July 17, 1898– Berenice Abbott. I have a passion for Photography, whether it is formal portraiture, commercial work, art photography, or just found snapshots. I have a sizable & 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 #recipient, Berenice Abbott, a celebrated photographer of NYC architecture. She shot using a Century Universal Camera which produced 8 x 10 inch negatives. This large scale formated camera was the instrument that allowed Abbott to photograph NYC with diligence & attention to detail. Her work has provided an historical chronicle of many now destroyed buildings, entire blocks & neighborhoods of Manhattan.
During the Great Depression, Abbott was hired by the Federal Art Project (FAP) as a project supervisor for the Changing New York project. She would take the photographs around the city, but she had assistants to help her both in the field & in the office. This arrangement allowed Abbott to devote all of her time to producing, printing, & exhibiting the photographs. By the time she resigned from the FAP in 1939, she had produced 305 photographs that were added to the collection at the Museum Of The City Of New York.
When she first arrived in NYC, Abbott shared an apartment in Greenwich Village with writer Djuna Barnes, philosopher Kenneth Burke, & literary critic Malcolm Cowley. She sought a career in journalism, but soon became interested in theater & art, inspired by her pals playwright Eugene O’Neill & artist Man Ray. Abbott first became interested in photography in 1923, when Man Ray, looking for somebody who had no ideas about photography & 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, owner of Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore, author James Joyce & artist/filmmaker Jean Cocteau. She frequented the gay bars of Paris with a circle of younger expatriate lesbian writers: Margaret Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, & Janet Flanner.
“I took to photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else.”
Ray was impressed by how fast Abbott learner the darkroom techniques & allowed her to use his studio when he wasn’t there to work on her own photographs.
In 1935, Abbott fell in love with the art critic Elizabeth McCausland. She moved in to her Greenwich Village flat. They were a couple for 30+ years, until McCausland’s death in 1965.
In the early 1960s the 2 women traveled US Highway 1 from Florida to Maine, with Abbott shooting small town & automobile related architecture. The 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 of Changing New York (1939) & Greenwich Village Today & Yesterday (1949).
Not only was Abbott a world-class & distinctive photographer, but also was an inventor & innovator. She developed the distortion easel, which created unusual effects on images developed in a darkroom, & she came up with the telescopic lighting pole, known today by photographers as an “autopole,” to which lights can be attached at any level.
Shortly after McCausland’s passing, 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 & lived there until she left this world in 1991. Abbott continued to produce photographs after her move to Maine. Her last book, A Portrait Of Maine, published in 1968, was a bestseller. Her books continue to be published.
Abbott’s photography was straight, even if she wasn’t. I admire her unadorned, unmanipulated style. Always with a camera, she put her work before her personal life. She never acknowledged her relationship with McCausland in interviews or her own writing. She left an important history of a fascinating era with a distinctive American style. Abbott seems to me to have been a real feminist also, stating:
“The world doesn’t like independent women, why, I don’t know, but I don’t care.”