Berenice Abbott

By: Mark Kingwell
July 17, 2015


Photographer, poet and inventor BERENICE ABBOTT (born Bernice, 1898–1991) created some of the 20th century’s most iconic images. Born in podunk Ohio, she dropped out of Ohio State and travelled to Greenwich Village, then Paris and Berlin. She was a darkroom assistant to Man Ray, who fired her first interest in photography and showed her the work of Atget. Roommate Djuna Barnes suggested the alternative, more sophisticated version of her given name, and her portraits of Joyce, Cocteau, and others were prized. But it was the face of the city that called out her genius. Returning to New York from Paris in 1929 she saw the beauty of the urban quotidian — Bowery shopfronts, pushcarts, hotdog stands on the beach, midtown Automats — as well as the soaring structural excellence of the Manhattan Bridge, the old Penn Station, and the Flatiron Building. Unlike contemporary Margaret Bourke-White, she used the Chrysler Building more as a platform than a subject, refusing its obvious aesthetic in favour of a shot of the Waldorf-Astoria from its heights and, even better, an angular study of one corner of the neglected Deco base. Her startling vision has become the American vernacular, just as Atget’s images continue to condition our perception of Parisian streets and cafés. It is a quirky coincidence that a contract for a 1958 physics textbook, including images of bouncing balls and prism-bent rays of light, brought her work to thousands of high schoolers across the land.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Wong Kar-Wai, Geezer Butler, M.I.A, Gus Arriola.

READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled Generation (1894-1903).


Art, HiLo Heroes

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