Artist to Know: Berenice Abbott

Liz Catalano
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Barridoff Galleries Offers Three Vintage Photos of a Changing New York

After settling in Paris, pioneering photographer Man Ray started looking for an assistant. He specifically sought a candidate with no previous experience in photography who could learn his distinct style. Ray eventually hired a young journalism dropout who had never entered a darkroom. The assistant, Berenice Abbott, instantly connected to the medium. Over time, Abbott’s fame grew to rival that of her teacher. Abbott photographed everyone who was someone in 1920s Paris before turning her lens back to New York City. She documented its transformation into a modern metropolis, a project that came to define her career.

Barridoff Galleries’ upcoming International Fine Art Sale will feature several New York City photographs by Berenice Abbott. The auction starts at 3:00 PM EDT on August 14th, 2021. Learn more about Abbott before the bidding begins.

Berenice Abbott in 1928. Image courtesy of Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone.
Berenice Abbott in 1928. Image courtesy of Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone.

Born in 1898, Berenice Abbott grew up with her mother in southern Ohio. She later split with convention to study journalism at The Ohio State University. Abbott fell in with a group of progressive students who introduced her to avant-garde art and ideas. Restless and unsatisfied with Ohio State, Abbott dropped out after her first year and moved to New York to become a sculptor. Her circle expanded to include Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and others. 

Abbott joined the rising tide of American creatives fleeing to Paris in the early 1920s. At the time, Abbott still felt that sculpture was her calling. The time spent in Ray’s studio transformed her career path. Abbott quickly picked up the skills of portrait photography and opened her own studio a few streets away. Famous figures in the city started to appear in her photos. Jean Cocteau, James Joyce, Peggy Guggenheim, and Betty Parsons all sat for Abbott while in Paris. 

Photography was a straightforward medium for Abbott. She strongly disliked the growing Pictorialist movement, which allowed for the creative manipulation of photographs. Abbott saw herself as a documentarian above all else. She was responsible only for capturing reality. This viewpoint also extended to portraits. Abbott often spent hours observing and speaking with a subject before pulling out her camera. She worked to capture their essence, personality, and likeness within a single photograph.

“By the choice of subject and the special treatment given a subject, [the photograph] is as personal as writing or music,” said Abbott about her perspective in 1981. “While by the fact that it works with an instrument to record a segment of reality given and already made… it is impersonal, to the highest degree.”

Berenice Abbott, Union Square, Manhattan, 1936. Image from Barridoff Galleries.
Berenice Abbott, Union Square, Manhattan, 1936. Image from Barridoff Galleries.

Abbott decided to leave Paris for New York in 1929. Tired of portrait photography, she began documenting the rapid urbanization of New York City. Abbott soon joined the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. She developed ideas about architecture while carving out a home in the city with her longtime partner, art critic Elizabeth McCausland. 

While roaming the streets of New York, Abbott passed judgment on the various architectural styles crowding the blocks. She included scenes of everyday life amid the juxtaposed old and new for her Changing New York project. Abbott exhibited her photos widely and later published them in a book.

The upcoming Barridoff Galleries sale will feature several photos from Abbott’s Changing New York series. Among them is a view of Manhattan’s Union Square in 1936. The gelatin silver print shows pedestrians passing a newspaper stand. Above their heads, detailed advertisements compete for attention. Barridoff Galleries will present this print with an estimate of USD 4,000 to $6,000. The sale also includes a photo of the city’s Grand Opera House ($2,000 – $3,000) and an elevated train station in Manhattan ($3,000 – $4,000).

Berenice Abbott, New York at Night, 1932. Image from Christie’s.
Berenice Abbott, New York at Night, 1932. Image from Christie’s.

While Abbott enjoyed a degree of fame during her tenure as a portrait photographer, she received less recognition for her later work with urban architecture and science subjects. This has shifted since her death in 1991. Her Changing New York series is remembered as a groundbreaking body of work that captured the city at a critical moment. Prints from the series regularly circulate in the auction market. Among the most recognizable is New York at Night. To capture an aerial view of the city, Abbott climbed to the top of the newly-built Empire State Building and took a long exposure shot. Electric lights blaze through nearly every window to dispel the dark. 

Christie’s offered a 1934 print of New York at Night in 2013. The piece nearly tripled its high estimate and sold for $87,500. Since then, several other prints of the same photo have appeared at auction. Depending on the quality and vibrance of each edition, Abbott’s photographs typically sell for between $10,000 and $50,000. Swann Auction Galleries presented several pieces by Abbott in 2020 and early 2021. The offered works ranged in subject matter from towering skyscrapers to barber shop vignettes. The auction house realized prices between $3,500 and $7,000 for most of these street scenes. 

Three city photographs from Berenice Abbott will come to auction with Barridoff Galleries on August 14th, 2021. The sale starts at 3:00 PM EDT. To view the complete catalog and place a bid, visit Bidsquare.

Want to know more about 20th-century artists and their market histories? Auction Daily recently profiled Indian Modern artist Amrita Sher-Gil.

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Liz Catalano
Liz Catalano
Senior Writer and Editor

Liz Catalano is a writer and editor for Auction Daily. She covers fine art sales, market analysis, and social issues within the auction industry. Based in Chicago, she regularly collaborates with auction houses and other clients.

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