Berenice Abbott and Eugène Atget

This post is the first in a series associated with my paper Sources and Models of Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York.

Berenice Abbott was an American documentary photographer, probably best known for her project Changing New York. The breadth and scope of Change New York is astounding. Abbott spent 11 years (roughly from 1928-1939) photographing every aspect of New York City during the height of the Great Depression. Orginally from Ohio, Abbott first came to New York in 1921 to pursue a career in journalism. For whatever reason, she became interested in sculpture and quickly dropped journalism for a career in the arts. She soon made her way to Paris where she ended up as a studio assistant to the photographer Man Ray. Paris is also where Abbott became familiar with the work of Eugène Atget.

Atget was an eccentric figure in modern photography. By the time Abbott came into contact with him, he had been photographing Paris for decades. Atget’s photographs of empty streets and decaying storefronts would go on to inspire a variety of artists. Avant-garde artists such as Man Ray, Picasso, and Andre Derain, were drawn to Atget’s work for it’s slightly off-kilter view of modern life.

Eugène Atget, Eclipse, 1912

Abbott had a different take on Atget though. She called his photographs images of “reality unadorned”. Atget claimed his photographs were purely documentary. He did not view them as works of art, though he did sell prints to museums and artists. I think Abbott shared a similar view of his work, and that the purpose of photography was to document. The phrase “reality unadorned” is an interesting one. For all we know, Atget didn’t alter his photographs in post production. That he carefully composed his photographs is evident, but I think part of the reality Abbott admired so much was in the completeness of subject matter. Atget photographed everything. No subject received preferential treatment, and in his own way Atget attempted to present each subject as honestly as he could.

When viewed on their own, without context, Atget photos can seem like some sort of strange surrealist dream. Deserted corners, odd doorways, and headless mannequins are frequent subjects. Often the perspective in Atget’s photos seems a bit off. As individual prints, Atget’s work can seem a bit divorced from real life. But when considered as part of larger body of work, it becomes apparent what Atget was aiming at, a complete view of a city in the grips of major change.

The totality of Atget’s project and the element of time (Atget’s attempt to freeze time), were huge influences in the future work of Abbott. Not only would her interactions with Atget provide the impetus for Changing New York, but Atget’s influence would inspire Abbott to pursue serial photography as an essential component of her “realism”. Atget’s collection instilled Abbott with a belief that truth could not be represented in a single photograph, but that multiple images taken at different times and from different angles could “capture city life in totality.”[1]

1. Wolfgang Brückle, “On Documentary Style: ‘anti-graphic photography’ between the Wars.” History Of Photography 30, no. 1 (2006), p. 78.