Berenice Abbott was born in Ohio in 1898, and first established herself in commercial portraiture in Paris and later in New York. Besides creating masterful bodies of work of the changing face of New York, scientific phenomena, Route 1, and Maine, Abbott was an inventor of photographic equipment, a pioneer in the teaching of photographic techniques, and the first and most committed person to champion the work of the turn-of-the-century French photographer, Eugene Atget.
She first began taking images with a compact Kurt-Bentzin camera, but soon returned to the large-format cameras little favored by Americans but favored instead by her European peers. The results were immediately striking. Abbott documented the 1930s-era of Modernism in the city, which paralleled an intense period of skyscraper building. She documented the city from above and often shot off the rooftops of skyscrapers. Many of her images use stark contrast as a design device, such as shooting buildings and other structures during early-morning and late-day hours when the shadows from the sun are at their most severe, a quality she adored in Atget’s images.
Abbott was a highly skilled photographer who planned her images carefully. For instance, in one famous photo called Nightview, New York (1932), which was taken out the window of a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan, Abbott utilized a special developer to accentuate the contrast of the interior lights of a spectrum of skyscrapers set off against a dusky sky. The image could have only been taken on one night a year, when the days darkened early (around 4:30 pm) and the office lights came on at five o’clock. The result is a strikingly original photograph that to this day remains an iconic image of New York.
As she had for Nightview, Abbott constantly exploited dramatic patterns, lighting, and high degrees of contrast in her work. Odd camera angles and unusual viewpoints typically categorize her images, often creating a look of imposing severity.
Abbott believed that photography was a medium based entirely around facts that could be measured, adjusted, and changed, and that none of it was based on emotion, unlike painting.
She felt that photography, unlike all other arts, could be used to see the beauty in truth. Her street photography from this period also showcases a variety of studies in contrasts and complex compositions, often with layers of detail in the foreground and background, such as in images of tenement apartments with endlessly crisscrossed laundry draped through the frame, shots of grocery market exteriors absurdly dominated by signage, and the complexity of contrasting light and dark lines made by elevated train tracks, sunny streets and shadowed buildings, ironwork fences, and more.
To work in Abbott’s style is to embrace both night and day shooting, preferably with a large-format film camera or at least a high-quality DSLR coupled with extremely wide-angle lenses. Explore unusual camera angles, high degrees of contrast, complex patterns and repeated lines, especially those created by harsh shadows.
The challenge for me has first been to see things as they are, whether a portrait, a city street, or a bouncing ball. In a word, I have tried to be objective. What I mean by objectivity is not the objectivity of a machine, but of a sensible human being with the mystery of personal selection at the heart of it. The second challenge has been to impose order onto the things seen and to supply the visual context and the intellectual framework-that to me is the art of photography…
“I didn’t decide to be a photographer; I just happened to fall into it,” Berenice Abbott once recalled. In 1917 Abbott went from her hometown of Springfield, Ohio, to Columbia University, intending to study journalism. Disappointed by her courses, Abbott soon switched to sculpture, which she studied in New York, Berlin, and Paris. It was only in Paris in 1923, when the avant-garde American expatriate Man Ray was looking for a darkroom assistant, that Abbott discovered her love and natural ability for working with the camera. She began taking portrait photographs and in 1926 opened her own studio. Abbott had the first of many one-woman exhibitions that same year…