Berenice Abbott was best known for being New York City’s official photographer during the Great Depression, though she actually explored a panoply of subjects during her six-decade-long career. Her photographic archive, recently acquired by the Ryerson Image Centre of Toronto’s Ryerson University, reflects the breadth of her interests, with more than 6,000 photographs and 7,000 negatives — not to mention countless letters, diaries, business records, and other ephemera — that span her lifetime.
Though raised in Ohio, Abbott lived on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village as a young woman before moving to Paris in 1918 to chase the bohemian dream. There, she served as Man Ray’s personal assistant while learning photography from the master. In 1926, she opened her own portrait studio, producing images of cultural notables like Jean Cocteau and James Joyce (the latter is among the most famous images of the writer).
The Ryerson’s newly acquired archive includes many of these early works, along with her famous photographic homage to New York. Abbott began the series after she moved back to Greenwich Village in 1929, when the city was enduring its worst economic crisis ever. She had returned to find a publisher for a selection of works by her late friend Eugéne Atget, who had deeply inspired her approach to photography. Instead, she began excitedly photographing the city’s new skyscrapers. By 1935, the Works Progress Administration had hired her to officially document New York’s architectural transformation, a project that culminated in a show at the Museum of the City of New York titled Changing New York. That led to a book of photographs by the same name that firmly cemented her reputation in the United States.
Thanks to her brazen curiosity and tough intellect, Abbott’s photographic practice was never static. Beginning in the 1940s, she sought out ways to photograph scientific concepts like gravity (she even invented a telescopic lighting pole still in use today); in 1958, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology commissioned her to shoot an innovative collection of abstract photographs for a physics textbook. In a strange twist, Abbott soon developed a lung condition, forcing her to leave the pollution-choked city for rural Maine in 1965. The dramatic change in scenery inspired her last published series, A Portrait of Maine (1968), which Ryerson also acquired along with the scientific images.
Today, Abbott is hardly as well known as Walker Evans or Edward Steichen, but many still regard her as an important forerunner of contemporary photography. Hopefully Ryerson’s archive will help further scholarship of and public knowledge about her work.