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How Berenice Abbott Portrayed Modernity

  • Berenice Abbott - West Street
  • Berenice Abbott - Rockefeller Center
October 8, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

There is a good reason why the second decade of the 20th century is best known under the name The Roaring 1920s. A period of drastic social and political changes happening shortly after World War I, it brought the emancipation of women through popular culture, fashion, and art.

There were various pioneering figures in different fields, and when it comes to Modernist photography, one the leading women was Berenice Abbott. By using this medium, she was able to set herself free of the constraints of social norms and to promote modernity in every possible sense of the term. Abbott made more than a considerable effort in connecting the European avant-garde figures with the burgeoning art scene of the 1920s and 1930s in New York, and her entire oeuvre made quite a shift in the world of photography.

The current retrospective of Abbott’s work at Huis Marseille in Amsterdam is of great relevance for the remapping of art history from a much required gender-oriented perspective. This selection is primarily focused on what modernity meant for this prolific photographer in professional, personal and political sense.

Left Berenice Abbott - Self Portrait Right Berenice Abbott - Janet Flanner in Paris
Left: Berenice Abbott – Self Portrait – Distortion, ca. 1930. 16,8 × 13,7 cm, copy from 1945-1950. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott / Right: Berenice Abbott – Janet Flanner in Paris, 1927. 25,4 × 20,3 cm. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Photography Collection. The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott

The Berenice Abbott Photography

In 1918, Berenice Abbott arrived in New York to study sculpture, and soon she found herself immersed in Greenwich Village, at the time a hotspot of avant-garde artists, bohemians, queers and other misfits who didn’t belong to the mainstream. Three years later, she moved to Paris and joined the Montparnasse artistic community consisting of numerous writers and artists many of them being American migrants. The acclaimed American writer Gertrude Stein and the leading proponent of that circle used to call them “the lost generation”, due to their questioning of traditional values and appropriation of alternative lifestyles. During those years, Abbott embraced the French spelling of her name Berenice (from Bernice) after the suggestion of the renowned author Djuna Barnes, and along with her work in the visual arts, she published poetry in the experimental journal called transition.

To be precise, it was 1923 when Abbott plunged in photography after she started working as an assistant at the Parisian studio of the legendary American Dadaist and Surrealist Man Ray. There, she learned the technical, artistic and commercial aspects of portrait photography, and three years later with the financial support of American art collector, Peggy Guggenheim, Abbott opened her own Paris studio.

Left Berenice Abbott - Eugène Atget Right Berenice Abbott - George Antheil
Left: Berenice Abbott – Eugène Atget, 1927. 33 × 26 cm. International Center of Photography, Purchase, with funds provided by the Lois and Bruce Zenkel Purchase Fund, 1984 (115.1984) © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott / Right: Berenice Abbott – George Antheil, 1927. 17,3 × 12,4 cm. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Photography Collection. The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott

The Aspects Of The Grand Oeuvre

The photographer started producing portraits of her American peers, as well as the others who were more or less associated with the artistic circle. Abbott was perhaps most interested in the image of new women who, like her, opposed to the patriarchal model by embracing unconventional attitudes and modes of behavior. Portraits of the journalist Janet Flanner, the publisher Jane Heap, and the writer Sylvia Beach perfectly illustrate the new modes of (self-) representation.

Alongside these powerful portraits, the exhibition in Amsterdam features a small selection of photos by photographer Eugène Atget, celebrated for his outstanding images of Paris. Namely, Abbott met Atget via Man Ray and instantly felt inspired by his photographs. The two became friends, so after his death in 1927 she started taking care of his oeuvre and promoted it devotedly in America. The displayed Atget photographs were printed from the original negatives by Abbott in 1956.

On display are also compelling photographs of the transforming New York City with all of its contrasts made by Abbott after she returned to the States in 1929. In 1935 she received a grant from the Federal Art Project (a government initiative aimed to enable jobs after The Great Depression), so the project she called Changing New York found its way in a book form in 1939. These memorable shots of New York are just an additional element of Abbott’s devotion to modernity.

At the end of the third decade, the photographer became fascinated with science which, of course, was a part of the modernization process. She perceived photography as an intermediary, a perfect tool for promoting science and making it more visible for a wider audience. For years Abbott experimented with various techniques, and in 1957 she was hired by the Physical Science Study Committee of the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology to produce photographic illustrations for new schoolbooks.

Left Berenice Abbott - Canyon Broadway and Exchange Place Right Berenice Abbott - Aerial view of New York at Night
Left: Berenice Abbott – Canyon: Broadway and Exchange Place, 1936. 25,1 × 20,3 cm. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Photography Collection. The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Founda7ons © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott / Right: Berenice Abbott – Aerial view of New York at Night, 1936. 58,4 × 45,7 cm. International Center of Photography, Gift of Daniel, Richard, and Jonathan Logan, 1984 (786.1984) © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott at Huis Marseille

After all the described segments of her practice, the impression is that Abbott firmly believed in modernity throughout her life, so she devotedly captured the latest social tendencies to gratify the continuity of human progress. Looking from the contemporary perspective, her contribution to photography at the time was outstanding, not only in technical terms but in the terms of representation as well.

Berenice Abbott: Portraits of Modernity will be on view at Huis Marseille in Amsterdam until 1 December 2019.

The exhibition was created jointly by Fundación MAPFRE, a Spanish non-profit organization, and Huis Marseille, and was curated by Estrella de Diego, Professor of Modern Art at the Complutense University of Madrid. It could not be possible without the precious loans from the NewYork Public Library, the Museum of the City of New York, the International Center of Photography, and few other institutions, as well as a selection of Abbott’s publications, loaned from the Rijksmuseum library and other collections. Previously it was on display in Barcelona and Madrid.

Editors’ Tip: Berenice Abbott: Portraits of Modernity

This handsome publication presents legendary American photographer Berenice Abbott’s work in three categories: her portraits, photographs of the city and scientific photographs. The opening section presents Abbott’s portraits of mold-breaking individuals who changed the world from the mid-1920s onward such as Djuna Barnes, the New Yorker’s Janet Flanner, Jean Cocteau and James Joyce. The second part offers a dazzling portrait of New York which takes into account Abbott’s relations with and her fascination for the work of Eugène Atget by including an introductory group of his photographs, which she printed from his negatives. The third and final section focuses on Abbott’s scientific photographs, which she started to produce in the late 1940s.

Featured images: Berenice Abbott – West Street, 1932. 19,1 × 24,3 cm. International Center of Photography, Purchase, with funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lois and Bruce Zenkel Purchase Fund, 1983 (388.1983) © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott; Rockefeller Center, ca. 1932. 17,8 × 16,8 cm. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott. All images courtesy Huis Marseille.