“PEABODY HERE. Today, we’re going to set the Gayback Machine to the year 1898, and the town of Springfield, Ohio. There, on July 17th, a little girl named Bernice Abbott is born, who would grow up to become one of the most important photographers of the twentieth century.”Bernice was raised in Springfield by her single mother. After graduating from high school she moved to Columbus to attend OSU. After one year the lure of the Bohemian life caused her to drop out and head to New York City. Soon after arriving in Manhattan she moved in with a group of “artsy fartsy types” (including writer Djuna Barnes and philosopher Kenneth Burke) who shared a communal apartment in Greenwich Village. At first she pursued a career in journalism, but after meeting the likes of Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp (both who lived in Paris and were founders of the DADA art movement) a move to Europe transpired and her life took a decidedly different turn.
Upon arriving in Paris in 1921, Bernice changed the spelling of her name to Berenice (the French equivalent) to coincide with her newfound life there. At first she studied sculpture, but after working as a darkroom assistant to Man Ray (the American expatriate and avant-garde photographer) she soon “took to photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else.” Man Ray allowed her the use of his studio to take photographs, and by 1926 she had exhibited her work in a solo show.
In 1927 she opened her own studio where she became well known as a portrait photographer. Most notably, she photographed some of the leading members of the Parisian gay, lesbian and bisexual community, including the artist Thelma Wood (a former lover) and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. She photographed the noted Parisian photographer Eugene Atget. Upon his death soon after Abbott acquired a number of Atget’s original negatives from his estate, including his groundbreaking work focusing on everyday life in Paris.
On a foray back to Manhattan in 1929 to pitch the idea of a book of Atget’s photographs, Abbott fell in love with the city all over again and chose to move back. She put aside the portrait work and decided to focus on the city itself. Many consider her to be the defining photographer of New York City. Her large body of work records a period of time when New York was booming and becoming one of the most important cities in the world.
In the early 1930’s she met the art critic Elizabeth McCausland (nicknamed “Butchy” by Abbott), who she moved in with soon after. They remained together until McCausland’s passing in 1965. Abbott moved to Maine in 1968 where she remained for the rest of her life. Oddly, she distanced herself from her lesbian past, essentially denying any involvement with women whatsoever. She died in 1991.
Abbott’s body of work contains some of the most iconic images of New York City and some of the most important artistic and literary figures of 1920’s Paris. Her passion for photography includes inventions such as the telescoping light pole, known by today’s studio photographers as an autopole. In Abbott’s own words, “Photography can never grow up and stand on its own two feet, if it imitates primarily some other medium.”
There are several books available which contain some of Abbott’s most important photographs, including Changing New York, A Portrait of Maine and Berenice Abbott: Photographs.