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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Berenice Abbott

Dates:  1898 - 1991
Born:  US, OH, Springfield
Active:  US
Her shots of New York are some of the most important records of the city.
(4 March 2015) It was announced that the archive of Berenice Abbott had been acquired by Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) in Toronto. A press release said: the Abbott Archive is comprised of more than six thousand photographs and seven thousand negatives from the mid-1920s through the 1980s, as well as book maquettes, correspondence, personal journals, business records, and ephemera. Highlights include her early studio portraiture from Paris and New York (1926 and onwards); photographs from her seminal project Changing New York (1935-39); American landscapes, including her abandoned book project focusing on U.S. coastal highway Route 1; her final published series, A Portrait of Maine (1968); and a large selection of her innovative scientific photography. In addition to her own work, the archive includes Eugène Atget photographs printed by Abbott as well as original Atget negatives, reminders of her tireless work rescuing and promoting the French photographer’s oeuvre."

Preparing biographies

Biography provided by Focal Press 
Man Ray’s Paris assistant. She met Atget just before his death in 1927, subsequently rescuing and promoting his photographs. Opened a New York studio in 1929 and used an 8 x 10 inch camera to create a photographic record of the city that fused Atget’s unadorned realism with the playfulness and humor of her Parisian modernist experience. Stylistically, she worked from many viewpoints often cropping her prints to manifest the chaotic and complex relationship of beauty and decay within an urban environment. 
(Author: Robert Hirsch - Independent scholar and writer) 
Michael Peres (Editor-in-Chief), 2007, Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th edition, (Focal Press) [ISBN-10: 0240807405, ISBN-13: 978-0240807409] 
(Used with permission) 

Further research

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Arnold Newman
Berenice Abbott 
Family history 
If you are related to this photographer and interested in tracking down your extended family we can place a note here for you to help. It is free and you would be amazed who gets in touch.

Exhibitions on this website

ThumbnailBerenice Abbott and Changing New York (1935-1938) 
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Visual indexes

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Supplemental information


Berenice Abbott
American, 1898-1991

In 1918 Abbott went to New York City to study sculpture . By 1921 she had become disenchanted with New York and she left for Europe where she spent time in Paris and Berlin. She worked for Man Ray in Paris as a darkroom assistant and soon established a reputable career as a portrait photographer. In 1929 she returned to New York for a visit and was "seized by a fantastic passion" to photograph the city and she stayed for 10 years.
During the eight years that Abbott had been away New York had undergone major changes. New skyscrapers were replacing older buildings and the city was changing daily. Abbott slowly moved away from taking portraits of people and began photographing New York City itself. She was having difficulty supporting herself and tried to get financial support for the project she called Changing New York. She spent several years trying to get funding and all the while she kept photographing the city she loved. Abbott finally found support in 1935, from the Federal Art Project, a small part of the Works Progress Administration which was a federal government organization which funded a number of arts projects during the 1930s. The Federal Art Project was a relief agency for artist and it's goal was to show that art contributed to the general welfare of the population.
The project, Changing New York, took place between 1935 and 1939. During this time Abbott strove to capture the elements of change and contrast in her photographs of the city. She wished to "show the skyscraper in relation to the less colossal edifices which preceded it..the past jostling the present." She concentrated on Manhattan and then secondly on Brooklyn and the Bronx. She also took a few photographs of Queens and Staten Island. Abbott received an unexpected amount of publicity over the project and in 1937 the Museum of the City of New York, who also sponsored the project, exhibited 110 of Changing New York's best photographs. In 1939 E.P. Dutton & Co. published a book entitled Changing New York which reproduces 97 of Abbott's photographs. The book has remained a classic photography book through out the 20th century. Berenice Abbott's images capture the essence of Depression-era New York and make her one of America's leading photographers of our time.
[Contributed by Lee Gallery] 

Internet biographies

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Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer. Go to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online ( has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
 Go to website
The Cleveland Museum of Art, USA has a biography on this photographer. [Scroll down the page on this website as the biography may not be immediately visible.] Go to website
The International Photographers Hall of Fame has provided a biography. Go to website

Internet resources

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Berenice Abbott, "Changing New York, 1935-1938" ... 
Berenice Abbott‘s : Changing New York ... 
Get the Picture: Thinking About Photographs, seven photographers ... 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Auer, Michele & Michel 1985 Encyclopedie Internationale Des Photographes de 1839 a Nos Jours / Photographers Encylopaedia International 1839 to the present (Hermance, Editions Camera Obscura) 2 volumes [A classic reference work for biographical information on photographers.] 
• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.149 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.12-13 
• Evans, Martin Marix (Executive ed.) 1995 Contemporary Photographers [Third Edition] (St. James Press - An International Thomson Publishing Company) [Expensive reference work but highly informative.] 
• Fernandez, Horacio (ed.) 2000 Fotografía Pública: Photography in Print 1919-1939 (Aldeasa) p.48 [This Spanish exhibition catalogue is one of the best sources for illustrations of photomontage and book design for the period between the two World Wars.] 
• International Center of Photography 1999 Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection (New York: A Bulfinch Press Book) p.206 [Includes a well written short biography on Berenice Abbott with example plate(s) earlier in book.] 
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Berenice Abbott.] 
• Witkin, Lee D. and Barbara London 1979 The Photograph Collector’s Guide (London: Secker and Warburg) p.65 [Long out of print but an essential reference work - the good news is that a new edition is in preparation.] 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

• Gruber, Renate and L. Fritz Gruber 1982 The Imaginary Photo Museum (New York: Harmony Books) p.239 
• Lahs-Gonzales, Olivia & Lippard, Lucy 1997 Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the 20th Century. Selections from the Helen Kornblum Collection (Saint Louis Art Museum, D.A.P.) [Berenice Abbott is included in this overview of women photographers.] 
• Naef, Weston 1995 The J. Paul Getty Museum - Handbook of the Photographic Collection (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum) p.183 
• Newhall, Beaumont 1982 The History of Photography - Fifth Edition (London: Secker & Warburg) [One or more photographs by Berenice Abbott are included in this classic history.] 
• Sobieszek, Robert A. and Deborah Irmas 1994 the camera i: Photographic Self-Portraits (Los Angeles: LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art) p.204, Plate 35 [When the Audrey and Sydney Irmas collection was donated to LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1992 the museum gained a remarkable collection of self portraits of notable photographers. If you need a portrait of Berenice Abbott this is a useful starting point.] 
• Szarkowski, John 1973 Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art) p.98 [Analyzes a single photograph by Berenice Abbott.] 


Photographic collections are a useful means of examining large numbers of photographs by a single photographer on-line. 

In the 1990 survey of 535 American photographic collections Berenice Abbott was represented in 105 of the collections. Source: Andrew H. Eskind & Greg Drake (eds.) 1990 Index to American Photographic Collections [Second Enlarged Edition] (Boston, Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Co.) 
Library of Congress, Washington, USA 
Approximate number of records: 10 
Note: A single record may contain more than one photograph.
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The wit and wisdom.

"I didn‘t decide to be a photographer; I just happened to fall into it."
"Let us first say what photography is not. A photograph is not a painting, a poem, a symphony, a dance. It is not just a pretty picture, not an exercise in contortionist techniques and sheer print quality. It is or should be a significant art document, a penetrating statement, which can be described in a very simple term — selectivity."
"Photography can never grow up if it imitates some other medium. It has to walk alone; it has to be itself."
"Suppose we took a thousand negatives and made a gigantic montage: a myriad—faceted picture containing the elegances, the squalor, the curiosities, the monuments, the sad faces, the triumphant faces, the power, the irony, the strength, the decay, the past, the present, the future of a city – that would be my favorite picture."
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