Abbott's Life through 1940

Man Ray, Portrait of Berenice Abbott, 1922

Born in Springfield, Ohio, Bernice Abbott (July 17, 1898 – December 9, 1991) rebelled against the dominant social conventions of her era and transformed herself through a series of increasingly bold moves. Initially interested in dance, literature, sculpture, and modern art, shortly after taking up a camera she became convinced that photography was the artform best suited to the United States since it reflected America's embrace of science, industry, engineering, and speed.

Then, during the 1930s—the decade of the Great Depression—her ideas about photography evolved further. In the first few years of the decade, she described her photographs, especially the ones that framed dramatic contrasts of old and new New York, as “fantastic” forms of literary expression. But, as the decade progressed, she came to see her photographs as serving more historical and sociological purposes that she defined as "Civic Documentary History."

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>1898 to 1922: From Bernice to Berenice

    In the nineteen teens, Abbott bobbed her hair and befriended a group of "sophisticates" at the Ohio State University before moving first to New York City and then to Paris and Berlin, where she adopted the French spelling of her name, "Berenice."

>1923 to 1926: Man Ray and Atget

    In 1923, in Paris, her old friend from New York, Man Ray, offered Abbott a job working as his darkroom assistant and, in 1925, introduced her to the French photographer Eugene Atget, who sold photographs of Paris from his nearby apartment. Man Ray also encouraged her to earn extra income by creating portraits using his camera equipment—an arrangement that ultimately forced her to leave his studio and open her own business.

>1926 to 1928: Nostalgia for America

    In the late 1920s, Abbott enjoyed both financial and critical success as a "modern" portrait photographer in Paris and decided to purchase Eugene Atget’s enormous archive from the executor of Atget's estate. Around this same time, she read books describing the United States as a fast-paced machine civilization, which she believed was well suited to photography as a medium of creative expression.

>1929: Transition

     In January 1929, Abbott returned to New York City hoping to find a publisher for a book about Atget’s works and took her first photographs of the city using a handheld camera. She quickly decided to relocate permanently to America.

>1930: Literary Imagination

    In 1930, Abbott sold half her interest in the Atget collection, purchased her first large format camera and, inspired by Pierre Mac Orlan’s description of Atget’s photographs as "fantastic" forms of literary expression, announced that she wanted to do for New York what Atget had done for Paris. This same year, she rediscovered and shared Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs with the world.

>1931 to 1932: Several Voices Speak Simultaneously

    In 1932, Abbott created some of her most complex and experimental work but struggled financially. When three New York institutions rejected her requests for support, she was forced to give up both her portrait studio and—for almost two years—her project photographing New York City.

>1933 to 1934: America's Usable Past

    In 1933, to support herself, Abbott started teaching “modern photography” classes and took a summer-long freelance assignment photographing American architecture for the architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, who introduced her to Lewis Mumford’s historical and sociological paradigms.

>1934 to 1935: Miles and Miles

    In late 1934, Abbott's exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York received both popular and critical acclaim and led to her lifelong relationship with the progressive journalist Elizabeth McCausland. It also resulted in Abbott applying for and receiving her Federal Art Project, “Changing New York.” 

>1936 to Early 1938: The Entire Complex Social Scene

    By 1938, Abbott proposed to publish a book of her photographs that would speak to future generations about the complex cause-and-effect relationship between New York's forms of transportation, architecture, and quality of life--with each photograph serving as part “of the whole picture, as living and functioning details of the entire complex social scene." 

>1938 to 1940: The World's Fair

    By the time Abbott's employment with the Federal Arts Project ended on September 14, 1939, she and her staff had produced nearly seven hundred photographs, hundreds of research folders and a book. However the book that E. P. Dutton published was a city guidebook marketed to World's Fair tourists despite Abbott telling the publisher that she "never had in mind a book of this type." Shortly after the Fair closed, Abbott delivered a speech clarifying that she intended for her Federal Art Project photographs to serve as "civic documentary history."

>After Changing New York: Third Acts

  Abbott's third act focuses primarily on science--but not exclusively.

1898 to 1922: From Bernice to Berenice

Berenice Abbott, Provincetown Playhouse, 133 MacDougal Street, New York, December 29, 1936, Minneapolis Institute of Art

  • July 17, 1898, Bernice Alice Abbott is born in Springfield, Ohio.

  • February 1917, Abbott is admitted to the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, intending to study journalism.

  • March 1917, Abbott follows the style of the popular ballroom dancer Irene Castle and bobs her hair. This is a startling, "flapper" hairstyle that brings her to the attention of sophisticates on OSU's campus.
  • January 1918, Abbott accepts a $20 loan from OSU classmates Jimmy Light and Sue Jenkins for a one-way train ticket to New York City, where she befriends a group of non-conformists including the Dada artists Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and the "Baroness" Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven. She also develops other friendships at the Provincetown Playhouse and the Golden Swan Tavern (known as the "Hell Hole.")
  • Lacking funds to study journalism at Columbia College, she creates sculptures and supports herself by working a variety of odd jobs, including posing for artists.

  • In January 1919, Abbott is cast in a speaking role in the Provincetown Players' production of Otto K. Liveright's play, From Portland to Doverbut doesn't get to perform when the 1918 flu pandemic sends her to the hospital and leaves her with a lifetime of respiratory complications.

  • In January 1921, several friends encourage Abbott to move to France, so she applies for a passport and in late spring boards the SS Rochambeau with a one-way second-class ticket and a letter of introduction from the Baroness to the writer André Gide. On board she befriends the sculptor John Storrs.

  • When she meets Gide in Paris, he invites her to spend the summer at his provincial French cottage with his young mistress Élisabeth van Rysselberghe.

  • Abbott travels frequently with friends between France and Germany during 1921 and 1922.

  • In October 1922, Abbott signs a letter to John Storrs using for the first time the French spelling of her name, "Berenice."

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    1923 to 1926: Man Ray and Atget

    Berenice Abbott, Portrait of Eugène Atget , 1927, printed 1982, gelatin silver print. International Center of Photography

    • In 1923, Abbott meets up with the Dada artist Man Ray, who had moved to Paris shortly after Abbott and had established a fashionable portrait photography business at 31 bis rue Campagne-Première. He tells her about having to dismiss a know-it-all darkroom assistant, and Abbott asks him, “What about me? I don’t know a thing.” She starts working for him immediately and uses her income to enjoy the city’s vibrant interwar culture, mingling with a diverse group of young and ambitious writers, visual artists, diplomats, models, socialites, and expatriates.
    • In 1924, Man Ray, wanting to compensate Abbott for her hard work--without giving her a raise--encourages her to use his camera during her lunch breaks to create portraits of her friends.
    • In 1925, Man Ray shows Abbott his collection of photographs of Paris by a little-known photographer named Eugene Atget, who lives down the street from Man Ray's studio, at 17 Bis Rue Campagne Première. Soon after, Abbott purchases several prints from Atget and tries to interest her friends in doing the same.
    • By February 1926, Abbott is forced to leave Man Ray's studio when he complains to her that the heiress Peggy Guggenheim had called his studio and requested a portrait sitting with her instead of with him.
    • Several of Abbott's friends, including Guggenheim, provide her with financial gifts and loans to open her first portrait studio at 44 rue du Bac

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    1926 to 1928: Nostalgia for America

    Berenice Abbott, Portrait of André Siegfried , 1928, printed 1982, gelatin silver print. Clark Art Institute

    • In June 1926, Abbott exhibits her portraits at Jean Slivinsky’s Left-Bank gallery, Au Sacre du Printemps and tells a reporter for the New York Herald of Paris that her photographs are unlike Man Ray's because she relies on "women's intuition" to sense when her sitters are presenting their authentic selves. This show, titled Exposition Bérénice Abbott: Portraits photographiques, reflects Abbott’s growing network of well-connected friends, including Djuna Barnes, Sylvia Beach, Alexander Berkman, Marthe Bibesco, Joseph Caillaux, Mme. Reine Sainte-Marie Perrin Claudel, Jean Cocteau, André Gide, Sisley Huddleston, James Joyce, Marie Laurencin, and André Tardieu.
    • In spring 1927, Abbott invites Atget to her studio for a portrait sitting—hoping to provide him with publicity materials to promote his photography business. Months later, when she attempts to show him the resulting prints, she discovers that he had died on August 4. Abbott seeks out and befriends the executor of Atget’s estate, André Calmettes.
    • In early 1928, Abbott moves her studio to 18 rue Servandoni and orders new art deco furnishings by Maison Dennery.
    • Abbott's nostalgia for America starts to well up after she reads André Siegfried's America Comes of Age: A French Analysis. Siegfried's book explains that European cultures will be rendered obsolete by America's ambitious engineering projects, mass-production industrialization, and aggressive banking and investment policies.
    • The second exhibition of Abbott’s portrait work in Paris, May 24 to June 7, 1928, secures Abbott and Atget's reputations as key figures in European modern photography. Officially titled the “Premier Salon Indepéndent de la Photographie Moderne,” it is widely known as the “Salon de l’Escalier” because it is held in the twin staircases of the fashionable Théâtre de la Comédie des Champs-Élysées. Abbott contributes a dozen of her best portraits  as well as a selection of Atget’s Paris views of Paris from her personal collection. Among the other photographers featured in this exhibition are the 19th-century French portrait photographer Nadar as well as several of Abbott's contemporaries, including Man Ray, Germaine Krull, and André Kertész. The exhibition receives considerable press attention, including flattering descriptions of Abbott and Atget’s works by Florent Fels and Pierre Mac Orlan. Fels applauds their rejection of dreamy pictorialist themes and painterly printing techniques, while Mac Orlan finds in Abbott and Atget's photographs evidence of a macabre literary quality that he calls the "social fantastic."
    • In late June 1928, Abbott purchases Atget’s archive of notebooks, bound albums, 7,800 original prints of 4,218 different subjects, and more than 1,400 glass negatives for 10,000 francs using money that she borrows from her studio manager Julie Oppenheim Reiner. Abbott and Reiner then attempt to recoup their investment by offering interviews, finding exhibition venues, and securing a publisher for a monograph about Atget’s work.
    • Before the end of 1928, Abbott signs a contract with the French publisher Henri Jonquières to produce a book about Atget’s work for the French and German markets--on the condition that Abbott also find an English-language publisher. 

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    1929: Transition

    Berenice Abbott, Untitled album page depicting Lower East Side, The Bowery Vicinity, Manhattan, spring 1929, Metropolitan Museum of Art

    • Hoping to promote her own career and to find an English-language publisher for a book about Atget's work, Abbott travels to the United States and stays from January 16 to mid-April 1929. Before leaving Paris, she corresponds with several European publishers and photo agencies and asks them what kinds of images they want her to create while she is in New York. In addition, the organizers of the Stuttgart Film und Foto exhibition ask Abbott to contact a list of American photographers about exhibiting industrial prints in their forthcoming show.
    • Traveling up and down Manhattan in a double-decker bus and wandering the bustling streets, Abbott uses a small-format Curt Bentzin camera to record the kinds of subjects that European publishers and photo agencies requested. She then arranges the resulting drugstore-printed images in an album, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The form and content of the album reflect not only Abbott’s enthusiasm for Atget's photographs of Paris but also her awareness of avant-garde camera angles and magazine layouts then popular Lucian Vogel’s magazine Vu.
    • Abbott travels to Cleveland, visits her mother, and meets with the industrial photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who plans to move to New York later this year to become the principal photographer for Fortune magazine.
    • Abbott shows her collection of Atget photographs to the famous New York pictorialist photographer Alfred Stieglitz but finds him to be "a cranky old man... and precious." 
    • By June 1929, shortly after she returns to Paris from the United States, one of Abbott’s photographs, a variant of “Retail Establishments, Hester Street, Lower East Side, New York,” appears in the French art and literary magazine Transition with the title "New York." This is Abbott's first published photograph of New York City.
    • In 1929, Abbott and Atget's works are included in two German traveling exhibitions of modern photography, Film und Foto (Stuttgart, Zurich, Berlin, Danzig, and Vienna, as well as in Tokyo and Osaka in 1931) and Fotografie der Gegenwart (Essen, Hannover, Berlin, Dresden, Magdeburg, Frankfurt, Leipzig, and London, as well as Kaiserslautern and Göttingen, Germany, in 1930).
    • In October 1929, Abbott is hospitalized with pneumonia, stricken at the same time that the bottom falls out of the New York Stock Market.

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    1930: Literary Imagination

    Berenice Abbott, Portrait of Pierre Mac Orlan, 1928, printed 1982, gelatin silver print. Clark Art Institute

    • When Fortune magazine debuts in February 1930, it includes Abbott's portrait of the chief executive of RCA, David Sarnoff. She continues to work as a freelance photographer for Fortune and other clients for the next three years but sets aside Wednesday afternoons to create her earliest images of New York.
    • In March 1930, Abbott sells half her interest in the Atget collection to the art dealer Julien Levy for $1,000 after he agrees to publish an American edition of the Atget book under the imprint of his employer, Erhard Weyhe. Abbott agrees to create modern prints from Atget's negatives for a nominal fee whenever Levy sells them.
    • Abbott acquires a Century Universal  8x10 field camera.
    • In May 1930, Abbott returns to Paris to finalize details for the publication of Atget: Photographe de Paris with preface written by Pierre Mac Orlan. (The German edition has an introduction by Camille Recht.) Mac Orlan's essay encourages modern photographers "in each of the globe's great cities" to spark the literary imaginations of "passive adventurers" by following the example set by Atget.
    • In various interviews this year, Abbott tells reporters that she plans to do for New York what Atget did for Paris. 
    • Nadar and Atget's works arouse interest in 19th-century precursors to modern photography, and Jonquières asks Abbott to select examples of artistic photographs made in the United States before 1875 for a forthcoming book Die Alte Photographie [The Old Photograph].
    • Abbott leaves Europe on June 11 and does not return for more than 40 years.
    • In September 1930, Abbott orders prints from the Mathew Brady Collection at the War Department for publication in Die Alte Photographie.
    • To celebrate the publication of the Atget book, Levy mounts a joint Atget and Abbott exhibition at the Wehye Gallery that opens November 24, 1930. The exhibition is a success, resulting in the sales of dozens and dozens of Atget's prints. Walker Evans reviews this exhibition for Hound & Horn and praises the poetry of Atget's work. 
    • In February 1931, Abbott tells Samuel Putnam that Pierre Mac Orlan is the only critic "who understands what photography is all about."

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    1931 to 1932: Several Voices Speak Simultaneously

    Berenice Abbott, NEW YORK, Photo-Mural, 1932, from the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition catalogue, “Murals by American Painters and Photographers," May, 1932

    • In 1931, Jonquières publishes Camille Recht's Die Alte Photographie with a foreword by Ivan Goll that describes Abbott's collection of photographs from Mathew Brady's archive as precursors of the "neue Sachlichkeit." He praises these photographs for being historically significant, carefully composed, and visually complex works of art.
    • On October 30, 1931, Abbott applies unsuccessfully for a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship, seeking to devote "at least a year making a documentary interpretation of New York City in photographs." This application also describes Atget's archive as a "burden," reflecting perhaps the hours and hours she has spent this year creating modern prints from his negatives.
    • In November 1931, Julien Levy opens the Julien Levy Gallery on the strength of the Atget collection, intending to devote it exclusively to the medium of photography.
    • During the same month, Abbott writes a letter to Hardinge Scholle Director of the Museum of the City of New York proposing to photograph "the more important and interesting old buildings and landmarks of the city, especially subjects about to be demolished." Scholle writes a letter of support for such a project to the Museum's benefactors, praising "the contrasts between the old and the new which Miss Abbott has brought out more strikingly than any other artist who has worked in modern New York." Historian Isaac Newton Phelps-Stokes also pens a letter of support for this appeal, but no patron steps forward to fund the project.
    • In March 1932, Abbott proposes to write an essay for Samuel Putnam's magazine New Review tracing the influence of the avant-garde L'Abbaye de Créteil poets on later literary groups, focusing particularly on the poetry of Apollinaire, Marinetti, Jules RomainsUnanimism, and Henri Martin Barzun's orchestral poetry, where "several voices speak simultaneously." This essay was never published.
    • In May 1932, Lincoln Kirstein organizes “Murals by American Painters and Photographers" at the Museum of Modern Art's new building on 53rd Street. Abbott exhibits an experimental maquette with several competing themes, repeating shapes, and disorienting points of view that she frames within a triptych of Rockefeller Center's criss-crossing I-beams. Both her "montage" and a brief essay about photo murals by Julien Levy are reproduced in MoMA's exhibition catalog
    • In October 1932, Abbott's portraits and New York views are presented in a solo exhibition at the Julien Levy GalleryLewis Mumford applauds her work in the New Yorker magazine, yet no prints are sold.
    • Abbott stops photographing New York at this time and also abandons her well-lighted portrait studio at the Hotel des Artists on Central Park West. Instead she rents a temporary studio at 44 West 9th Street before settling into 56 West 53rd Street.
    • In December 1932, Abbott proposes a project to the Board of Directors of the New-York Historical Society that emphasizes both the historical and "fantastic" nature of her work. She asks for $325 per week, an exorbitant sum. In return, the Society will receive 350 to 500 permanent prints per year while she retains all rights of reproduction. In the depths of a global economic depression, the Board replies that it would be "unwise" for them to commit resources to such a project.
    • In June 1933, Abbott sends a direct appeal to nearly 200 of the Museum of the City of New York's patrons with supporting letters both from Scholle and from the Museum of the Modern Art's Chair of the Department of Architecture Philip Johnson. The appeal angers some of the Museum's donors and fails to raise any money.

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    1933 to 1934: America's Usable Past

    Berenice Abbott, Front Street at Peck Slip, New York, 1932, 8 x 10 inch negative. This image was included in Henry-Russell Hitchcock's 1934 traveling exhibition, "Urban Vernacular in the Thirties, Fourties, and Fifties: American Cities Before the Civil War."

    • In the summer of 1933, Ralph Pearson, supervisor of the Art Division at the New School for Social Research, asks Abbott to teach a class on photography. The position provides Abbott with a subsistence wage for the next thirty years and brings her into contact with a large number of the school's progressive intellectuals and artists.
    • Marchal Landgren organizes an exhibition of Abbott's work for the New School that runs from March first to the fifteenth, 1934. In June, Landgren also attempts to interest the Rockefeller family in purchasing Abbott's photographs--without success.
    • Between June and September 1934, during Abbott's summer break from teaching, she accepts a freelance assignment with architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock to photograph American architecture. They take three trips along the East Coast of the United States from Massachusetts to South Carolina documenting two subjects for two separate exhibitions that Hitchcock is developing. The first is on the architecture of Henry Hobson Richardson for the Museum of Modern Art (1936). The second is on the Urban Vernacular in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties: American Cities Before the Civil War for a traveling exhibition program that Hitchcock had been developing at Wesleyan College, where he is Professor of Architectural History. Both projects are inspired by Lewis Mumford's 1924 book Sticks and Stones about America's "usable past" in architecture.
    • In 1934, Lewis Mumford publishes Technics and Civilization that describes three "successive but interpenetrating phases" of American history: the eotechnic (before the Civil War), the paleotechnic (what he describes elsewhere as the "Brown Decades" dominated by iron and coal), and the neotechnic (the emerging, utopian age of electricity and quantum physics). Mumford borrows the terms "eotechnic" and "paleotechnic" from the Scottish biologist, sociologist, and town planner Patrick Geddes

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    1934 to 1935: Miles and Miles

    Berenice Abbott, Portrait of Elizabeth McCausland at her Printing Press, c. 1935, Archives of American Art.

    • In November 1934, at the invitation of Hardige Scholle, Abbott exhibits a large selection of her photographs of New York at the Museum of the City of New York. This display is so popular that it is held over until February 1935. Among the critics who praise the exhibition are Lewis Mumford who, writing for the New Yorker, calls for "miles and miles" of such photographs, and Elizabeth McCausland who, writing for the Springfield Republican, describes Abbott's "honest respect for her medium and her subject." Abbott writes a thank-you note to McCausland and adds, "I have, and have had, a fantastic passion for New York, photographically speaking."
    • In November 1934, Abbott and McCausland meet in New York after Marchal Landgren asks McCausland to write a biographical essay about Abbott for the March edition of Trend magazine. 
    • Landgren also encourages Abbott to take advantage of the popular response to her exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York and, in February 1935, Abbott submits a proposal to New York City's Emergency Relief Bureau to create a "Photographic Record of New York City."
    • In 1935, Abbott describes her elementary workshop at the New School for Social Research as a course in theory and technique in which "modern photography" is treated as "an independent medium" deriving its approach from the "social, psychological, esthetic, and commercial values of the medium as an individual expression."
    • In May 1935, Abbott inquires about the status of her Emergency Relief Bureau proposal and is told that "it has a very good chance of going through." That same month, Abbott accompanies McCausland on a road trip from New York to Arkansas as part of a proposed book-length portrait of America, the 48 States. Abbott takes photographs while McCausland produces written reports.
    • When they return to New York, Abbott and McCauland lease a studio with living space on the fourth floor of 50 Commerce Street, where they reside as a couple until McCausland's death in 1965.
    • In October 1935, Abbott's Emergency Relief Bureau proposal is approved as part of the New Deal's Federal Art Project and takes the title, "Changing New York."
    • On October 7, 1935, as Supervisor Grade 11 earning $145 per month, Abbott takes her first photographs as Federal Art Project employee 233905.
    • To keep the eight employees assigned to her project busy, Abbott creates a complex "Outline for Photographing New York City" based on the social science research techniques of Patrick Geddes. Essentially, Abbott's plan requires her to number, date, and provide a descriptive title for each negative, then hand them over to her technicians, clerks, and researchers, who print them and assign one or more codes before conducting ancillary research. Reflecting Geddes's approach, Abbott's outline includes three major categories: one for the "material aspect" of the city, such as vistas, canyons, and buildings; a second for the city's "means of life," such as transportation, communication, food, water, and energy; and a third for "the people and how they live," such as ethnic 'types' and cultural and religious institutions. In theory, these codes would allow future historians to discern the relative significance of each image. Yet in practice Abbott's complex images almost always include multiple subjects that make them difficult for the clerks to apply them consistently.

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    1936 to Early 1938: The Entire Complex Social Scene

    Berenice Abbott, DePeyster Statue Bowling Green, looking north to Broadway, Manhattan, July 23 1936, Museum of the City of New York.

    • On July 23, 1936, Abbott creates one of her most emblematic images, DePeyster Statue, Bowling Green, looking north to Broadway, Manhattan, which she will enlarge to billboard proportions for her Museum of the City of New York exhibition in 1937 and will use as the frontispiece for her 1939 book, Changing New York.
    • In September 1936, Abbott writes an article for Art Front that identifies "the real fathers of photography" as Daguerre, David Octavius Hill, Mathew Brady, Nadar, and Atget. These photographers, according to Abbott, had "attained a high degree of excellence not only in a documentary sense but also in a formal sense. Their prints show, whatever the limitations of early photographic equipment, a profound concern for composition, organization of forms, and textures." 
    • In late 1936, Abbott is forced to respond to a complaint lodged against her by her Federal Arts Project staff who feel she is following "no definite line in her choice of subjects." In reply, she explains to her Project Supervisor M. J. Kauffmann that her photographs will not be merely "record photographs" that illustrate a predetermined list of discrete subjects but, instead, "documentary photographs" that present facts "as organic parts of the whole picture, as living and functioning details of the entire complex social scene."
    • Beaumont Newhall foregrounds the work of Abbott and Atget in the Museum of Modern Art's first exhibition dedicated solely to photography, March 17 to April 18, 1937.
    • In May 1937, Abbott sees an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art of prehistoric African rock paintings organized by anthropologist Leo Frobenius, who promotes a manner of making meaning that he calls "culture morphology." This experience encourages Abbott to describe her own project in terms of culture morphology and to exclude images of human figures from her photographs for the next two years. As she explains in a letter to Audrey McMahon, photographs of people do not "tell you much about the people except that they were there... unless you can get people naturally." 
    • In August 1937, Abbott proposes to extend her project to cover the entire State of New York, but this proposal is rejected.
    • In November 1937, the Museum of the City of New York mounts a second exhibition of Abbott's works featuring 67 photographs produced for the Federal Art Project. 
    • In early 1938, Abbott creates two lists of photographs for a proposed book about her work including images she had created before her Federal Arts Project.
    • She also creates a rough layout of a 23-page book, which suggests that she wants the images to tell a story about the evolving history of New York. This proposed book would alternate between views of the city's architecture and means of transportation before ending with a single-page filmic sequence recounting the history of New York's most notable bridges. The layout also includes twenty-five lines from Walt Whitman's 1856 poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (in which Whitman addresses future residents of the city), and a New York Times population projection for New York City of 9,384,000 in 1960. Considered holistically, this proposed book would have spoken to future generations about the complex cause-and-effect interrelationship between the city's evolving forms of transportation, architecture and quality of life.


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    1938 to 1940: The World's Fair

    • April 9 to May 1, 1938, Abbott contributes seventeen of her New York photographs to an exhibit at La Maison Francaise titled "Roofs for 40 Million: An Exhibition on Housing" that features an introduction by Lewis Mumford. He calls for using "the utmost resources of national, regional, municipal government to build houses and communities that will embody the needs of a life-centered instead of a money-centered society." 
    • E. P. Dutton offers to print a book of Abbott's photographs marketed to 1939 New York World's Fair tourists, with her photographs arranged in geographic guidebook fashion. In June 1938 Abbott "reiterates" in a letter to Vice President of E. P. Dutton John Macrae, Jr.  that she "never had in mind a book of this type."
    • On August 28, 1938, Abbott asks Lewis Mumford to write the foreword for her forthcoming book, Changing New York. No reply is preserved. 
    • On September 15, 1938, Abbott asks Henry-Russell Hitchcock to write the foreword to Changing New York, stressing the "documentary, cultural, and social value of such a record... rather than its more specialized architectural interest." Hitchcock writes an essay that is rejected by Dutton. 
    • On January 2, 1939, in a radio interview, Abbott insists that the dramatic contrasts in her photographs represent a "a significant comment on the lack of city planning in the United States."
    • In spring 1939, Changing New York is published by E. P. Dutton in time for the World's Fair with texts written by Elizabeth McCausland (heavily edited by Dutton) and a foreword by the Director of the New York Region Federal Art Project Audrey McMahon.
    • In August 1939, Abbott proposes to extend her Federal Art Project to include the World's Fair, which is known as "The World of Tomorrow," but this proposal is also rejected.
    • By the time Abbott's employment with the Federal Arts Project is terminated on September 14, 1939—because she is also earning an income from her teaching—she and her staff have produced nearly seven hundred photographs, hundreds of research folders with varying quantities and qualities of information, over 100 enlarged prints for exhibition purposes (some with mural-like proportions), and a book.
    • In the fall, the World's Fair closes and World War II begins in Europe.
    • On February 7, 1940, Abbott asks the Federal Art Project to rehire her as a part-time consultant to supervise the printing of her negatives, but is turned down.
    • Around the same time, Abbott delivers a speech at the Biltmore Hotel titled "Civic Documentary History," in which she explains that her Federal Art Project was intended to be historical, contextual, and political. She also tells Popular Photography that her "favorite photograph" is the totality of her New York City archive, which she dreams one day might be presented in such a way that viewers can "reinforce each separate image with the strength and meaning of all the others."

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    After Changing New York: Third Acts

    Berenice Abbott, Soap Bubbles, 1946, Metropolitan Museum of Art

    • As early as April 1939, several months before the conclusion of her Federal Art Project, Abbott sends a "manifesto" titled "Photography and Science" to Charles C. Adams, Director of the New York State Museum in Albany. In it, she explains:

    The problem of documenting science, of presenting its realistic subject matter with the same integrity as one portrays the culture morphology of our civilization, and yet of endowing this material so strange and unfamiliar to the public with the poetry of its own vast implications, would seem to me to lead logically from my previous work. I am now seeking channels through which this new creative task may be approached.

    • In the 1940s, Abbott publishes two books about photography, A Guide to Better Photography (1941) and The View Camera Made Simple (1948). 
    • In 1942, Abbott builds herself an enormous reverse camera obscura, her "Super Sight Camera," that produces highly detailed and larger-than-life direct positive prints of mostly scientific subjects. 
    • Soon after, Abbott starts creating cameraless photographs using magnets and iron filings to illustrate the wave properties of quantum physics "because everything goes in waves," she explains.
    • Abbott produces several bodies of photographs documenting New York's Greenwich Village (1949) and Wall Street neighborhoods (1961). 
    • Abbott travels the length of U.S. Route One in 1954 with Elizabeth McCausland to record America's transformative automobile culture. 
    • Abbott continues to teach at the New School for Social Research until 1957.
    • Abbott's scientific photographs generate little attention until 1957, when the Soviets successfully launch Sputnik One, which precipitates a Cold War race to the Moon. Subsequently, the National Science Foundation's Physics Science Study Committee at MIT hires Abbott, age 60, to photograph scientific principles for their forthcoming high school textbook. Hampered by ageism and sexism, Abbott holds this job for just two years.
    • Shortly after McCausland's death in 1965, Abbott relocates to Maine, where she produces a book, Portrait of Maine (1968) and continues to live there until her death at age 93 on December 9, 1991.

    This chronology of Abbott's life is based on Barr's PhD dissertation, "Becoming Documentary: Berenice Abbott's Photographs, 1925-1939" (1997, UMI Publication number 9709780) and on Julia Van Haaften's authoritative biography on Abbott, Berenice Abbott, A Life in Photography (W. W. Norton & Company, New York 2018). Special thanks to Mary Weeber for generously helping to edit this webpage, which is ultimately my responsibility. If you discover any errors or inaccuracies, please contact Peter Barr here