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

In 1917, Abbott quickly left home and enrolled at Ohio State University to study journalism. Within a two-week period Abbott befriended Sue Jenkins and became disgusted with the university system. Jenkins soon left the university to move to New York where she was engaged to Jimmy Light, a young director of the Famous Provincetown Playhouse. Jenkins encouraged Abbott to come and loaned her the $20 train fare. In 1918 Abbott arrived in the midst of one of New York’s blizzards. Abbott worked several jobs such as a waitress and a yarn dyer. During her time off she volunteered at the playhouse and even played several minor roles. At some time during her life in Greenwich Village, Abbott became interested in sculpture.


Initially, Abbott had no interest in photography and had no intention of becoming anything but a good darkroom assistant.

By 1921 Abbott realized that she would not be able to sustain a living with sculpture. Growing tired of New York, she decided to purchase a one-way ticket to Paris with hopes that her sculpture career would flourish. It did not. Man Ray moved to Paris a year after Abbott. The two met previously in New York. He opened a portrait studio to make a living. Although France was the birthplace of photography, surprisingly there were few working photographers. One afternoon Man Ray was expressing difficulties with finding a good darkroom assistant. How about me? asked Abbott. Man Ray wanted someone without knowledge of photography, one he could shape and mold and Abbott needed a job. He agreed. And so began Abbott’s photography career.


Initially, Abbott had no interest in photography and had no intention of becoming anything but a good darkroom assistant.

She was efficient and diligent, and soon found herself immensely enjoying the process. On her own, she began to work long hours to perfect her techniques. Man Ray did not teach me photographic techniques. One day he did, however, suggest that I ought to take some myself; he showed me how the camera worked and I soon began taking some on my lunch break. I would ask friends to come by and I’d take pictures of them. The first I took came out well, which surprised me. I had no idea of becoming a photographer, but the pictures kept coming out and most of them were good. Some were very good and I decided perhaps I could charge something for my work.


Her artistic instinct with photographic imaging was natural. Abbott’s clientele grew quickly. She began to pay Man Ray for the supplies she used, and soon paid him more than she was making! This began to cause problems between the two friends. Eventually, Abbott resigned. He changed my whole life; he was the only person I ever worked for and I was extremely grateful to have a job, to have the opportunity to learn. Within the next year she opened her own portrait studio, which was also her home at 44 rue de Bac.


Her reputation grew quickly. Clients became friends and Abbott soon had just as much or more business than Man Ray. On June 8, 1926, Abbott had her first solo exhibition at the Jan Slivinsky Gallery entitled, Portraits Photographiques. The show received rave reviews. Abbott remained in Paris for almost ten years and during this period she was introduced to Eugene Atget’s photography.


Abbott was consumed by Atget’s work, which she had first seen in Man Ray’s studio. I wanted to see more, and lost no time in seeking him out. After Abbott became a recognized portrait photographer, she wanted to take Atget’s portrait. After developing the images, Abbott returned to Atget’s apartment only to learn he had just recently died.


A devastating blow, but Atget would never leave Abbott’s heart or mind. A long time friend of Atget’s, Andre Calmettes, had acquired his photographic collection, some 1500 glass plate negatives and 8000 original prints. Abbott feverishly fought to acquire the collection from Calmettes. It took over a year of correspondence, and eventually Abbott convinced Calmettes that she should be the one to care and archive Atget’s images and negatives. She not only cared for the collection, but throughout her life, she attempted to gain recognition for his work. Atget is now recognized as one of the great photographers of all time. However, this period of Abbott’s life would soon come to an end.


After reading Andre Siegfried’s America Comes of Age, Abbott decided to return to America. Abbott arrived New York in February 1929. The city had grown tremendously. Undoubtedly influenced by Atget who had photographed old Paris, Abbott’s first thought was “old New York” must be photographed from every aspect. Abbott opened a portrait studio in the Hotel des Artistes. Soon some of her portraits and images of the city were being published in magazines such as Vanity Fair, The Saturday Review of Literature, the Saturday Evening Post, Theater Guild Magazine and Fortune.

Mountains 1998, Jane Doe

Initially, Abbott had no interest in photography and had no intention of becoming anything but a good darkroom assistant.


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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 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. She never married and left no immediate family upon her death. 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