Berenice Abbott


American Photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) was best known for her preservation of modern art and her documentation of New York’s ever-changing landscape. After studying at Ohio State University for one year, Abbott moved to New York City in 1918 and began to focus on various forms of art, which included sculpture and drawing. Abbott’s interests took her to Paris, where she was a dark room assistant for the famous American Dada and surrealist artist Man Ray beginning in 1922.

During her time in Paris, Abbott was highly influenced by the French photographer Eugene Atget who was documenting changes in Paris at the time. This later inspired her to open her own photography studio in 1925. In 1927, after the death of Atget, Abbott purchased his work–in fact, saving them from destruction–and took on a new role of promoting his work. These efforts made by Abbott eventually led to the Museum of Modern Art obtaining Atget’s artwork in 1968.

In 1929, Abbott returned to New York and was struck by the drastic change in architecture and the rapid modernization. She became a member of the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration (1935) and the Photo League (1936-1952), which encouraged her documentation of progressive urban life. During this time, Abbott produced her most well-known work, Changing New York (reissued as New York in the Thirties in 1973).

In the fall of 1934, Berenice Abbott began teaching at the New School for Social Research at the request of the artist Camilo Egas who oversaw the arts curriculum. Photography was still considered a new genre of expression and these classes were probably the first attempt to teach the art form to a general public. The courses resulted in the book A Guide to Better Photography, first published in 1941.

While at the New School, Abbott became interested in the integrating science and photography and showcased work in an exhibition in 1945 at the school that focused on magnetism and motion titled the “The Instant in Photography." Also during her time as an educator, she credited New School students’ interest in caricature as inspiration for a darkroom distortion she called the "Abbott Distorter,” which utilized a flexible printing easel to bend the negatives.  

Many of Abbott’s former students became successful assistants and art dealers; the photographers Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus also took courses from her at the New School. In fact, she such a beloved faculty member at the New School during her over two-decade career that she was awarded the Lisette Model honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts at the New School in the early 1980s.

Van Haaften, Julia. Berenice Abbott: A Life in Photography (Norton 2018) The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Berenice Abbott. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. (Dec. 5 2018)

Berenice Abbott, Self-portrait. Source: George Bush Library. Web. Oct. 7 2014.