Berenice Abbott: a “self-taught risk taker”
Atget’s work in Paris clearly resonated with Abbott’s perspective on the medium and his approach to image making. She returned to New York in 1929 for a visit, but when she saw how much things had changed, she decided to stay. Inspired by the vibrancy and modernization of the city, Abbott came up with the idea for a grand project that would capture New York in this time of rapid change. She spent the first half of the 1930s taking snapshots, scouting locations, noting ideal conditions for making specific photos, and researching sources of funding. In 1935 Abbott applied to the Federal Art Project (FAP), a New Deal program, with sponsorship from the Museum of the City of New York and received funding for the next four years for a project she called Change New York. Abbott describes his goal in making these images:
To photograph New York is to seek to capture in sensitive and delicate photographic emulsion the spirit of the metropolis, while remaining faithful to the essentials, its hurried rhythm, its crowded streets, the past jostling with the present.
She took her 8×10 camera all over the city to capture photographs that express the character, energy, architecture, history, sites and people of New York. The project resulted in a book of the same name published in 1939.
Modern women/modern vision spotlights women photographers of the past 100 years. Four of Abbott’s famous New York photographs from the 1930s are included in this exhibit. Yard of the first model buildings in New York, 361–365 East 71st Street is one of 305 photographs of the Change New York project. The buildings in this photo were built in 1882 shortly after the Tenement House Act of 1879, which sought to regulate low-income housing by declaring minimum requirements for air and light in a living space, with the aim to begin to improve the poor living conditions that had evolved over the previous decades. The open-air courtyard of these buildings inspired this photograph taken by Abbott more than 50 years later. Social and architectural history aside, this is a visually striking image – the ordinary domestic task of drying laundry is captured in a dynamic composition from a modern perspective with the camera tilted skyward .
Just over 20 years later, Abbott made this photograph demonstrating magnetism. She first became interested in the possibilities of photographing scientific subjects in the late 1930s as she completed her Change New York project. In 1939, Abbott wrote a “manifesto” on science and photography. She states there:
We live in a world created by science. But we – the millions of lay people – neither understand nor appreciate the knowledge which thus controls daily life… There must be a friendly interpreter between the scientific and the layman. I believe that photography can be this spokesperson… Today science needs its voice. It needs the vivification of the visual image, the warm human quality of the imagination added to its austere and severe disciplines….
Throughout the 1940s, Abbott photographed scientific subjects, in many cases developing unique techniques and inventing special equipment – some of which she patented – to make her photos possible. Many of these photographs have been included in exhibitions and published in magazines such as American Scientist and Illustrated sciences but her major project in this chapter of her career began in 1958 when she joined MIT’s Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC), a federally funded group of scientists who were developing a new and improved science program for high schools. Abbott was hired to create photographic illustrations of scientific principles for inclusion in new textbooks – the images she created visually demonstrated concepts of motion, electricity, magnetism, light, optics, waves , etc. Abbott’s photos are simple, elegant, and accurate illustrations of how the world works.
curious visions explores approaches to abstraction in photography from the past 100 years, highlighting works from DAM’s permanent collection. Abbott’s photo Magnetic field, from his PSSC project at MIT, is included in this exhibition. The photographs in this exhibition play with perception and invite the viewer to look at the world differently. At a glance, this image appears to be a beautiful abstract composition, but as we now know, it is a document of a scientific phenomenon. Abbott simply shows us the world from an unknown point of view and gives visual form to an invisible force.
Fueled by her determination, innovation, skill and independence, Berenice Abbott made a significant contribution to the history of photography. Besides his extensive and prolific career as a photographer and his role as guardian of the Eugène Atget archives, Abbott also taught photography classes and wrote about photography in essays and textbooks. Throughout her life and career, Abbott has pushed back social expectations of women. working on it Change New York project, she showed photographs to FAP supervisors every week. Seeing pictures she took in a particular part of town, a male supervisor told her that “nice girls” didn’t go there. She replied, “I’m not a nice girl. I am a photographer. I go anywhere. Towards the end of her life, Abbott described herself as a “self-taught risk-taker” – I think that served her well.