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Abbott, Berenice

A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art

Ian Chilvers,

John Glaves-Smith

Abbott, Berenice (1898–1991) 

American photographer, born in Springfield, Ohio. In about 1920 she went to New York, where she met Dadaists including Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. In 1921, she moved to Paris, where, knowing nothing of photography, she became assistant in Man Ray's studio. She eventually set up a successful portrait practice of her own and photographed many of the leading figures in intellectual life, including James Joyce. She also met Eugène Atget and was fascinated by his evocative street scenes. It was Abbott who was responsible for ensuring that his work was preserved after his death. In 1929 she returned to New York, inspired by the fascination of the Parisian avant-garde with the city of skyscrapers, and set about recording the rapid transformations of the city. From 1935 onwards her work was funded by the Works Progress Administration (see Federal Art Project). The results were published in 1939 as Changing New York. Introducing the book, the critic Audrey McMahon wrote that Berenice Abbott hates ‘everything that is sentimental, devious or tricky’ and described the work as ‘straight photography’. Examination of the photographs today hardly bears out the image of simple neutral craft at work. Abbott's camera produces dramatic perspectives of the skyscrapers from above and below; the old and the new are put in pointed contrast to each other. Susan Platt (Art Journal, vol. 58, no. 2, 1999) has argued that political comment was intended. She notes that the left-wing American Artists' Congress displayed an Abbott photograph, Gunsmith and Police Headquarters, framed and angled so that the gun pointed directly at the Police Station.