Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott


Inductee Sponsor: Joesph Lust


Berenice Abbott is remembered as one of the most independent, determined and respected photographers of the twentieth century. She was born in Springfield, Ohio on July 17,1898. Abbott recounted a lonely, unhappy childhood. However, later in life, she attributed her strong characteristics of self-reliance, determination and independence to her unfortunate childhood experiences.
1991 Berenice Abbott


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Unfortunately, Abbott soon realized she did not have the money for the scope of her project. Money was hard to earn due to the onset of the Great Depression. In February of 1935, Abbott sent a proposal to the FAP, a division of the Works Progress Administration that financially assisted certain art projects. While waiting for a response, Abbott was given a special opportunity to teach a photography course at the New School for Social Research. She gladly accepted. By the summer of 1935 Abbott had not heard from the FAP, school did not start until Fall, so Abbott and her partner, art critic and historian Elizabeth McCausland, decided to take a road trip to photograph rural America. This body of Abbott’s work is not as well known. Although a series of the images were published in The New York Times Magazine shortly after her return, the negatives were lost until 1978.

Finally in September she received funding for her Changing New York project. She was approved $145 per month, total artistic freedom and was given a 1930 Ford Roadster. Almost ten years of documenting New York, the images were eventually published in a book Changing New York. When the FAP funding was depleted, Abbott decided to conclude this aspect of her photographic career.

Abbott’s next photographic endeavor involved publishing a book, which is now considered a classic, A Guide to Better Photography. This publication was revolutionary. Released in 1941, it was not merely a guide to better photography, it provided great insight to one of the century’s most respected photographers. Abbott provided technical expertise, but also ideologies in essays entitled Straight Photography and Documentary Photography. The book was extremely successful and was reprinted until the mid-1950s.

Several major photographic projects consumed the latter part of Abbott’s life. She worked on a specially designed lighting process, which she called Projection Photography. Abbott also invented and patented other photographic related equipment and gadgets. We live in a world made by science. But we—the millions of laymen—do not understand or appreciate the knowledge, which controls daily life. To obtain wide popular support for science to the end that we may explore this vast subject even further and bring as yet unexplored areas under control there needs to be a friendly interpreter between science and the layman. In 1944, Science Illustrated hired Abbott as the photography editor. This assignment was short-lived, and in 1948 she was able to furnish scientific images for the textbook American High School Biology. Later the Physical Science Study Committee of Educational Services published a new physics book with all of the images almost exclusively by Abbott. It set a new standard that continues today. Abbott was also one of the founding members of House of Photography. With Hudson Walker, a gallery owner, Abbott raised enough money to open this business, which was incorporated on January 29, 1947. The company did not have a physical structure, but it did have a board of directors, a paper worth of $20,000 and 200 shares of stock. What the company basically provided, mainly by Abbott, were photography-related equipment ideas, gadgets and equipment. It existed on paper for over 15 years.

In the late 1950s Abbott bought a house in Maine, where she eventually settled. In 1966, Abbott produced a series of images on Maine, which resulted in a book, A Portrait of Maine. Abbott never married but she lived with her  partner Elizabeth McCausland for 30 years, until McCausland’s death in 1965. She was ahead of her time as a proto-feminist and publicly identified as lesbian throughout much of her life. Abbott’s accomplishments are wider ranging than anyone else’s in the history of American photography. Berenice Abbott was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 2000.

Mountains 1998, Jane Doe