Berenice Abbott

<div class="col m-4 auteur pull-right"> <div class="inner"> <div class="white"> <a class="switch">Text</a><br> <b>Emmanuelle de l’Écotais</b><br> <span style="display: none;"> Curator of photography, MAMVP </span> </div> </div> </div> <br/><br/><br/><br/><br/> <span class="alinea"></span>Berenice Abbott occupies a central place in the history of photography: she is celebrated for her striking portraits, her views of the New York skyline, and her scientific images, as well as because of the major role she played in promoting the work of Eugène Atget, who, thanks to her efforts, became widely acknowledged as the founder of modern photography. <br/> <br/> <span class="alinea"></span>Born in 1898 in Ohio, Abbott arrived in New York in 1918 to train as a sculptor. Lured, like so many others, by the winds of freedom blowing from Paris, she crossed the Atlantic in April 1921. In need of a job, she soon became Man Ray’s assistant; it was he who initiated her into photography. The talented and independent Abbott opened her own portrait studio in 1926, which was soon very successful: she photographed André Gide, Jean Cocteau, James Joyce, and many more. <br/> <br/> <span class="alinea"></span>That same year, Man Ray showed her a group of about forty prints he had purchased from Eugène Atget. This discovery would mark a turning point in Abbott’s career. Fascinated by Atget’s methodical project on Paris, she sought out the old man, taking his portrait soon before his death in 1927. Convinced of the importance and modernity of his work, she managed to purchase, with the financial assistance of American gallerist Julien Levy, the entirety of Atget’s archive, which included several thousand glass plates. She brought these back to New York with her in 1929.<sup>1</sup> She certainly had Atget’s portrait of Paris in mind as a model when she began, in 1930, a vast project entitled <i>Changing New York</i>. <sup>2</sup> <br/> <br/> <span class="alinea"></span>From the beginning of the twentieth century, New York had been undergoing a full-fledged urban transformation. Thousands of residential and office buildings were demolished and constructed, including new skyscrapers. By 1935, when Berenice Abbott was awarded financial support from the Federal Art Project, a law had been passed that required architects to take into consideration the width of avenues before determining the height of their new buildings, as the streets of New York were becoming darkened by the shadows of new edifices. Abbott took advantage of the dramatic visual impact of this dynamic modernity, while shrewdly taking into account the paradoxes inherent in city living and the notion of progress. <br/> <br/> <span class="alinea"></span>Her photographs emphasize the contrasts between skyscrapers and slums, metal bridges and wooden churches, the luxurious shops on Park Avenue and the decrepit facades of Brooklyn buildings. She shot images from below elevated subway tracks, looking up, and from the rooftops of Manhattan buildings, looking down. She took portraits of poor children in the Bronx, wealthy shoppers in department stores, factory workers, and businessmen. In over three hundred images, taken over the course of a few years, she built a detailed portrait of the metropolis and its “frantic pace, the vibrations of its hidden life.” <sup>3</sup> These contrasts inherent in modern city living—which at the time might have seemed merely temporary, a transition tied to the advent of a new century—remain just as significant today. <br/> <br/> <div class="notes"> 1 — Abbott brought attention to the Atget archive by presenting it in books and exhibitions for several years, before selling it to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968.<br/> 2 — The first images she produced as part of this project were shown at Julien Levy’s gallery in May 1932 as part of the exhibition "Photographs of New York by New York Photographers."<br/> 3 — Elizabeth McCausland, “Outline for Changing New York Commentary,” n. d., ca. January–February 1938, from the personal collection of Anne Tucker, quoted in Sarah Miller, “L’équilibre dynamique, le ’maintenant’ de Berenice Abbott,” in <i>Berenice Abbott</i> (Paris: Jeu de Paume, DATE), p. 58. </div>
 
<i>Midtown Manhattan</i>, 1932, <br/>  — <br/> Gelatin silver print mounted on cardboard <br/> 24 × 19 cm
 

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