Friday, 30 January 2015




Two years ago I stumbled upon an exhibition of Berenice Abbott photographs at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Knowing nothing about this photographer, I wandered into the exhibition and was blown away by the work displayed. After visiting the exhibition I wanted to learn more about the life of the woman who had captured these beautiful images. What I ended up learning about Abbott was that she was a risk taker. She travelled, took chances, and followed her passions to achieve success as an artist. After growing up in Springfield, Ohio, Abbott moved to Greenwich Village in 1918 where she became involved with a group of political activists and artists. After nearly dying during the Spanish Flu pandemic, Abbott recovered from her illness and travelled to Europe.

Pike and Henry Streets, Manhattan. 1936 (Source: New York Public Library) 
In Paris, Abbott found a job as a darkroom assistant for none-other than the famed surrealist photographer, Man Ray. After realizing his assistant had real artistic talent, Man Ray encouraged Abbott to take her own photographs in his studio. This work culminated in her first solo exhibition and led to opening her own studio.

Jacob Heymann, Butcher Shop, New York City. 1938 (Source: MoMA)
After returning to New York City, Abbott rekindled her love of Manhattan and its boroughs. At this point, the work of Eugène Atget inspired her style of photography. Atget was a French photographer who had focused on capturing images of Paris before modernism changed the architectural landscape. Abbott had photographed Atget, shortly before he died. She later published posthumous books of his photographs, which he received much acclaim for. 

Penn Station, Interior, Manhattan. (Source: New York Public Library)
Similar to the documentary style of photography practiced by Atget, Abbott began wandering around New York and photographing life in the city. As signs of modernism took over, Abbott documented the changing commercial, social, and cultural facets of the city in her project "Changing New York". Her 'flâneur' style of photography continues to be compelling and offers a unique historical perspective on life in New York during the 1930s.

If you are interested in seeing some of Berenice Abbott's work, it is currently on display in the exhibition “Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign” at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery.

“Sign, Sign Everywhere a Sign” is on display at both the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery and the University of Toronto Art Centre until March 7th

1 comment:

  1. Artists' personal stories can almost be more fascinating than the works they produces, and after reading your lovely article, I think Berenice Abbott is one of these unique individuals. I can't wait to go to the Barnicke Gallery and see her photographs in person the next time I'm near Hart House now! Thank you for sharing her story.