A photographic sketchbook shows the emergence of a modern city

West Street, 1936
El at Columbus and Broadway, New York, 1929
Canyon, Broadway and Exchange Place, Manhattan, 1936
Album Page 1 Financial District, Broadway and Wall Street Vicinity, Manhattan, 1929
Eugène Atget, 1927
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Berenice Abbott

In the exhibition Berenice Abbott’s New York Album, 1929, at the Met Fifth Avenue, the creative process of one of the pioneering photographers of the twentieth century is revealed.

The display of small black-and-white prints taken from the pages of Berenice Abbott’s albums captures historical vistas of a remade city, the beneficiary of vast construction and other projects made possible by enormous amounts of Federal New Deal funding during the Roaring Twenties.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) was a wholly original independent woman who forged a photographic career spanning decades and a range of work, including portraiture, documentary, scientific images, and American life.

Centres for the Arts: Paris and New York

Growing up and emerging as an artist at the dawn of a new century, Abbott lived and worked in the two pivotal centres for the arts: Paris and New York.

Berenice Abbott: A View of the Twentieth Century, 1992

The documentary Berenice Abbott: A View of the Twentieth Century, 1992, accompanying the exhibition, chronicles Abbotts’ humble beginnings, her emergence as a photographer and her crucial contributions to developing photography as a documentary and artistic medium. She worked well into her eighties, leaving an astonishing body of work and an unparalleled legacy. 

The only pleasure you can get from creating something is the pleasure you have in doing it…

Berenice Abbott

In 1921, she was encouraged to leave America for a more welcoming artistic environment and bought a one-way passage to Paris. She arrived in a “wonderful” place, she said. In the period between the two World Wars, Paris was full of hope, and the city was alive with ideas and conversation. It was a magnet for avant-garde creatives and intellectuals.

Man Ray

In Paris, she found work as a darkroom assistant for Man Ray (1890-1976), an innovative photographer, visual artist and painter. With his encouragement, she tried taking photos and soon established herself as a portrait photographer. Her portfolio included the most exciting and influential figures in Paris, including Coco Chanel, Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim (who generously supported her).

Eugene Atget

Through Man Ray, Abbott met Frenchman Eugene Atget (1857-1927), a pioneering documentary photographer whose work she came to respect.

Her admiration of Atget’s work was profound, “His compositions are just about perfect,” she said.

Abbott added that Atget’s importance is in his judgement of what was worth photographing. “The art is in selecting what is worthwhile…”

Although she photographed his portrait, Atget did not see it as he died suddenly in 1927 before Abbott could present it. Wanting to salvage Atget’s life work, she tracked down and purchased his archive of 8,000 prints and 1,500 glass negatives, brought it to America and promoted the work to the world through exhibitions and the publication of the first book of the photographer’s work.

New York 1929

After spending eight years abroad, Abbott returned to New York in 1929 and found a city transformed. She thought it had enormous photographic potential. Taking a handheld camera, she sought out and documented the energetic, vibrant, and bustling city – in the style inspired by Atget.

Berenice Abbott’s Career and Achievements

This exhibition presents the 1929 photographs, a crucial pivot for her career as she evolves from portraiture to documentary photography. Launching her career into new paths and achievements was a crucial turning point.

Near the end of Abbott’s career, she reflected, “The only pleasure you can get from creating something is the pleasure you have in doing it, not the final product even.”

“You have a certain kind of joy creating it, and that’s all you can expect.” Fortunately, we can vicariously enjoy her inspired perspective through the images in this exhibition. 

 Text by Cammy Yiu / Photo by Berenice Abbott