Driving up to Maine on assignment this week for my lottery project, I had time to continue musing on Berenice Abbott’s extraordinary photography career and the behind-the-scenes artistic struggles she endured after returning to New York.
When Abbott arrived in New York in 1929 she was unprepared for the increased cost of living over Paris and the new prejudices she encountered as a women in the all-male world of American photography. In New York this world was dominated by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, who favored the soft focus of pictorialism and later championed the artful use of dramatic lighting and compositions to prove photography was as compelling a medium as painting:
On the opposite side of the creative spectrum was Abbot who was a pragmatist and staunch realist. She rejected the forced aesthetic of pictorialism as a contrivance aimed at manipulating emotions. Her approach tended to capture the scene as she saw it with her naked eye. Recalling her meeting with Steiglitz, Abbott said,
“I felt there was something negative about the man…To judge America by European standards is foolish and a mistake. There was a new urgency here, for better or worse. America had new needs and results. There was poetry in our crazy gadgets, our tools. our architecture…Stieglitz did not recognize it.“
The two never found common ground in their artistic outlooks, which is a pity. Abbott saw poetry in photographing the streets much as she found them, pausing only to consider the placement of her tripod and the direction of the sunlight. It’s hard to imagine the inflexibility of Steiglitz and Steichen to recognize the kindred artistic spirit they might have discovered in Abbott. I can’t help but wonder if their reaction might have been different had Abbott been a young man:
Abbott labored for 5 years in relative obscurity, enduring constant rejection letters until she finally received sufficient funding in 1935 from the Federal Art Project (FAP) to concentrate on completing her photographic portrait of New York full time. In the same year she also began teaching at the New School for Social Research. Two years later, The Museum of the City of New York mounted an exhibition that featured 110 of Abbott’s best photographs, which brought her work to a wider audience. Magazine, newspaper and radio interviews followed and in 1938, E.P Dutton and Company decided to publish the work in its entirety. Unfortunately for Abbott however, FAP received all royalty payments and she had no say in the design of the book. Accordingly, the only silver lining was that her companion, the writer and activist Elizabeth McCausland was brought in to write the captions to accompany Abbott’s photographs. There are no photographs of the two of them together, but here are two individual images of them from the 1940s:
The two collaborated on several other projects: two road trips; one photographing rural America and a second one documenting Route 1 as it winds from Maine to Florida. Although they never came out publicly as a couple, they moved in together to the Blanchard, ME farm house Abbott purchased in 1962.
But I digress.
With her New York project completed, Abbott turned her attention to photographing science:”We live in a world made by science. But we – the millions of laymen – do not understand or appreciate the knowledge which thus controls daily life…there needs to be a friendly interpreter between science and the layman.” As with her New York project, Abbott would work for the next 20 years to become that friendly interpreter, creating innovative photographs in addition to inventing gadgets to assist in their creation, with little support or encouragement from her photography peers.
In March 1942 she invented a reverse camera obscura to project images of objects placed in front of the lens onto 16×20 film. The film was then used to create photographic enlargements that had extraordinary details:
She became photography editor for Science Illustrated between 1944-46 and made this photograph of soap bubbles in 1946 to illustrate the attraction properties of soap molecules:
To create this photograph, Abbott worked for three days experimenting with different lighting and kinds of soap. It is a testament not only to her creative tenacity but her relentless belief in the power of straight photography to capture and convey meaning.
The successful Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 created a collective urgency in the US to make science more accessible to high school students, who represented the next generation of scientists. In 1959 Abbott was hired by an MIT group, the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) to create photographs to illustrate the principles of physics. During the next two years she had an opportunity to collaborate with scientists at MIT and Harvard. Her ability to create photographs that successfully explain scientific principles is commendable, but these images also engage us visually:
The physics textbook was eventually published and within 5 years was translated into 17 languages and her photographs became part of a traveling exhibit organized by the Smithsonian Institution. Accompanying the photographs were captions written by Elizabeth McCausland.
Today it’s relatively easy for us to look at photographs taken of Saturn or images of infinitely small things taken with an electron microscope, but in 1958-1960, Abbott had to largely invent and then finesse her own methodologies to realize her singular vision. I find her images and her story richly compelling. She had a ferocious spirit and never gave up on herself.
Finally in the late 1950s Helen Gee, owner of the famed Limelight Photo Gallery and coffee house began exhibiting Abbott’s work. Gee was a visionary entrepreneur who sold the work of many under-recognized photographers a full decade before the boom years began in the 1970s: Lisette Model, Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, W.Eugene Smith, Imogen Cunningham and of course superbly printed images of Eugene Atget’s Paris made by Abbott.
In the 1970s Paul Katz of Marlborough Fine Arts helped establish Abbott’s reputation firmly in the collections of all the institutions who had previously paid scant attention to her work. What a momentous time this must have been for her.
Towards the end of her life biographer and friend Hank O’Neal asked Berenice to name the photograph she considered her best. Her reply sort of sums up everything:
“The one I take tomorrow.”