From an early age, Ohio native Berenice Abbott felt restricted by the societal expectations placed on girls and women during her time. She resisted the traditional and pursued independence and personal satisfaction over social acceptance. A rebellious and unconventional woman, Berenice Abbott changed her name to signify her break with cultural norms, adding an “e” to the common spelling of her name, “Bernice.”
Abbott left Ohio as a young woman, moving to New York where she intended to study journalism. She soon tired of that work and took up drawing and sculpture. After a few years in New York, Abbott headed to Paris, seeking additional training in the arts. It was in Paris that Abbott was first introduced to photography, when she became an assistant to the influential photographer and surrealist painter, Man Ray. She gave up sculpture completely to pursue photography. Abbott worked under Ray for three years, developing her skills as a photographer; she then opened her own portrait studio in Paris. Her studio was immediately successful and Abbott became well known among Paris’s artistic and expatriate communities.
Like Van Vechten, Abbott is well known for her portraits of famous, fashionable people. Her style, however, differs significantly from his; “Abbott’s cool and restrained portraits, made in her Paris studio in the late 1920s, stress silhouette and neutral, uncluttered backgrounds.”1 Abbott’s famous subjects for this period include James Joyce, Janet Flanner, Djuna Barnes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Jean Cocteau, and André Gide. Portraits she made during these early years remain among her most famous images; her portraits of Joyce, for example, are among the most widely reproduced photographs of the novelist.
In Paris, Abbott became interested in the work of an unknown photographer, Eugene Atget. She promoted his work, and when he died in 1927 she purchased his prints, negatives, and slides. Throughout her life, Abbott arranged exhibitions and publication of Atget’s photographs. Because of her commitment to his art, Atget’s photographs of Paris are well known today and he is considered an important French photographer.
Atget’s photographs of Paris had a profound influence on Abbott. When she returned to New York, she undertook a major photographic project documenting New York City and its changing landscape. She worked for years, as old buildings were torn down and replaced by skyscrapers. Abbott “looked upon the urban scene as a challenge to the camera artist who must extract an aesthetically compelling statement from a chaotic field and still capture the city’s distinctive character.”2 Changing New York, a book of photographs from the project, was published in 1939.
In contrast to Changing New York, in her next project Abbott attempted to photograph scientific processes and to illustrate basic principles of physics and chemistry. That some of this work was intended for textbooks did not undermine Abbott’s aesthetics, and some believe the work from this period is her most accomplished. Abbott’s scientific photography was made difficult by a general mistrust among scientists that photography could be used as a scientific tool. Furthermore, the near total lack of women in science and a common feeling that women could not participate meaningfully in such fields presented many roadblocks to Abbott’s ambitious projects.
Throughout her career, Abbott committed time and energy to promoting the still-new art of photography. A proponent of documentary photography, Abbott “argued that photography was uniquely a descriptive medium, and should not be used to simulate effects that could be better achieved by other arts.” She also helped to develop the photography program at the New School for Social Research. Abbott did not shy away from discussing the political implications of her work, especially with regard to the ways her photographs documented the changing social and economical conditions in 1930s New York.