Monday, March 14, 2011

Berenice Abbott; Changing New York

Photograph of Berenice Abbott (1898 - 1991) taken by Hank O'Neal in his downtown studio, New York, 1979

Berenice Abbott's anxious energy led her to the playground of the avant-garde artists, Greenwich Village, New York from her home state of Ohio in 1918. She pursued journalism and later became enamoured with the world of sculpture and poetry, possibly due to her association with Man Ray, Eugene o'Neill and the poet and critic Sadakichi Hartmann. It was not long before the vulgarity of capitalism slurried the streets of their bohemian haven and so Abbott left for Paris along with her dadaist counterparts.

Abbott studied sculpture in both Paris and Berlin however it was not until 1923, due to a chance encounter with Man Ray, was Abbott to cultivate her future as a successful photographer. Ray, requiring an assistant with no experience and who would "do what they were told to" hired Abbott in his studio in Montpernasse, Paris. Abbott flourished in the field and to "be done" by Man Ray or Bernice Abbott was a passport to prestige.

Man Ray introduced Abbott to the work of Eugene Adget, a documentary style photographer who had captured the "sobering effects of the depression" in Paris. He became Abbott's unwitting mentor, "Adget's photographs somehow spelled photography to me". On his death in 1927 Abbott aquired Adget's entire collection of plate glass negatives and a total of 7,800 prints for fear they would be lost. Adget's ability to capture the complexities of human emotion through the banal settings of the Parisian streetscape aroused Abbott's psyche so much so that she sought "to do in Manhattan what Adget did in Paris" on her return to New York in 1929.

Requiring the inherent clarity that transposed onto Adget's prints Abbott bought an 8X10" large format camera. Dispelling her peer, Pierre Mac Orlan's definition of photography as 'plastic' and 'documentary' Abbott sought to emulate the "feeling lurking beneath the the surface of ordinary experience".

Abbott studied the photographs of Mathew Brady who created a photographic record of "a turning point in American history". Abbott failed to get financial support for six years until the Federal Arts Project hired her in 1935. This allowed Abbott to photograph New York's physical ascendancy and "capture disorientating sensations of city life". 'Changing New York', Abbott's masterful collection of New York City life was finally exhibited on October 20th 1937. 111 prints mounted in a series from one to four were exhibited for six weeks due to demand. Her collection along with Walker Evans for the International Exposition of Photography at New York Grand Central Palace for the FSA 'How American People live' was seen as "the most exciting and important photographs". Changing New York is the definitive anthology of Abbotts legacy as a photographer who captured human identity through the poetry of contrasts.

My photographs are to be documentary as well as artistic,

the original plan, this means that they will have elements of

formal organization and style, they will use devices of abstract

art if these devices best fit the given subject, they will aim at

realism, but not at the cost of sacrificing all esthetics's factors.

They will tell facts...but these facts will be set forth as organic

parts of the whole picture as living and functioning details of

the entire complex social scene

Ref: Berenice Abbott; Changing New York Bonnie Yochelson, New Press 1997

Posted By; Lisa Halton 140311

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