Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1898. After an unhappy
childhood, she left the Midwest at the age of 20. She resisted social
expectations for women and chose not to marry. Elizabeth McCausland,
an art critic who wrote the text to go with Abbott's New York photographs
was Abbott's close friend and companion for life. She lived in Europe
for eight years were she established a successful Photography business.
In 1929, she visited New York. When she saw how the skyscraper
building boom was changing New York City, she quickly decided to
move to the city to photograph the contrasts between old and new.
The project lasted 10 years. Abbott felt compelled by a "fantastic
passion" to make a portrait of the city she loved. She said, "I
really was smitten with New York...There was a tremendous dynamism...
and that prompted me to photograph it."
She used an 8 by 10-inch view camera on a tripod. Although very
heavy and slow to operate, this camera allowed Abbott to create
shifts in perspective, which make her compositions dynamic and exciting.
Seen from below--a "worm's-eye view"--skyscrapers thrust into the
air. Seen from above--"a bird's-eye view"--the geometric shapes
of modern buildings contrast with the delicate textures of older
architecture. The photographer's goal was to represent the past
and the future of this intense city, which she said had a dual personality:
to Abbott, New York City was "delightful" and at the same time it
was a "monster."
Sometimes people made it difficult for the small woman with a
huge camera to photograph on the streets of New York, but she persisted.
Realistic photography was not fashionable and Abbott had a tough
time making a living during the Depression.
Finally the Federal Arts Project gave her funds
to hire an assistant, a driver, and a research team, and paid here
a salary of $35 per week. Many of the photographs, with McCausland's
descriptions, are published in the book, Changing New York,
which is available in libraries.
Abbott photographed for 60 years. She lived until the age of 93,
spending her final years in rural Maine.
period during the 1930s of drastic decline in the economy characterized
by decreasing business activity, falling prices, and unemployment.
Federal Arts Project (FAP)--A
program organized by the U. S. government in 1935 during the Depression
designed to employ artists by placing them on the federal payroll
and in return having the works they produced, which included murals,
photographs, archival drawings, and easel paintings, submitted to
the government for use in public buildings. By the time it was dissolved
in 1943, the FAP had employed ten thousand artists.
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