Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) was an American photographer best known for her black and white photography of New York City's architecture. This collection consists primarily business and personal letters she received, 1928-1992. Other materials include notebooks, diaries, photographs, and personal and family materials. It is not, however, a major source for Abbott's photography.
Biographical/historical: Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) was an American photographer best known for her black and white photography of New York City's architecture. Abbott was born July 17th, 1898 in Springfield, Ohio. She attended Ohio State University for one year with the goal of becoming a journalist, but abandoned that course to move to New York City in 1918. While there, she became interested in sculpture. In 1921 she sailed for France and spent several years living abroad. During this time Abbott was hired by Man Ray to work as his darkroom assistant. During her years in Paris she began to practice her own photography and became acquainted with Eugene Atget. After his death she purchased all of his work and returned to New York.
In 1935 Abbott was hired by the Federal Art Project which allowed her to complete her "Changing New York" project. At the end of this arrangement in 1939, over 300 detailed photographs of the city were donated by Abbott to the Museum of the City of New York. 1935 was also the year that Abbott moved in with Elisabeth McCausland, noted art critic. Abbott would remain partners with McCausland until the latter's death in 1965.
Abbott's interests within the world of photography were varied. She began by focusing on urban architecture. In the 1940 she developed an interest in scientific photography, working for a time as photo editor of Science Illustrated. Not only was Abbott a talented photographer, but she invented many techniques and designed new equipment for other photographers. In 1947 she opened her House of Photography which sold her inventions, including the distortion easel and the autopole.
In 1954 Abbott traveled US 1 from Maine to Florida on a photographic expedition, accompanied by McCausland. This expedition resulted in more than 2000 negatives, ranging from antebellum architecture to the new roadside architecture. Shortly after she completed the trip, Abbott underwent a lung operation and was told she needed to leave New York City to avoid air pollution. She relocated to Blanchard, Maine where she purchased a house on the Piscataquis River.
Abbot's last publication was "A Portrait of Maine" in 1968, though she continued to take photographs and enjoyed an active social life until her death in 1991.
Content: The Berenice Abbott papers contain correspondence, writings, photographs, and personal materials relating to the life and career of the noted photographer. The bulk of the collection consists of personal and business letters that Abbott received. The correspondents include notable artists, writers, and public figures, art galleries, universities, photographic magazines, scientific journals, and publishers. The subjects of the correspondence range from requests for copies of photographs, business propositions, plans for exhibits, requests for interviews, and other subjects relating to Abbott's work as well as notes from friends and family. Notable correspondents include Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, Cornell Capa, Lisette Model, Marianne Moore, and Jacqueline Onassis. The correspondence contains few replies from Abbott. The bulk of the correspondence dates from the late 1950's to 1991, though the 1920's are represented in her correspondence with André Calmette, Pierre MacOrlan, Evelyn Scott, Jules Romains and Lucia Joyce.
The personal miscellany series contains a family history, interviews, passports and copies of Abbott's will, among other items. Of interest in this series is a list of prominent individuals who were invited to Abbott's memorial service, and an interview conducted by the WPA in 1939, which provides insight into Abbott's work style and her personality. The family history folder includes inquiries after birth certificates, and notes and letters that Abbott collected in the 1980's.
Abbott's writings contain not only personal biographical statements that Abbott used for brochures and gallery programs, but diaries and notebooks that Abbott kept for her own personal use. The entries in the diaries are sporadic, but do contain details about Abbott's daily life. The notebooks are more varied, some containing notes on science and the economy, others ideas for photography subjects and means by which she could improve her equipment.
The photographs series contains photographs and snapshots taken by Abbott herself later in life, as well as photographs of Abbott with her family and friends, and documentation of the layout and exhibit spaces for several of Abbott's photography exhibitions. Abbott collected copies of photographs of Greenwich Village, the Erie Canal, and an entire set of reproductions of works by Chansonetta Emmons. These images are all reproductions of photographs made in the early part of the 20th century.