The Photography Legends come back on the blog with Berenice Abbott, a legend who understood that to find a place in history, you have to write your own.
Abbott was known to always enjoy the opportunity to experiment with the technical aspects of photography, and we have the chance to rediscover her photographs powered by Prodibi!
About the Artist
Born in Springfield, Ohio in 1898, Abbott grew up modestly, raised by her single mother. She wanted to become a sculptor, and like many of her generation with similar aspirations, crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search of a more vibrant art scene. She landed in Berlin before meeting Man Ray, who hired her as an assistant in Paris. He taught her the trade and allowed her to use the space to develop her own portrait practice.
She spent two years studying sculpture at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris and the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. During this time, she adopted the French spelling of her first name, "Berenice," at the suggestion of Djuna Barnes. In addition to her work in the visual arts, Abbott published poetry in the experimental literary journal transition.
Later, she wrote: "I took to photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else." Man Ray was impressed by her darkroom work and allowed her to use his studio to take her own photographs. In 1921 her first major works was in an exhibition in the Parisian gallery Le Sacre du Printemps. After a short time studying photography in Berlin, she returned to Paris in 1927 and started a second studio, on the rue Servandoni.
Writers like James Joyce and André Gide came to have head shots taken; enterprising socialites like Peggy Guggenheim and Sylvia Beach sat for her. Within five years, Abbott opened her own studio, was regularly published in Vogue and Vu and had her first exhibition at the influential gallery Au Sacre du Printemps. Many were seduced by her minimalist aesthetic, which led the eye straight to the subject’s body language and facial expression.
In early 1929, and after a visit in New York City, Abbott went back to Paris, closed up her studio, and returned to live in the city. Abbott worked on her New York project independently for six years, unable to get financial support from organizations, foundations, or individuals. She supported herself with commercial work and teaching at the New School of Social Research beginning in 1933. Her work, in which she focused more on the physical part of the transformation of the city rather than the mental part of it, appeared in an exhibition "Changing New York" at the Museum Of City in 1937.
Abbott was part of the straight photography movement, which stressed the importance of photographs being unmanipulated in both subject matter and developing processes. She also disliked the work of pictorialists who had gained much popularity during a substantial span of her own career and, therefore, left her work without support from this particular school of photographers. Most of Abbott's work was influenced by her unhappy and lonely childhood. This gave her the strength and determination to follow her dreams.
Throughout her career, Abbott's photography was very much a display of the rise in development of technology and society. Her works documented and praised the New York landscape. This was all guided by her belief that a modern-day invention such as the camera deserved to document the 20th century.
The 351 glass prints — and nearly as many corresponding contact prints — preserved in her archive reveal her unexpected methods. Rather than frame the sitter exactly as he would appear in the print, Abbott gave him room to breathe — so much so that odd objects can be seen, blurred, in the foreground and corners. She also didn’t shy away from resorting to dramatic lighting, creating sinister-looking shadows behind her muses.
Once in the darkroom, she often cropped drastically, removing unwanted elements. She was not attempting to correct mistakes, but was acting deliberately. Using a long focal length eliminated distortions, and lighting always served a calculated purpose. For instance, the stark contrast that defines the portraits of Coco Chanel or the writer Janet Flanner stressed the strong features of these convention-defying women.
One of Abbott's later final projects was an illustration of scientific phenomenon, produced in the 1950s in collaboration with the Physical Sciences Study Committee based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although not as well known as her New York work, these pictures are exquisite examples of her acumen for technical experimentation and her natural instinct for combining factual photographic detail with stunning artistic accomplishment. With their clear visual demonstration of abstract scientific principles, the photographs were chosen to illustrate physics textbooks of the 1950s and 1960s.
To see more of Berenice's work:
All photographs ©️️Berenice Abbott
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