July 17, 1898– Berenice Abbott:
“Photography can only represent the present. Once photographed, the subject becomes part of the past.”
I have a passion for Photography, whether it is formal portraiture, commercial work, art photography, or just found snapshots. I have a sizable and thought provoking collection of vintage photographs of men being affectionate together which I like to share with readers.
My passion for photography along with my keen interest in architecture brings me to today’s #BornThisDay honoree, Berenice Abbott. She is a celebrated photographer of NYC architecture. She shot using a Century Universal Camera which produced 8 x 10 inch negatives. This large scale formatted camera was the instrument that allowed Abbott to photograph NYC with diligence and an attention to detail. Her work has provided an historical chronicle of many of the now destroyed buildings, entire blocks and neighborhoods of Manhattan.
During the Great Depression, Abbott was hired by the Federal Arts Project (FAP) as a project supervisor for the Changing New York project. She took photographs all around the city, but she had assistants to help her both in the field and in the office. This arrangement allowed Abbott to devote all of her time to producing, printing, and exhibiting the photographs. By the time she resigned from FAP in 1939, she had produced 305 photographs that were added to the permanent collection at the Museum Of The City Of New York.
When she first arrived in NYC, Abbott shared a Greenwich Village apartment with lesbian writer Djuna Barnes, philosopher Kenneth Burke and literary critic Malcolm Cowley. Abbott introduced Barnes to sculptor Thelma Wood, who became Barnes’ lover. Later Barnes wrote:
“I gave Berenice the extra ‘e’ in her name and she gave me Thelma. I don’t know who made out better.”
She tried for a career in journalism, but soon became more interested in Theater and Art, inspired by her pals playwright Eugene O’Neill and artist Man Ray. Abbott first became interested in photography in 1923, when Man Ray, looking for somebody who had no interesting ideas about photography and would do just as he instructed, hired her as his darkroom assistant at his portrait studio in the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris. She hung out with Sylvia Beach, the lesbian owner of the Shakespeare And Company bookstore. She partied with writer James Joyce and artist/filmmaker Jean Cocteau. She frequented the gay bars of Paris with a circle of younger expatriate lesbian writers: Margaret Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and Janet Flanner. Abbott was absolutely fascinated by the Parisian gay world. She fell in love with the model Tylia Perlmutter and within months she became a chronicler of an unforgettable era of the cultural history of the city.
Man Ray was impressed by how fast Abbott learned her way around the darkroom and photographic techniques. He allowed her to use his studio when he wasn’t there to work on her own photographs.
“I took to photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else.”
She produced straightforward, detailed, powerful images of such 20th century celebrities as James Joyce, André Gide, and Peggy Guggenheim, and the photographs made her famous.
In Paris, she discovered the man now regarded as probably the finest photographer of all time: Eugène Atget. Abbott rescued him from obscurity, helped popularize his work, and preserved his negatives and prints after he died in 1927.
In 1935, Abbott fell in love with the art critic Elizabeth McCausland. She moved into McCausland’s Greenwich Village flat. They remained a couple for 30+ years, until McCausland’s passing in 1965.
In the early 1960s, the two women traveled US Highway 1 from Florida to Maine. Abbott shot pictures of small town and automobile related architecture. This project resulted in more than 2,500 photographs. The project brought an important record of a way of life now mostly erased. McCausland contributed the captions for the books: Changing New York (1939) and Greenwich Village Today And Yesterday (1949).
Not only was Abbott a world-class, distinctive photographer, but was also an inventor and innovator. She developed the “distortion easel”, which created unusual effects on images developed in a darkroom, and she came up with the telescopic lighting pole, known by photographers as an “autopole” to which lights can be attached at any level. Both devices are still widely used today.
Shortly after McCausland left this world, Abbott underwent lung surgery. She was told by her doctors that she had to leave NYC because of the air pollution. She purchased a rundown house in rural Maine and she lived there until she made her exit from this incarnation in 1991.
Abbott had continued to produce photographs after the move to Maine. Her last book, A Portrait Of Maine, published in 1968, was a bestseller. All of her books are still in print.
Abbott’s photography was straight, even if she wasn’t. I admire her unadorned, unmanipulated style. Always with a camera, she always put her art before her personal life. She never acknowledged her relationship with McCausland in interviews or in her own writing. She left an important history of a fascinating era, done in her a distinctive American style. Abbott seems to me to have been a real feminist hero also, stating:
“The world doesn’t like independent women, why, I don’t know, but I don’t care.”
Abbott had a long life filled with creative endeavors of the highest achievements, making a living from her work. She remained true to her art. Her philosophy was simple, like her pictures:
“Photography can never grow up if it imitates some other medium. It has to walk alone; it has to be itself.”
Photographs from The Berenice Abbott Archives, Ryerson University