A Twentieth Century artist of limitless imagination, Berenice Abbott, devoted her life to photography. She began her own photographic career in 1923 as an apprentice to her friend, Man Ray, in his Paris studio. It was while with Man Ray she first became aware of the French master, Eugène Atget, an event that would have far reaching consequences in her life.


Abbott established her own portrait studio in 1926, where she made compelling photographs of the celebrated writers and artists of the day, including the only the only Twentieth Century portrait of Atget, who died a short time after he posed for her. In 1928 Abbott acquired Atget’s prints and negatives, began a second career of forty years of hard work and established his reputation as one of foremost photographic artists of his time.


In 1929 Abbott returned to New York City and saw America with a fresh and enriched perspective and began to photograph the rapidly evolving urban landscape of a city in transition. This ten-year project, often self financed, resulted in the monumental and widely acclaimed documentary project she later called “Changing New York.” Her captivating photographs of new bridges and skyscrapers, replacing older structures, as well as the juxtaposition of evolving modes of transportation with those of the past and crowded street scenes evoke an exciting combination of objectivity and impassioned realism that is key to the timeless quality of her art.


Abbott didn’t restrict her activities to New York City and was also a keen observer of the American scene. As early as 1932 she traveled throughout New England and along the East Coast documenting certain cities, as they existed before the Civil War. In the mid-1930s she was active in the Midwest and south and in the early 1950s documented US Route 1 from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida. Later in the 1960s she documented Maine from a new standpoint, as a full time resident.


In 1939, Abbott’s first book, Changing New York was published. In the years that followed, her name would appear on a dozen other books, as well as countless magazine articles and essays.  At the same time she became a creative inventor, securing half a dozen patents, and began her explorations in scientific photography. At the time she said, “Photography fits in with the speed of our time… It is a realistic medium appropriate to a realistic and scientific age.”


After solitary work for two decades, in 1958 she undertook her most remarkable project, to photograph scientific phenomena for the Physical Sciences Study Committee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Easily her most creative and innovative work, these aesthetically elegant photographs of swinging pendulums, bouncing balls, and wave patterns lend understandable reality to the many complex concepts of physical science.


Though Abbott continued to take photographs for over two decades, her scientific images were a prefect achievement with which to conclude a remarkable career.

 
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Berenice Abbott by Hank O’Neal, Monson, Maine Winter 1977

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