Women's History in the Collections

Manhattan Skyline 1936
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Manhattan Skyline-South Street
Berenice Abbott, photographer
From the photo series "Changing New York"

Born in Ohio in 1898, Berenice Abbott moved to New York City as a young woman in order to study sculpture and she immersed herself in the bohemian life of Greenwich Village. Like many artists, she moved to France in the 1920s. With no background in photography, Abbott got a job as darkroom assistant to Man Ray and taught herself to take pictures. She soon became an accomplished portrait photographer of Paris's intellectuals and artists. While in France she became acquainted with Eugene Atget, whose photographs documented Paris from the 1880s to the late 1920s. Abbott was single-handedly responsible for preserving and promoting this artist's life's work. It was Atget who influenced the next phase of Abbott's career: documenting New York City in the 1930s.

Berenice Abbott Abbott returned to New York in 1929 and her absence allowed her to view the city with fresh eyes. New York had experienced a building boom of skyscrapers in the 20s and Abbott was struck by "the past jostling the present" as she took in New York's cityscapes. Abbott believed photography was the perfect medium to capture the fast moving tempo of the 20th century. As the Depression deepened, Abbott needed to earn a living and few people could afford to have their portrait taken. She began teaching photography at the New School for Social Research. Abbott finally found employment with the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) from 1935 to 1938 to document the rapidly changing urban scene. When her supervisor told her that a nice girl should not go into tough neighborhoods like the Bowery, she replied, "I'm not a nice girl, I'm a photographer."

In the last important phase of her career, Abbott did pioneering work at M.I.T. in the photography of scientific phenomenon. She was granted patents on a number of inventions for photographic equipment. Throughout her career Abbott was in the forefront and modernity was her subject: the avant-garde in Paris, the drama of a rapidly changing metropolis, the emergence of science as a driving force in the 20th century. Her clean, objective style suited her modern themes. Abbott is rightly remembered as a photographer who epitomized the 20th century.

The New York State Museum owns a selection of photographs from the "Changing New York" series. The collection was purchased in the late 1930s from the Federal Art Project not only for its artistic and documentary value, but also in the hope of inspiring other communities to similarly document changes in their locales.

Contributed by: Christine Kleinegger, Senior Historian

For questions or comments relating to this entry, contact Christine Kleinegger at ckleineg@mail.nysed.gov
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