Women in Photography: Berenice Abbott

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re taking a look back at some pivotal contributors to the photographic medium. Since the early innovation of the daguerrotype process, women had been experimenting with photography and have been using this expressive form of communication as a method to tell meaningful stories, archive history, visualize style and illustrate dreams.

Our first focus is the photographer Berenice Abbott (July 17, 1898 – December 9, 1991) , born in Springfield, Ohio and later pursuing sculpture in Paris, Berlin and New York, working as a studio assistant to Man Ray, a landmark figure in photography. Thus begun her road in the medium, soon meeting the French photographer Eugene Atget whose now-famous depictions of Paris streets and their transformation during the 1920s were not at the time well known. Her appreciation and promotion of his work, to the point of purchasing his estate after his death, has been instrumental towards Eugene Atget being a household name among photographers today.

Abbott returned to the US in 1929, and secured funding from the Federal Art Project to photograph the transition of New York City during the Great Depression. These were published in her best known series Changing New York (1936-38) which showed the movement of people within the ever-changing landscape of the city.

“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 document, a penetrating statement, which can be described in a very simple term—selectivity.”

— BERENICE ABBOTT

Today Berenice Abbott is considered a pillar of photographic history, particularly among the street shooters, documentary and archivalists, and architecture buffs. Through her imagery, Abbott was able to express a significant and almost ominous dynamic of scale between people of New York and the increasingly large buildings that surrounded them. Her work remains as a passionate document of city life during a critical time in our history.