Berenice Abbott was a multifaceted artist and photographer whose work captured many important aspects of change in the 20th century – in addition to documenting Route 1 itself! Abbott was born in 1898 in Springfield, Ohio, and raised there by her divorced mother. After briefly studying at a university she moved to Paris in 1921 to study sculpture, and in the process became photographer May Ray’s assistant. Man Ray encouraged her work and allowed her to use his dark room, and Abbott began taking portraits of many notable figures including writer James Joyce, painter Margaret Sargent, and Parisian photographer Eugene Atget.
Her relationship to Atget and his work would prove incredibly influential. Though she met him shortly before his death, she purchased his negatives after his death and spent decades of her life promoting the importance of his work. Roughly 30 years later, her collection was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, and much of our current appreciation of his photographs of vanishing Paris neighborhoods is directly because of Abbott’s efforts.
When Abbott moved to New York City in 1929, she took inspiration from Atget and began documenting changing neighborhoods there. Her work was eventually funded by the Federal Art Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration. This would lead to the creation of one of her seminal Changing New York series, which is easily one of the best bodies of work of its type. Her juxtaposition of new and old, fascination with architecture, and humanizing portraits of the city’s residents serves both as a compelling and comprehensive record of the city’s past, but also a breathtakingly beautiful collection of masterful artwork.
Abbott, openly a lesbian, lived for 30 years with her partner, art critic Elizabeth McCausland. Not only a pioneer in her art, Abbott was incredibly ahead of her time as a feminist and photographed many members of the LGBTQ+ community. She also was an inventor, and co-founded the House of Photography, a business that sold photo equipment, some of which Abbott herself designed. Later in life, she would also create photos for a high-school physics textbook and more for Education Services Inc., which wound up on display at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, MA.
In 1954 Abbott took a road trip along Route 1 to photograph architecture and towns, taking approximately one image per mile. To secure funding she was accompanied by a New York developer’s son who she taught photography to on the trip, his new bride, and a schnauzer named Schoen. North and South: Photographs of U.S. Route 1 is both Abbott’s largest body of work on one subject and her least known and again reflects her dedication to capturing areas before they were changed forever, in this case by the interstate highway itself.
Shortly after this trip she underwent an operation on her lungs, which were damaged from air pollution in New York City. She was told she needed to move somewhere with cleaner air to survive, so she relocated to Maine, where she lived until her death in 1991. Her work there continued as she created her final book, Portrait of Maine in 1968, which captured life across the state and images of the changes brought about by the logging practices there.
Abbott was an exceptionally gifted artist and in both her personal life and her long career she was an innovator. Her work, much of which shows the transformations that locations along Route 1 underwent over the decades, is something no one with an interest in photography, history, or the American landscape should ignore.
Matthew Christopher NY New York Dec 26, 2022 Architecture Arts People