New volumes reveal a sweep of images discovered in a desk drawer in the photographer's attic storeroom
“I took to photography like a duck to water,” Berenice Abbott declared in 1976. “I never wanted to do anything else.”
To say “never” was a slight exaggeration. Abbott left her native Ohio in 1918 to seek out a more adventurous and cosmopolitan life in New York, where she tried her hand at acting and sculpting. Only when she ventured to Paris three years later and found employment in Man Ray’s studio did she discover her true vocation. Upon her return to New York in 1929, Abbott commenced to photograph the landscape, architecture, and faces of the United States, which she did persistently for decades.
The sheer breadth of those pictures is made apparent in The Unknown Berenice Abbott, a five-volume project edited by Hank O’Neal and Ron Kurtz and published by Steidl. (Kurtz acquired Abbott’s archive in 1985.)
Abbott, who died in 1991 at age 93, is primarily celebrated for her “Changing New York” series from the 1930s and for her formally innovative images for the Physical Science Study Committee at MIT in 1958. Even those unfamiliar with her name likely recognize her dramatic view of the Flatiron Building or her complex take on the interior of the old Penn Station. Yet the majority of her work has remained unpublished.
The collection’s first volume, titled New York: Early Work 1929–1931, has photographs to match those in “Changing New York.” Abbott evokes the sweep and forms of the city’s new skyline in View of Trinity Building and Lower Manhattan from the Empire Building and other examples; she reveals a sharp eye for civic flux with pictures like Henry Kirke Brown’s statue of Abraham Lincoln during the reconstruction of Union Square.
O’Neal, a photographer, author, and former CIA agent who worked with Abbott for the last 19 years of her life, discovered the lost New York pictures in 1977. At the time he was putting together his seminal biography Berenice Abbott: American Photographer. “I reached into the bottom desk drawer of her attic storeroom,” he recalls, “and there was a box of negatives in the bottom drawer. I knew pretty quickly that these were New York pictures I had never seen.”
The Unknown Berenice Abbott showcases the photographer’s broad interest in America’s man-made environments, from California logging roads to a former slave market in Georgia. Most revelatory of all is the volume U.S.1, U.S.A., a book project she had abandoned for lack of a publisher in 1958, the same year Robert Frank began his journey that yielded the landmark photo book The Americans. For the series, Abbott chronicled sights along Route 1, from Maine to Florida. Like her contemporaries Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, Abbott had a gift for psychologically penetrating portraits, and her passion for roadside architecture is evident at every juncture in the journey.
If the picture of Abbott’s career has been fragmentary, it is now becoming fully realized. Four more books are in the works, with Paris Portraits scheduled to appear next.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 28 under the title “Downtown Abbott.”