Berenice Abbott was one of the tiny horde of Midwestern Yankee Americans who in the 1920's temporarily reversed the Course of Empire, and transferred the center of American cultural life to Paris. She arrived there in 1921 as a sculptor, and continued her studies with Emile Bourdelle. In 1923 she became an assistant in the photography studio of Man Ray, and two years later she first saw the photographs of Eugene Atget. She was irrevocably marked by the pure photographic authority of his work, and any remaining question as to her own life's work was settled.
In 1926 she opened her own portrait studio, and for the next three years photographed with honesty and grace the great and the famous of that city's intellectual world. In Paris the supply of artists, artistic celebrities, and salonistes seemed inexhaustible, and Abbott photographed many of them.
One of most moving of her portraits is one reproduced here of James Joyce. The grey, strangely lifeless, enveloping light finds its way everywhere, describing without emphasis or favor the writer's stickpin, his hands, his right ear, his fine beaver hat, the deep tiredness of his elegant slouch. He seems the survivor of too difficult a battle, shell-shocked by the terrible labor of putting so many words in the precisely proper order.
He was burdened at the time not only by exhaustion but by the pirating of his work, by his wife's serious illness, by deadlines, and by his degenerating eyesight. He wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver: "There are moments when I feel 20 but also half-hours when I feel 965." Possibly he meant 969, Methuselah's final age, but considering the precision of Joyce's mind it is more likely that he meant he felt four years younger than that.
from "Looking at Photographs" by John Szarkowski
The highly acclaimed, definitive collection of Abbott's popular New York photographs. Berenice Abbott was one of this century's greatest photographers, and her New York City images have come to define 1930's New York. The response to The New Press's landmark hardcover publication of Berenice Abbott: Changing New York was extraordinary.
Nearly 100 classic images by noted photographer: Rockefeller Center on the rise, Bowery restaurants, dramatic views of the City's bridges, Washington Square, old movie houses, rows of old tenements laced with laundry, Wall Street, Flatiron Building, waterfront, and many other landmarks.
In 1935 Abbott set out on a five-year, WPA-funded project to document New York's transformation from a nineteenth-century city into a modern metropolis of towering skyscrapers. The result was the landmark publication Changing New York, a milestone in the history of photography that stands as an indispensable record of the Depression-era city. More than sixty years later, Guided by Abbott's voice and vision, New York photographer Douglas Levere has revisited the sites of 100 of Abbott's photographs, meticulously duplicating her compositions with exacting detail; each shot is taken at the same time of day, at the same time of year, and with the same type of camera.
Veteran nonfiction writer George Sullivan draws on his vast knowledge of the photographic world to chronicle Berenice Abbott’s life and career, and to present a fascinating social portrait of the artistic community of New York in the early half of the 20th century. Interviews with her contemporaries and high- quality reproductions of some of her most famous photographs provide an illuminating image of this determined, spirited woman who changed the face of American photography.
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