A Career In Three Acts: Berenice Abbott
“I took to photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else. Excitement about the subject is the voltage which pushes me over the mountain of drudgery necessary to produce the final photograph.”
Berenice Abbott seemed to be born for photography and she knew it. From the moment she stepped into the darkroom as Man Ray’s assistant, she felt like she belonged, like she had found home. She would spend the next four decades exploring and perfecting her craft, creating images that would not only influence and inspire other photographers, but would document and preserve forever a way of life that was quickly disappearing. Her portraits are soulful and emotive, her architectural photographs are filled with the narrative of a changing world, and her scientific images brought never-before-seen motion to the still frame.
Abbott did not have a happy childhood. Growing up with a divorced mother and separated from her siblings as a toddler, she felt alone most of the time. This loneliness, however, rather than breaking her, made her independent, determined, and extremely self-reliant. She was not what we would think of as a typical woman from the early years of the 20th century. Rather than finding a husband and becoming a mother, she left home as soon as she could to go to university, and later, on to New York when college studies began to bore her, she quickly learned to make her own way. She got involved in theater and in sculpting. By 1921, however, she knew sculpting would not be able to support her, so, she took a chance, and bought a one-way ticket to Paris, hoping things would change. They did, but not in the way she expected.
After a couple of years working as a model and doing other odd jobs, she found out Man Ray was looking for a darkroom assistant. He specifically wanted one with no photographic experience whatsoever, someone he could shape and mold and would do what he said. Abbott got the job. She would spend the next three years soaking it all in. Ray allowed her to use his darkroom and studio to work on her own photographs, which at this time was mostly portraiture. Because this was 1920’s Paris and because of the circles she was a part of, she was able to take portraits of people like James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Cocteau, and Sylvia Beach. Her work was honest and beautiful. The faces she photographed were real. She didn’t try to glamorize them, but was able to see the real person inside. It’s almost like her subjects weren’t really posing, she just caught them in an off-guard moment and snapped. People loved her portraits. In a short three years, her career had taken off. By 1926, she had her first solo exhibition and was able to open her own studio.
It was during this time that she would meet the man who would profoundly affect the trajectory of her photographic career, Eugene Atget. Atget was a French photographer known for documenting the street scenes and architecture of Paris at the turn of the century. Abbott quickly became consumed with Atget’s work. So much so, that after his death she bought as many of his negatives as she could in order to promote his work. She continued this passion until her death and it has resulted in Atget being recognized as one of the great photographers of all time. It was in 1929 that Abbott returned to New York for what was supposed to be a short visit. She took one look at the city, however, and knew she had to photograph it the way Atget photographed Paris, saying, “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.” This began the second chapter of Abbott’s career.
Financing this New York project herself for several years, she started shooting with a small, hand-held camera, but, by 1932 she moved on to an 8×10 large format camera in order to record the great detail she wanted. She was a great believer in capturing “straight” photography, holding to the philosophy of photographic realism. In 1935 she was able to get government funding for her project from the WPA’s Federal Art Project, a program that was put together to provide unemployed artists of all types with work. This is the same program which hired Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. She was not only able to continue shooting, but she now had assistants to help her. She stressed the importance of the subject matter being completely unmanipulated, both before and after the shot was taken. Her goal was to capture the reality of New York, not to emphasize the beautiful or the ugly, but to document every detail. She realized she was capturing the end of an era and wanted to document it with scientific clarity. These images became some of Abbott’s best work. She mastered the art of architectural photography. Her background in sculpting shines through in these images. She had great sense of perspective and was able to create dramatic scenes using sharp angles, shadows, and harsh sunlight. The buildings can sometimes look like giant monsters overtaking the population below. The people in her images are usually small and insignificant, ready to be swallowed up whole by the life we are choosing to build around us.
By the end of her job with the FAP, she had produced 305 photographs, which are used to today as a detailed photographic record of the history of New York. Feeling like she had finished what she started to do (although she would continue to photograph the city for twenty more years) she moved on to science, of all things. Being a very technical person, science had always held a fascination for Abbott. She viewed scientists as fellow creators and wanted to use her own imagination to inspire them and document the principles of physical science – mechanics, electromagnetism, and waves. She felt the medium of photography was uniquely qualified to unite art with science. Working on her own for 20 years, it wasn’t until 1958 when a group of scientists from MIT hired her. Working with them she not only produced thousands of photographs, but also invented her own techniques to capture some of these scientific concepts, one of which was for a very detailed, close-up type of photography she called Super Sight, which projected small objects directly onto 16×20 film. She was able to uniquely use photography to show these scientific concepts in a beautiful way. They are almost fantasy-like and yet, they don’t divert from her photographic realism. Through her lens, these abstract concepts became elegant and science principles became visible in the images. The behavior of waves, how beams of light react going through a prism, or even how magnetism works came to life through her imagination. Even though her images would be used in high school textbooks all over the country to illustrate these principles for students, they are still seen as works of art today. Her creativity and imagination seemed to be well-ahead of her time.
Berenice Abbott died in 1991 at the age of 93. Her story is one of determination and passion. She never let her circumstances dictate what she would or would not shoot. If life got in the way, she would change direction. She continuously challenged herself, always taking the next step to get better and to grow. She left behind not just one body of work, but three; each one able to stand on its own, as well as together as a whole. Her photographs were her way of documenting life, whether that life took form in individuals, cityscapes, or sound waves. They all became a record of the beauty she saw in everything she looked at. “Some people are still unaware that reality contains unparalleled beauties,” Abbott said. “The fantastic and unexpected, the ever-changing and renewing is nowhere so exemplified as in real life itself.”