Visions of Structure

Bernice Abbott: Visions of Structure

Bernice Abbott – Visions of Structure

Very few photographers have captured the spirit and soul of city like Bernice Abbott. A prolific artist, Abbott captured the dynamism and rapidly changing face of New York City throughout the 1930’s.

A Brief Biographical Sketch:

Born in Springfield, Ohio in 1898, Abbott spent the majority of her childhood outside the world of visual art. Although enrolling at Ohio State University, Abbott quickly tired of her studies and moved to New York City’s lower east end. At the age of 20, Abbott began cohabiting an apartment with several artists and thinkers in Greenwich Village, dabbling in a variety of artistic mediums ranging from theatre to sculpture. Her career (and life) were almost cut short in the influenza epidemic of 1919, in which she almost died.

In 1921, Abbott moved to Europe to study sculpture in Paris and Berlin. Her chance meeting with Man Ray and subsequent employment as a darkroom assistant opened her eyes to the world of photography. Man, impressed by her diligence and skill in the darkroom, allowed Abbott to use his equipment and facilities to create her own photographic images. In 1926, Abbott premiered her work in her first solo photographic exhibition and founded her own photographic studio. Although she would later become renowned for her architecture-oriented photographs, her initial work focused on portraiture. Her subjects were typically prominent figures in the artistic and literary worlds, such as Jean Cocteau and James Joyce.

After being introduced to the photography of Eugene Atget, Abbott became fascinated with the artist and his work, and, after much persuasion, persuaded him to sit for a portrait. Their relationship was short lived, however, as Atget soon died. Although the majority of Atget’s work passed into the hands of private collectors or state organizations, Abbott was able to collect a portion of his work and returned to New York in order to promote his artistic accomplishments.

Upon her return to New York, Abbott suddenly realized the photographic opportunities prevalent in a city as diverse and architecturally fascinating as New York, and embarked upon her career as an architectural photographer.

Initially unable to secure funding, Abbott worked alone for six years, supporting herself through teaching and systematically working her way through the landscape of New York City with her Century Universal Camera.

In 1935, the Federal Art Project hired Abbott to continue her work under the guise of the “Changing New York” project. By the time of her resignation, she had produced hundreds of images now held at the Museum of the City of New York.

Although the celebrated years of her career were drawing to a close, Abbott continued her work in photography, contributing several photographs for high-school physics textbooks and founding the “House of Photography” in 1947.

After leaving New York City due to a lung condition, Abbott retired to Maine, where she photographed small towns and their visible changes with relation to the automobile industry. Abbott continued to live in Maine until her death in 1991.

Major Contributions:

Abbott’s work helped launch the straight photography movement, which believed that unmanipulated or falsely rendered images served as the best medium of artistic expression.

Abbott’s photographic works celebrated innovation. Her collected images are often seen as a manifestation of the pride Americans invested in their industry and technology.

Her photographs of New York City are considered a definitive documentation of the era, and are still celebrated to this day.

Notable Images:

Under the El at the Battery, New York, 1936.        Nightview, New York, 1932.  Bernice Abbott : July 17, 1898 – December 9, 1991