Berenice Abbott


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Photographer. Besides views of New York and scientific images, she also created distinguished portraits. Born in Springfield, Ohio, Abbott grew up in nearby Columbus and in Cleveland. She enrolled for a semester at Ohio State University in Columbus but left in 1918 for New York, where she studied sculpture. In 1921 she departed for Paris to continue her training, most notably with sculptor Émile-Antoine Bourdelle. After a shorter period of additional study in Berlin, she returned to Paris, where she became an assistant to Man Ray, a friend from New York. As he taught her photographic processes, she abandoned other artistic pursuits. In 1926 Abbott opened her own portrait studio. Photographing such luminaries as Jean Cocteau, Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, and André Maurois, she assembled a visual record of the personalities who created a charged moment in Paris's literary and artistic history. Not long after they became acquainted, she acquired the prints and negatives remaining in Eugène Atget's studio at his death in 1927. After her return to New York in 1929, she and Julien Levy brought attention to these scenes of Paris and vicinity, rescuing from obscurity, perhaps oblivion, a premier photographic artist. Prompted by Atget's example, Abbott took New York as her subject in a decade-long enterprise that resulted in her most memorable work. As she had in portraits, Abbott aspired to capture not only the physical reality of her subjects but also their spirit. Departing from Atget's poetic nostalgia for his venerable city, Abbott celebrated New York's contemporaneity. Drawing on modern photographic devices, such as fragmentation, unconventional angles, and dramatic light, she produced sharply focused, energetic, often brittle images interpreting the city in terms of its uniquely twentieth-century aspects, ranging from skyscrapers to street life. After 1935 she received federal art project support, and in 1939 a selection of the photographs appeared in Changing New York, with text by friend and art writer Elizabeth McCausland (1899–1965). From 1935 until 1958 Abbott taught at the New School for Social Research (now New School), establishing one of the earliest college-level photography programs. In the 1940s and 1950s she ingeniously photographed events illustrating physical principles. The skill that expedited this work resulted also in two books on photographic technique: A Guide to Better Photography (1941) and The View Camera Made Simple (1948). In 1966 Abbott moved permanently to rural Monson, Maine, on a lake northwest of Bangor, and two years later published A Portrait of Maine. She also wrote The World of Atget (1964) and compiled books of her scientific subjects.

Subjects: Art.

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