Lisette Model & Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott

Fig1. Portrait of Berenice Abbott by Man Ray, 1921
Berenice Abbott was born on July 17, 1898 in Springfield, Ohio and was raised by a single mother.  She enrolled at Ohio State University in 1917 but after only a year, she moved to New York City with her friends. They lived in Greenwich Village and shared an apartment with writer Djuna Barnes, philosopher Malcolm Cowley, and literary critic Kenneth Burke while they worked at the Provincetown Playhouse.  Abbott first tried working in journalism, but became fascinated with theater and sculpture.  She was influenced by artist Eugene O’Neill and Man Ray.  Regardless of what must have been an exhilarating lifestyle, Berenice became dissatisfied with New York in 1921 and fled to France on a one-way ticket. (wikipedia)

While in Paris, Berenice studied visual arts but could not find steady work or income.  In 1923, she had an opportunity to work for Dada artist Man Ray as his photographic assistant and apprentice.  In 1924, she took her first photos while on a trip to Amsterdam.  After she returned to Paris, she devoted herself to the medium and her work started to get the attention of important people in the world of art.  Abbott was chosen as the artist to conduct a photo shoot of Pegg Guggenheim, a wealthy American art collector.  Man Ray, her mentor and icon, was overlooked for the job, ending the relationship between the two. She was later quoted as saying, “Man Ray changed my whole life; he was the only person I ever worked for [...] He was a good friend and fine photographer”  (O’Neal).

Before Abbott’s return in 1926 to New York, she showed in her first solo exhibition. Abbott photographed major artists in France. They included artists and writers Jean Cocteau, Max Ernst, Andre Gide, and James Joyce among others. She used her own views and style of portrait photography.   Abbott wanted to exaggerate, not glamorize her subjects.  She stated, “A portrait can have the most spectacular lighting effect and can be perfect technically, but it fails as a document (which every photograph should be) or as a work of art if it lacks the essential qualities of expression, gesture and attitude peculiar to the sitter [...] Personally I strive for a psychological value, a simple classicism in portraits” (O’Neal).

After her return to the United States in 1929, Abbott set out to document the transformation of New York City landmarks, which were about to disappear.  During this time Abbott met Phelps Stokes, an architect, historian, and housing reformer.  Stokes helped Abbott have several of her prints selected for the Museum of the City of New York's inaugural exhibition in January 1932. Scholle also helped Abbott get access to the Rockefeller Center construction site where she took most of her significant photographs. In 1935, Abbott applied for funding to the Federal Arts Project (FAP) and her project, entitled
Changing New York, was accepted.  Unfortunately, by August 1939, she had no staff at all. She offered to document the 1939 World's Fair but was told she could remain on the FAP payroll only as a staff photographer. Abbott quit the FAP choosing independence over employment (Yochelson).

Abbott’s approach to photography was straightforward in her methods, her subject matter, and her developing process.  She was much more vested in the process of getting the perfect shot.  In the book
Berenice Abbott American Photographer, by Hank O’Neal, the introduction explains the production process that Abbott went through to get the perfect picture as being “almost as if a trap had been set.”  She was meticulous about the science behind the camera.  She studied and planned the focus, angles, and exposure of each composition before ever snapping the shot.

Abbott’s fascination with the mechanics of the camera lead her in 1947 to start the “House Of Photography” which promoted and sold her inventions. These included a distortion easel and the telescopic lighting pole. She also was interested in scientific photography.  She produced images for high school physics textbooks, was the photo editor for
Science Illustrated, and worked for the Physical Science Study Committee of Educational Services (

Abbott believed that photography should provide the general public with realistic images of a changing world, images designed to foster the kind of historical knowledge indispensable to democratic citizenship.  Abbott’s career spanned over 50 years and, in every picture, she attempted to foster an understanding of the historical importance of the ever-changing world we live in. Through her images, she captured the realism in the modern American landscape and the quintessential aesthetic of New York City in 1930s and 1940s.

Fig.2 Park Avenue and 39th Street
fig. 3 Theoline, Pier 11, East River
fig. 4 City Arabesque
fig.5 Pennsylvania Station