Berenice Abbott Witnessing An Era

Berenice Abbott Witnessing An Era  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

Much of Berenice Abbott’s photography is about capturing and interpreting the spirit of everyday life in New York City.  She was a documentarian as well as an artist with the camera.  A witness to an era. 

“To make the portrait of a city is a life work and no one portrait suffices, because the city is always changing,.  Everything in the city is properly part of its story.” 
— Berenice Abbott

She saw the metropolis as alive and rapidly changing in the 1920s.  Buildings were being torn down to make room for skyscrapers.  Her goal was to capture Manhattan’s storefronts, architecture, skyline, congested streets, bridges and people before it all changed.

Berenice was a believer in realistic photography.  New York was the perfect lead in for her.  Her 1930s photos were cool and detached in the way they pictured the size and dominance of the city.  Many of the landmarks she photographed no longer exist.  Her photographs serve as historical source material as well as art. 

“To make the portrait of a city is a life work and no one portrait suffices, because the city is always changing,” she said.  “Everything in the city is properly part of its story.” 

People resonated with her photos and she published them as early as 1930.  Her pictures were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and at the opening of the Museum of the City of New York in 1932.

Berenice began her career in France in 1925 working as a darkroom assistant in the portrait studio of artist Man Ray.  She took to photography like a seed in spring soil and mastered the technical end quickly.  She also developed the eye and judgment that would ultimately match her teacher’s work.  Her portraits included Jean Cocteau, Andrew Gide, and James Joyce.    

With funding from the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration in 1935 Berenice was able to hire a staff, buy equipment, and even a car to continue her New York portrait project.  She also began teaching at the New School for Social Research in the city. 

With her first two years of funding she focused on the city.  A book titled “Changing New York” with text written by art critic Elizabeth McCausland resulted.   The detail, quality and clarity of Berenice’s 8 x 10 negatives made her scenes so real.     

“The challenge for me has first been to see things as they are, whether a portrait, a city street, or a bouncing ball,” she said.  “In a word I have tried to be objective.”  Her goals included imposing order onto the things she photographed, adding a visual context and an intellectual framework. 

Those were the stepping stones of her art form.

In her manual “A Guide to Better Photography,” she encouraged photographers to use as large a camera as possible so the shots would be fully detailed and loaded with information.

Berenice is also credited with rescuing and promoting the previously unknown work of Paris photographer Eugene Atget.

Her legacy of a changing New York reveals the heartbeat of a bygone era.

On Dec. 9, Swann Auction Galleries, New York, featured a selection of her photos in its Important Photographs & Photobooks auction.  

Berenice Abbott

Cheese Store, 276 Bleecker Street; silver print; signed; 1937; printed 1980s; 18 ¾ inches by 15 inches;  $2,400.  

Beginnings of Broadway; silver print; signed; circa 1936; 7 ½ inches by 9 ½ inches;  $3,120.

Murray Hill Hotel, Spiral; silver print; signed; 1935; printed 1980s; 19 ¼ inches by 15 ¼ inches;   $3,840.

Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery; silver print; signed and edition notation; 1935; printed 1982; 18 ¼ inches by 23 ¼ inches;  $5,760.

New York II; Portfolio; 12 photos; silver prints; includes Pennsylvania Station, Manhattan Bridge; Marine Shop, and Brooklyn Billboards; signed and edition notation; 1930-50; printed 1979; each approximately 19 ¼ inches by 15 ½ inches;  $21,600.          

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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