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1930s - Queensboro Bridge II. Long Island City, Queens, southwest from pier at 41st Road (Berenice Abbott) | © Tomáš Marounek/Flickr

Berenice Abbott: Feminist Pioneer Of NYC Photography

Picture of Abbie Synan
Abbie Synan
Updated: 28 October 2016
One of the leading female photographers of the 20th century, Berenice Abbott had a unique way of blending the art and science of photography through stunning and masterful black and white images. New York City is lucky enough to hold a collection of her works at the Museum of the City of New York, and her photography continues to awe onlookers. We take a closer look at Abbott’s pioneering artistic career, delving into the ways in which “photography helps people to see.”
Hailing from Ohio, Berenice Abbott spent a short time studying Journalism at Ohio State University before moving to New York City, where her photographs of local streets and landmarks would garner her critical acclaim as an artistAbbott would say that she fell into her career as a photographer; she initially acted as an assistant to Man Ray in Paris, where under his mentorship she experimented with the medium. By 1926 she hosted her first solo exhibition, mainly showcasing her portraits. She subsequently developed a fascination with street photography, which would become the subject of her most famous works.
1930s – Penn Station, Interior, Manhattan (Berenice Abbott) | © Tomáš Marounek/Flickr

In 1929, Abbott moved from Paris to New York, using the city as her backdrop, subject, and greatest artistic inspiration. She lived here during an era of great change, documenting the city’s aesthetic evolution from the Great Depression to the rise of industrialization. This would prompt a series of famous photographs titled Changing New York, taken as part of the Federal Art Project in the 1930s.

Pike and Henry Street by Berenice Abbott in 1936 | © Berenice Abbott/WikiCommons

Pike and Henry Street by Berenice Abbott in 1936 | © Berenice Abbott/WikiCommons

The 300-plus photographs in Changing New York document the city’s ever-evolving urban landscape, and provide unique insight into daily life in this turbulent yet ever-hopeful era. Abbott had a masterful eye for lighting, capturing the sincere beauty in otherwise mundane objects. Geometry is a common theme in her work, as she had a particular interest in architecture and design. As a result, many of her photographs capture the stunning details of buildings and bridges.

MANHATTAN BRIDGE LOOKING UP by Berenice Abbott in 1936 | © Berenice Abbott/WikiCommons

MANHATTAN BRIDGE LOOKING UP by Berenice Abbott in 1936 | © Berenice Abbott/WikiCommons

Changing New York was divided into eight geographical sections, and contributed some of the most complete visual documentation of the city at this time. Abbott had a true passion for New York in all of its gritty industrialism, but played with the subjective nature of reality through lighting, shading, and perspective. Old landmarks are in the shadow of new buildings; Great Depression-era poverty is juxtaposed with the rebounding New York City Stock Exchange; Abbott’s work was a push towards modernity, and her project unfolded like a love letter to the city.

Huts and unemployed in West Houston and Mercer St by Berenice Abbott in Manhattan in 1935 | © Berenice Abbott/WikiCommons

Huts and unemployed in West Houston and Mercer St by Berenice Abbott in Manhattan in 1935 | © Berenice Abbott/WikiCommons

Abbott went on to edit the photographs for Science Illustrated in the 1940s, which saw her shift in focus to science photography in the 1960s. She subsequently authored several guidebooks on photographic techniques, and in 1958, she produced a special photo series for a physics textbook – thus her work circulated around the country in a different capacity. Talented and resourceful, she also invented specialized equipment to facilitate the specific nature of her work. Abbott continued her work in photography until her death in 1991 at the age of 93. She was later inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 2000.

Financial district rooftops III in Manhattan in 1938 | © Berenice Abbott/WikiCommons

Financial district rooftops III in Manhattan in 1938 | © Berenice Abbott/WikiCommons

New Yorkers can find Berenice Abbott’s works at the Museum of the City of New York, and her book titled Berenice Abbot: Changing of New York, is still available for purchase.