Berenice Abbott is a seminal figure of 20th century photography that is renowned not only for her images of 1930s New York City, but also for her diverse oeuvre shooting disparate genres. Having a remarkable clarity of vision, Abbott’s consistently strong work is objective and realist. Her early contributions to the medium of photography and ideas regarding its role in the fine arts can be summed up in her words, “Photography can never grow up if it imitates some other medium. It has to walk alone; it has to be itself.”
Abbott had set her earlier sights on a photojournalistic career until she decided to leave her native Ohio and visit New York City. It was there that she was exposed to the Bohemian lifestyle and decided to become an artist. Abbott worked in sculpture for a short time, and spent time in Paris and Berlin trying to pursue her artistic career. But in 1925, she was hired by Man Ray to work in his photography studio and he tutored her in his style. Though she knew nothing of the technique of photography, she quickly developed a natural aptitude. In 1928 she exhibited her work in the Independent Salon of Photographers, alongside Andre Kertesz and Man Ray. Her early photographs were straightforward. In the 1930s, influenced by Eugene Atget’s documentary, “The Lost Paris of the 19th Century,” Abbott continued this straightforward style in her documentary, large format photographs of the evolving metropolis of New York with a series entitled “Changing Times – New York,” all the while running her own portrait studio.
One of Abbott’s greatest accomplishments was her committed and persistent will to preserve the oeuvre of photographer Eugene Atget. Abbott had been deeply inspired by Atget’s work and befriended him towards the end of his life. When Abbott returned to New York City in the 1930’s it was a time of great change in America. The “old New York” was being cleared away to make room for a city of skyscrapers. The identity of neighborhoods and small businesses were changing and the city was quickly being redefined. Just as Atget was in love with the late 19th century Paris – and his mission was to document those parts of the city that were being cleared away for early 20th century modernization; Abbott’s mission was to preserve what was being ‘lost‘ in New York City. The “Changing Times – New York” project was extraordinarily hard to realize because she was trying to procure funds to make the work during the great depression. After exhausting her own funds, and being turned down all the wealthy patrons that she solicited, it was only through the assistance of governmental agencies that she was able to complete this wonderful project. Abbott leaves behind a great legacy. Her pictures of New York in the 1930s are considered the most important photographic documentation of any American city.