resulting Changing New York project, funded by the Federal Art Project and sponsored by the Museum of the City of New York, contains 305 photographs supported by historical data compiled by her staff of researchers. In April 1939, E. P. Dutton & Co. published Changing New York, a guidebook aimed at visitors to the New York World’s Fair, which included ninety-seven of Abbott’s photographs with captions written by Elizabeth McCausland, an esteemed art critic and Abbott’s companion.
(A Fantastic Passion for New York By Bonnie Yochelson at MUSEUM OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK)

Daily News Building
42nd Street between Second and Third Avenues
Nov. 21, 1935
From New York Public Library

Seventh Avenue
looking south from 35th Street
Dec. 5, 1935
From New York Public Library

Pike and Henry Street
Mar. 6, 1936
From New York Public Library

Gasoline Station
Tremont Avenue and Dock Street
July 2, 1936
From New York Public Library

Greyhound Bus Terminal
33rd and 34th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues
July 14, 1936
From New York Public Library

Park Avenue and 39th Street
Oct. 8, 1936
From New York Public Library

Fifth Avenue bus
Washington Square
Oct. 21, 1936
From New York Public Library

Avenue D and East 10th Street 1
Mar. 23, 1937
From New York Public Library

Brooklyn Bridge
Pier 21, Pennsylvania Railroad
Mar. 23, 1937
From New York Public Library

General View
Southwest to Manhattan from Manhattan Bridge
Mar. 30, 1937
From New York Public Library

Triborough Bridge
East 125th Street approach
June 29, 1937
From New York Public Library

Wall Street
East River from roof of Irving Trust Building
May 4, 1938
From New York Public Library

Financial district rooftops
Looking southwest from roof of 60 Wall Tower
June 9, 1938
From New York Public Library

Meeting Abbott's explicit aesthetic goal of creating visually compelling documents, the images of Changing New York reflect her thorough acquaintance with the visual vocabulary of European modernism and at the same time resonate with her philosophical and aesthetic sympathy for the camera's documentary realism. In 1939, Berenice Abbott wrote that Changing New York had been intended “to preserve for the future an accurate and faithful chronicle in photographs of the changing aspect of the world's greatest metropolis, ... a synthesis which shows the sky-scraper in relation to the less colossal edifices which preceded it, ... to produce an expressive result in which moving details must coincide with balance of design and significance of subject.”
(About Changing New York by Julia Van Haaften, 1996 at New York Public Library)
In February 1940, the monthly magazine Popular Photography asked Abbott to name her "favorite picture." She balked at the question but responded:
“Suppose we took a thousand negatives and made a gigantic montage; a myriad-faceted picture combining the elegances, the squalor, the curiosities, the monuments, the sad faces, the triumphant faces, the power, the irony, the strength, the decay, the past, the present, the future of a city—that would be my favorite picture.”
The New York images are the products of one artist's highly individual vision and complex motivations, Abbott's response to her own observations about the rapidly changing built environment and her concepts of an appropriate formal vocabulary for photographic documentation. In 1992-93, the National Endowment for the Arts funded a thorough inventory of the Changing New York archive held by the New York Public Library comprised of more than 2200 mostly vintage 8 x 10 contact prints from about 300 negatives. The principal results are a rationalized collection and an on-site analytical automated catalog of most of Abbott's Changing New York images.
(About Changing New York by Julia Van Haaften, 1996 at New York Public Library)
Accomplished American photographer Berenice Abbott may be best known for her photographs of New York City's changing cityscape, but she also made memorable images of lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men in Paris in the 1920s and in New York from the 1930s through 1965…..
During Abbott's Paris years, she photographed many figures from the worlds of literature and the arts, including James Joyce, Foujita, Coco Chanel, and Max Ernst. However, her most significant contribution to queer history and aesthetics are her vivid portraits of lesbians and bisexuals. Among these are the younger expatriate lesbian writers Margaret Anderson, Jane Heap, Sylvia Beach, Bryher, Janet Flanner and Flanner's lover Solita Solano, as well as the artist Gwen Le Gallienne, with whom she frequented gay bars.
(Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) by Tee A. Corinne at glbtq)

James Joyce, 1928

Sylvia Beach

Solita Solano
Silver gelatin photograph c.1920
From portfolio, Berenice Abbot (Faces of the 20s)
Parasol Press, 1981 at

Janet Flanner in Paris, 1927
From Library of Congress

Another of Abbott's most memorable images is that of a masculine-appearing Thelma Wood, made after she and Abbott were no longer lovers. Abbott also photographed Wood's new love, Djuna Barnes, whose affair with Wood was the inspiration for the novel Nightwood (1936). Unlike her image of Wood, Abbott's photograph of her lover, Tylia Perlmutter, is delicate and dreamy.
Abbott also photographed the French bookstore owner Adrienne Monnier, Sylvia Beach's lover; the wealthy Violette Murat (Princess Eugène Murat); and artist Marie Laurencin, a bisexual who may have had an affair with Murat. Abbott made images as well of such gay or bisexual men as André Gide, Robert McAlmon, and the flamboyant Jean Cocteau. Abbott's bisexual Paris clients also included painters Margaret Sargent and Betty Parsons (later of the Betty Parsons Gallery in Manhattan) and architect/designer Eileen Gray.
(Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) by Tee A. Corinne at glbtq)

Margarette Sargent (Centre)
Honor Moore (TR), and Suzannah Lessard (BL)

Returning to New York City in 1929, Abbott photographed the rapidly changing city. She also photographed U.S. Highway 1 from Maine to Florida and created images to illustrate the laws and processes of physics. But she also continued making images of lesbian and bisexual women. In particular, she photographed such subjects as poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Harlem Renaissance art patron A'Lelia Walker, and actress/director Eva Le Gallienne, Gwen's step-sister.
In New York, Abbott formed an alliance with critic Elizabeth McCausland, which lasted from the early 1930s until McCausland's death in 1965. Abbott's portraits of McCausland confirm the aptness of the nickname she gave her lover, "Butchy." McCausland wrote early essays about Abbott's work.
(Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) by Tee A. Corinne at glbtq)

Elizabeth McCausland
Journalist and Abbott’s lover
NY Public Library
From bobster855's photostream at flickr

Having almost flaunted her love of women early in her life, Abbott later obscured and even lied about her lesbianism, distancing and closeting herself as thoroughly as possible. In 1968, she moved permanently to Maine.
Had her lovers been male and her lesbian and bisexual subjects been heterosexual, Abbott's work--given its quality and the accomplishments of her subjects--would have achieved earlier and greater recognition. Still, her work brought her fame and financial security. Her images of blatantly lesbian-appearing women, such as Jane Heap, for example, have been exhibited in art galleries and museums for decades. As the story of her life and the lives of her subjects become better known, her role in creating memorable images of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people finds greater appreciation.
(Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) by Tee A. Corinne at glbtq)

32nd Street and Third Avenue
Nov. 19, 1935
From New York Public Library

Radio Row, 1936
Hudson & Manhattan building in background
Cortland Street between Washington and Greenwich Streets
Photo collection of Herbert P. Maruska
Source: New York Public Library

Travelling Tin Shop, Brooklyn
Gelatin Silver print, May 1936

Herald Square 34th and Broadway
July 16, 1936
From New York Public Library

Union Square
Gelatin silver print, July 16, 1936
Getty Museum
From gotasdagua

Tempo of the City
Fifth Avenue and 44th Street
May 13, 1938
From New York Public Library

Harlem Street, 1938
422-424 Lenox Avenue, Manhattan
NY Public Library
From bobster855's photostream at flickr

Berenice Abbott was one of America's most outstanding photographers of the 20th century. Abbott had a great influence on photography in many ways, both through her own photography and also through her introduction of another artist, Eugene Atget, and his unique photographic technique to a wider audience. She was raised in a generation of strict social rules and by becoming a working, unmarried and hugely successful woman, she became a legend and a great inspiration to the women of that time, and to photographers of every generation to come.
Berenice Abbott had four main photographic genres; portrait photography, architectual photography, scientific photography and small-town America photography.
(Inspired by Berenice Abbott, An IES project by Jessica Teicher on architectual photography)

Berenice Abbott
18 November 1979
Downtown Sound Studio in New York City
Author Hank O'Neal
From Wikimedia

Berenice Abbott

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