Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio on this date in 1898. She was raised in the Buckeye State and graduated from Lincoln High School in Cleveland, Ohio in 1917. In the autumn of that year she returned to central Ohio to begin her studies at The Ohio State University. The freshman soon left Columbus however, moving with friends to New York in 1918. She developed an interest in the arts, and moved to Paris in 1921 to study sculpture. It was there that she met Man Ray, and was hired as his darkroom assistant. Man Ray’s Champs délicieux: album de photographies (a copy is owned by OSU), is representative of his experimental work at the time.
Abbott found her true calling in photography. She set up her own studio in Paris in 1926, and remained there until 1929, when she returned to New York and established an independent studio in the U.S. She operated from that studio until 1966, while doing freelance and contract work, as well as teaching courses in photography. Abbott was also fascinated with science and challenged by the limitations of the equipment available to her. She explored alternatives, receiving six patents for her inventions.
Soon after arriving in New York in 1929 she began shooting architectural images inspired by the Paris views of Eugène Atget, and from 1935-38 directed the “Changing New York” Project, part of the Federal Arts Project within the Works Progress Administration. The photographs owned by OSU were made as part of that effort. The following is a small selection from the collection.
Cathedral Parkway, No. 542, Manhattan
Brevoort Hotel and Mark Twain House
Of course, nothing can substitute for the experience of seeing the original prints in person. One appeal of these photographs is their integrity as artifacts. All but one are signed, still affixed to the boards that Abbott mounted them on, and include labeling related to the WPA project.
Brevoort Hotel and Mark Twain House, labels on verso
Jefferson Market Court and 647-661 Sixth Street
While some works lure us into a seemingly comfortable pace of everyday life in the 1930s, others present a more daring approach to space and perspective.
Squibb Building, Fifth Avenue at 58th Street
In 1986 OSU held a symposium and an exhibition of the works of Berenice Abbott and awarded the photographer an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. For more information about her visit consult the 1986 issues of The Lantern. The “Changing New York” prints held in Rare Books and Manuscripts represent one part of that exhibit. Also included were some of her scientific images. For a more complete view of the career of the artist, visit the galleries of the online archive.
To see some actual prints that were touched by the artist herself, visit the Special Collections reading room in Thompson Library.