Artist Spotlight: Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)

Coco Chanel ca. 1927 Vintage silver print, 3 x 2 1/4 in. Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Berenice Abbott, “Coco Chanel”, ca. 1927 Vintage silver print,     3 x 2 1/4 in.               Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

After dropping out of Ohio State University after studying journalism for one year, Abbott moved to New York City in 1918 to visit a former classmate.  During her time there, she met Marcel Duchamp, who later asked her to cast a chess set, and Man Ray, for whom she became an assistant.

In 1926, Abbott was able to set up her own studio with the help of friends, including art patroness Peggy Guggenheim. As her skill in photography grew, Abbott began to exhibit alongside her former mentor, Man Ray; her work in the first Independent Salon of Photography in Paris opened to critical acclaim in 1928.

Despite criticism, Abbot began to visit Parisian photographer Eugène Atget after feeling moved by his depiction of social realism.  Before he died, Abbott captured one last image of the photographer and later arranged for his work to be shown in both France and America.  Abbott’s commitment to the artist helped mobilize the Museum of Modern Art to purchase the entire Atget archive.

Inspired by Atget’s dedication to capturing the ever-changing Paris, Abbott focused her attention towards New York City in Changing New York, a project devoted to depicting the community, which was later published in 1939 and featured ninety-seven meticulously captioned images, along with historical commentary.  She continued to use her 8 x 10-inch view camera for about the rest of her career.

Abbott published Guide to Better Photography in 1941, before moving on to her preoccupation with capturing scientific phenomena photographically.  Not only did she work for Science Illustrated, but images of penicillin mold and light rays became staple projects that Abbott focused on during her time spent with the Physical Science Study Committee, a project garnered by MIT scientists and high school teachers for a new physics curriculum.

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991) Betty Parsons ca. 1927 Vintage silver print, 2 x 2 1/4 in. Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)                     “Betty Parsons”, ca. 1927 Vintage silver print, 2 x 2 1/4 in. Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Following several shows of her work during the 1970s and 1980s, NMWA exhibited Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York, 1935-1939 in October 1998-January 1999.

NMWA has several photographs by Berenice Abbott in the permanent collection, including portraits of Betty Parsons and Coco Chanel.

About the Artist Spotlight author: Jackie Witkowski will be a senior at DePaul University in Chicago.  She is interning for the Education Department and the Library and Research Center for NMWA this summer.