Biography, Changing New York
Article added on October 20, 2002, based
on Yochelson: Berenice Abbott: Changing New York.
Berenice Abbott was born in
Springfield, Ohio, on July 17, 1898 as Bernice. It was only in Paris in the
early 1920s that she adopted the French spelling Berenice. In an
autobiographical sketch Abbott writes about an unhappy childhood spent with
her divorced mother, separated from her father and five siblings.
In early 1918 she left Ohio State following her friends James Light and Susan
Jenkins to New York City where she shared a room with them and became part of
the Greenwich Village bohemia. She played parts in Eugene O'Neill's plays and,
according to Bonnie Yochelson, was adopted as "the daugher" of
Hippolyte Havel, a legendary anarchist.
In the winter of 1919, she almost died of the influenza that took the lives of
some twelve thousand New Yorkers. Upon her recovery, she moved out of the
common apartment. Abbott's first intention was to study journalism at Columbia
University. Disappointed by the classes she had attended she abandoned her
plan to become a writer and changed to sculpture. She supported herself with
"odd jobs" (Yochelson).
"By 1920 she had befriended Dadaists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, whom she
boasted having taught to dance". It was the time of prohibition, illegal
speakeasies and real estate speculation. Abbott like other aspiring artists
who had come to Greenwich Village to escape America's increasing commercialism
felt alienated. Many left for Paris. Berenice Abbott joined the exodus in the
spring of 1921.
When Berenice Abbott met her fellow American Man Ray in Paris, who had also
moved there in 1921, he was looking for a new darkroom assistant. Someone who
would follow his orders and advice. That is how Abbott became a photographer.
At Man Ray's thriving studio in Montparnasse she quickly learned from the
master of stylization and abstract composition.
Instead of a pay rise Man Ray offered her his studio to make her own
portraits. Quickly, her reputation rivaled his. Their styles however differed
since Abbott favored naturalness and spontaneity.
In the dispute between pictorialists and modernists, with her taste for
photographic realism, she stood clearly on the side of the modernists who
thought that soft-focus compromised the inherent clarity of the photographic
image and that pictorial subject matter was a form of escapism and denial of
modern urban life.
After her first and well-received one-woman exhibition at a small Parisian art
gallery in 1926, Berenice Abbott opened her own studio. Already while working
with Man Ray, she had managed to establish herself as one of the leading
portraitists of intellectuals and artists. She portrayed Eugène Atget, Jean
Cocteau, Janet Flanner, André Gide, Peggy Guggenheim and James Joyce, just to
name a few. She also
worked for French Vogue and avant-garde magazines.
When Berenice Abbott wanted to show Eugène Atget the portraits she had made
of him in August 1927, she discovered that he, who had documented Paris from
the 1880s until 1927, had died. With the help of friends, she purchased his
1,400 glass plate negatives and 7,800 prints. She was the driving force behind
exhibitions and the publications of his photographs. Until 1968, when she sold
the Atget Collection to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, she had been the
best ambassador of the memory of his work.
During the eight years of Abbott's absence from New York, the city had
experienced its second skyscraper building boom which had dramatically
transformed the Big Apple's skyline. At her return to the US in January 1929
where she looked for a publisher for her first Atget book (published in 1930),
she was intrigued by the contrasts between old and new. She had only planned a
short visit to NYC, instead, she spent the 1930s to document the Big Apple's
She only returned to Paris to sell her furniture and pack up the Atget
Many friends thought she was crazy to give up her successful portraiture
business and reputation. Shortly after her return to NYC, the stock market
crashed. Americans were reluctant to pay $50 for a portrait photograph. Her
financial outlook was grim. Through the recommendation of Bourke-White, Abbott
was hired by Fortune magazine to portray corporate executives. She
found her subjects dislikable. In 1932, she was forced to leave her expensive
Despite her financial troubles, she gained a reputation in New York too and
found support from a group of young Harvard alumni who patronized modern art,
especially from Lincoln Kirstein and Julian Levy. In November 1930, her
photographs were shown in an exhibition at the Harvard Society for Contemporary
Art, organized by Kristein. In 1932, her work was shown at the Albright Art
Gallery in Buffalo and the Brooklyn Museum. She also contributed a photomural
to an exhibition organized by Kirstein and Levy at the Museum of Modern Art.
Kristein, inspired by the Mexican muralists, had invited over 50 artists to
produce murals on the subject of "the post-war world".
The Museum of the City of New York was founded in 1923 and modeled on the
Musée Carnavalet in Paris. It was the first American institution devoted to
documenting a city's history. In November 1931, Berenice Abbott approached its
director, Hardinge Scholl, who was impressed by her work. A lack of funds in
the midst of the Depression while the museum was about to complete its new
building at Fifth Avenue prevented Scholle from financially supporting her idea of
documenting the transformation of the city's landmarks which were about to
The same week, Abbott also met I. N. Phelps Stokes, an architect, historian
and housing reform of and old New York family who had published a six-volume Iconography
of Manhattan Island (1915-28), largely drawn from his own authoritative
collection of historical prints.
Scholle and Stokes helped Abbott, e.g. four of her prints were selected for
the Museum of the City of New York's inaugural exhibition in January 1932.
Scholle helped Abbott gain access to the Rockefeller Center construction site
where she made some of her historically most significant photographs.
Abbott made several other fundraising efforts - and failed. In the fall of
1933, she began teaching the first photography course given by the New School
for Social Research in Greenwich Village. Among the teachers were composer
Aaron Copland and painter Stuart Davis as well as Abbott's friend Leo Stein.
Abbott remained part of the school staff until 1958.
In the summer of 1934, Berenice spent six weeks with the architectural
historian Henry Russell Hitchcock who prepared an exhibition for the Museum of
Modern Art and another for the Wesleyan University where he taught. Making
photographs for Hitchcock, a modernist, Abbott "sharpened her eye for
early American architecture and practiced the stylistic restraint required for
a commission". Her direct, selfless and functional style perfectly fit
As early as 1932, Berenice Abbott had taken up an 8x10 inch view camera which
became her standard equipment for most of the rest of her career. In October
1934, Abbott's first one-person museum exhibition opened at the Museum of the
City of New York: New York Photographs by Berenice Abbott. Among the
positive exhibition reviews was one by Elizabeth McCausland, art critic of the
liberal Massachusetts newspaper the Springfield Republican. It was a
turning point in the lives of both the photographer and the critic.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1899, McCausland became a reporter for the Springfield
Republican in 1923, three years after graduating from Smith College. She
was an idealist devoted to American poetry, modern art and social activism who
had sympathetically reported on Sacco and Vanzetti, the New Bedford textile
strike and child labor reform in the 1920s. As the Depression deepened in the
1930s, she espoused social realism. An exchange of letters about the
exhibition review initiated a thirty-year partnership between Abbott and McCausland. They lived together in an apartment in Greenwich Village until McCausland's death in 1965, when Abbott moved to Maine. Berenice had her
studio on the fourth floor of the Greenwich Village building.
In February 1935, Abbott applied to New York City's Emergency Relief Bureau
for funding to photograph NYC. In September, that agency was replaced by the
Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The
relief agency for artists accepted her application. Abbott became the only
photographer assigned a staff for her own project. She controlled artistic
The FAP gave Abbott a monthly salary of $145 that allowed her to photograph
the Big Apple full-time. In November 1936, she was allotted a 1930 Ford Sport
Roadster she had asked for in the beginning, together with a $38.33 per week
pay raise for maintenance. In mid-1938 she finally obtained two small-format
cameras she had also asked for, a Linhof and a Rolleiflex.
From 1935 until 1939, she devoted her time to photographing the city, a
project she named in April 1936: Changing New York. It was a very
ambitious one with three sections: "Material Aspect" was divided
into buildings (historical, picturesque, architecturally significant, deluxe)
and city squares; "Means of Life" was divided into transportation,
communications, service of supplies; "People and How They Live" was
planned with seven sections: types, city streets, interiors, recreation,
culture and education, religion, signs of the crisis.
Berenice Abbott exposed the project's last negatives in November 1938. Without
hand-held cameras, she was unable to explore "People and The Way They
Live". Crowd scenes, nights scenes and interiors were never investigated.
Some of her most colorful ideas such as "police in action, mounted, at
theater hours" and her most political ideas such as "election
night" and "picket line" were never realized. Among her most
notable omissions were the Empire State Building and the city's middle class
housing which made up most of the island north of 59th Street. These did not even
appear in her outline.
October 1937 saw the opening of a second exhibition of work by Berenice Abbott at
the Museum of the City of New York. Changing New York presented 111
photographs, half the number then in her files. It was more than twice the
size of the 1934 exhibition.
Abbott's photographs were not political or polemical, but her sympathies were
clearly on the left. The radical press broadly covered her work. She was
interviewed by the Daily Worker and McCausland, under the pseudonym
"Elizabeth Noble", wrote a review for New Masses. However,
"her political leanings were not so pronounced as to alienate the popular
press, and she hired a publicist to supplement the Museum's public relations
It was a time in which documentary photography became popular with the general
public, not least because it shared the objectives of social realists and
American scene painting. "Abbott had declared herself a documentary
photographer a decade earlier and now stood at the center of these
developments". Therefore, despite the poor state of the art market in
1938, Abbott was able to put on a one-person show at a midtown gallery. At the
landmark event of the 1938 International Exposition of Photography at
New York's Grand Central Palace, Abbott's FAP photographs, along with the FSA
exhibit How American People Live, were touted as "the most
exciting and important photographs" in the show. Abbott also contributed
twelve prints to Roofs for 40 Million, an exhibition focusing on
America's housing crisis and advocating for urban planning. She served on the
Photo leagues advisory board, gave lectures and critiques. Together with McCausland and Newhall, "she heralded the social reform photography of
Lewis Hine, ranking him the equal of Atget and Brady as a precursor of modern
In April 1939, E. P. Dutton & Co. published Changing New York, a
guidebook aimed at visitors to the New York World's Fair. It included 97
photographs by Berenice Abbott with captions written by her companion, the art
critic Elizabeth McCausland.
However, the way to publication was not easy. McCausland's opinions and
passions expressed in the captions "were problematic, guiding readers too
much and limiting their response to to the images. The revised captions were
strictly factual, erred in the opposite direction, but were more approriate
to Abbott's restrained style."
Essential reading on the subject and the main source for this article is the
book by the former Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Museum of the City
of New York, Bonnie Yochelson: Berenice Abbott: Changing New York. The
New Press, New York, 1997. 399 pages, over 425 illustrations. Hardcover and
paperback editions. The book contains the 305-print "master set"
that Abbott chose from the 700 negatives she made. Get it from Amazon.com
Berenice Abbott: Greyhound Bus Terminal, 33rd and 34th Streets, Between 7th
and 8th Avenues, Manhattan, 1936. Photograph copyright: The Museum of the City of New York.
Berenice Abbott: Herald
Square, Manhattan, 1936. Photograph
copyright: The Museum of the City of New York.
Berenice Abbott: Park Avenue
and 39th Street, Manhattan, 1936. Photograph copyright: The Museum of the
City of New York.
Abbott and McCausland had to accept other corrections too, e.g. 14 of the 100
photographs for which McCausland had written captions were rejected and had to
be replaced. The person to write the foreword could only be found at the last
minute. One person declined, another one's essay was refused by the publisher.
Dutton, by the way, did not consult Abbott on the book's layout.
The publication of Changing New York was accompanied by an Abbott
exhibition at the Federal Art Gallery and the Musuem of Modern Art opened Art
in Our Time, a contemporary show which included works by Abbott and four
Changing New York received favorable reviews from the New York Times
Book Review, Architectural Forum, U.S. Camera and others.
New York's Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia wrote her a congratulatory letter and
California photographer Edward Weston called her work "real
As Berenice Abbott's reputation grew, the FAP crumbled and she began to fear
for her livelihood. "By the end of 1939, Congress had stripped the
national FAP leadership of its authorities and placed the program in the hands
of local WAP administrators, who were generally hostile to the arts."
Abbott was laid off by the FAP in September 1939. The FAP was disbanded in 1943.
In October 1938, Abbott had expressed the wish that her negatives from the Changing New York
project would go to the Museum of the City of New York. When she left the
project in 1939, she asked to be consulted when prints or enlargements were
made of her works. By February 1940, her worst fears came true as she
complained that photographs not printed by her were circulated under her name.
Despite her protests, the FAP continued to issue prints until 1943. When it
was disbanded, the FAP sent Abbott's 700 negatives along with 1,750 negatives from
the Photographic Division's Creative Assignments to the Museum of the City of
New York, where they remain until today.
Berenice Abbott did not photograph NYC again until 1948, when she illustrated Greenwich
Village Today and Yesterday (1949), with text by Henry W. Lanier.
In 1954 she photographed favorite waterfront sites for a project called Metropolis:
Old and New, which would compare 1954 to the 1930s. It never found a
publisher and only a handful of the 1954 photographs exist.
Besides portraiture (in Paris in the 1920s) and documentation (above all of New
York City in the 1930s), her work also includes modernist experimentation,
scientific photography and from the 1930s to the 1960s American scenes. She
developed and invented new techniques and equipment of photography and
received several honorary doctorates. In her later career, New York City was
only a minor theme for Berenice Abbott.
She believed that "ours is a scientific age" and, therefore,
photographing science became her next "immense subject" for the next
two decades, despite the fact that she had no scientific background. She
invented "ways to visualize scientific phenomena such as gravity, kinetic
energy, and electricity". She supported herself by teaching, notably at
the New School
for Social Research, writing and freelance work. "Not until 1958 did the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology hire her to illustrate an innovative
Berenice Abbott died in retirement in Monson, Maine in 1991. She had been
living in rural Maine since 1965.
at Sotheby's with photographs from the
Museum of the City of New York
On October 23, 2002, Sotheby's New York will offer some 100 duplicate
Berenice Abbott photographs from the series Changing New York from the
collection of the Museum of the City of New York. The museum's collection
consists almost entirely of work that has been donated. This sale takes place
in order to establish an acquisition fund dedicated to cover the omissions in
the collection. The selection includes some of Abbott's most famous
photographs such as the Flatiron Building, Blossom Restaurant
and Bridge Looking Up. Prints of the three photographs on this page are
not only part of the Museum of the City of New York's Abbott Collection, but
also of the Sotheby's auction.
Added on August 25, 2002: The Berenice Abbott
sale brought a total of $669,499. 64 of 84 lots found a buyer. Not
surprisingly, the highest price was paid for Flatiron Building, 23rd Street
and Fifth Ave: $54,970.
The homepage of the Museum of the City of New York: