Abbott, Berenice

American (1898-1991)

A Springfield, OH native, Berenice Abbott tried her hand in journalism at OSU, but – as it did for so many – the world of photography beckoned. In 1918, she moved to Greenwich, where she took up with many artistic luminaries, including Man Ray, who wanted to hire an assistant who knew nothing about photography and would follow his every command. Little did he knew his apprentice would eclipse him; Abbott was soon developing her own photos, exhibiting alongside him and Andre Kertesz, and becoming known throughout Europe (1921) for her portraits. One of her most famous portraits was of the photographer, Eugene Atget. When she went to deliver the shot to the ailing old man, she found that he had died; this experience led her to champion his unseen art and she was responsible for getting him shown in the US for years to come.  

Abbott returned to the US in 1929, beginning a series of projects that would occupy her until her death. From 1935-1939, the Federal Art Project underwrote “Changing New York,” a series in which Abbott chronicled architecture and urban design of NYC that has now been destroyed. She was interested in what people termed “progress,” highlighting the relationships between people, the places they lived and the activities they pursued – and then “destabilizing” the image if she disapproved of the subject she believed a blight on her city. Also in the 30s, Abbott helped establish the Photo League, a group of NYC photographers who provided the radical press and unions with shots of the working poor. The League was set to open a training center in 1951, when they were forced to close by Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare. Abbott’s later years found her traveling US1 from Florida to Maine with her lover, Elizabeth McCausland, taking photographs of antebellum architecture, and providing physical science shots for textbooks in the 1970s. She is known for her “straight photography” approach, leaving her shots un-manipulated in the darkroom, just as she took them.