Born on this day in 1898, the photographer Berenice Abbott
was at the center of lesbian society throughout the early 20th century
and rubbed elbows with the likes of Janet Flanner, Thelma Wood, and Else von
Freytag-Loringhoven and made a name for herself with her architectural photography of New York City in the early 1930s.
Berenice Abbott photographed by her friend Walker Evans in 1930 (x).
Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio on July 17,
1898. She was raised in a working-class household by a single mother, Lillian
Alice Bunn, and recalled having had an unhappy childhood. She fled home to study
journalism at Ohio State University as soon as she graduated high school, but eventually
became disenchanted with academia and ran away again – this time to New York
City – after only a year at the university. In New York, Berenice found a love
for sculpture and sought to make a career out of it, but in the meantime she
was only able to make money by working as a dark room assistant, a waitress,
and even by acting in minor roles at The Famous Provincetown Playhouse. In
1921, Berenice had once again grown tired of her surroundings and purchased a
one-way ticket to the city of Paris. It was there where she met and befriended
the man who would change her life: incomparable photographer Man Ray who found
the plucky, eager dark room assistant he was looking for in Berenice.
Berenice’s self-portraits from throughout the years show her sporting her signature short hairstyle and butch fashion sense (x).
And thus began Berenice Abbott’s photography career, her
dreams of being a sculptor long forgotten. She would later recall, “I took to
photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else.“
With Man Ray allowing her to use his studio in Montparnasse for her own work, Berenice specialized in taking portraits of all the big names in Parisian
society and her work began to be shown at the popular “"Au
Sacre du Printemps.” Her subjects included everyone from the popular authors Jean Cocteau and James Joyce to her own close friends from the lesbian salons of the day, Jane Heap, Janet
Marie Laurencin, and many others. Her friend Sylvia Beach once wrote that “To be ‘done’
by Man Ray or Berenice Abbott meant you rated as somebody.”
While in Paris, Berenice took many portraits of her lesbian socialite friends, including (from left to right) Djuna Barnes, Peggy Guggenheim, and Solita Solano (x).
In 1929, Berenice took a trip back to New York City with the
intention of finding a publisher for her photograph collection and then
returning to Paris, but fate had other plans. With her new artistic mind,
Berenice became entranced by the cityscape of New York City and immediately
began the project that would make her career in America – Changing New York. For almost 6 years, Berenice used a Century
Universal camera, which produced large format 8 x 10 inch negatives, to capture
the everyday life of both work and play of the people of New York. The project
eventually evolved into a sociological study and she began to be funded by
Federal Art Project to continue her work. Today, Changing New York can be seen in its entirety at The Museum of the
City of New York.
One of Berenice’s iconic photos from Changing New York; Waterfront, South Street, October 25th, 1935 (x).
In her later years, Berenice began to experience lung
problems and so she and her partner, the art critic Elizabeth McCausland who
she had lived with for over 30 years, decided to move and settle down in the
small town of Blanchard, Maine. She practiced photography until her
death on December 9, 1991; her last collection ever published was A Portrait of Maine in 1968 and, at the
time of her death, there was a documentary about her life in the works. In her
last interview for Berenice Abbott: A
View of the 20th Century, Berenice says, “The world doesn’t like
independent women. Why? I don’t know, but I also don’t care.”