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Bernice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1898. She briefly studied journalism at Ohio State University before leaving for New York City where she lived on MacDougal Street in the middle of Greenwich Village's Bohemian community. She worked small parts in plays before contracting influenza that killed thousands of New Yorkers and nearly killed her. After her recuperation she returned to New York determined to become a sculptor. At this time, she met and befriended the artists, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. The friendship with Man Ray would become pivotal in her photography career in a few years. Like so many young American artists in the early twentieth century, she left for Paris seeking an artistic freedom that, at the time, was not available in America. After living there a few years, she decided to study in Berlin. However, she quickly returned to Paris only to find herself without a studio or income.
Her old friend, Man Ray, had opened a portrait studio in 1921 and was looking for an assistant who knew nothing about photography. Abbott knew nothing about photography, so she was a perfect fit. She took to the new medium quickly and soon her reputation rivaled Man Ray's as a portrait photographer. Determined to keep her friendship with Man Ray, she resigned and opened her own studio. She was very successful at getting portrait commissions including James Joyce, Jean Cocteau, Peggy Guggenheim, and Eugene Atget. She had become very fond of Atget's photographs of the City of Paris and purchased several of them from him. She photographed Atget just before his death in 1927. After his death she tracked down his estate and purchased his negatives and photographs, preserving his work for future generations.
When she had left New York for Paris, she was not happy with the city or America, but upon her return for a short visit in 1929, she was overwhelmed with the changes in both. She quickly decided that she wanted to return to New York and document the changing city as Atget had done in Paris. It took several years to get backing for her Changing New York project. Eventually, with assistance of the Museum of the City of New York and the WPA, she was able to begin one of the greatest projects of her fabulous career.
We are pleased to offer this wonderful collection of vintage photographs from the Changing New York series. This is not only due to our interest overall in images of New York the last three hundred years, but also due to the fact that Berenice Abbott photographed my father, Kenneth M. Newman, and my grandmother, Helen Newman and my grandmother Harry S. Newman. Also for a short period of time, she took promotional photographs in The Old Print Shop during the early 1940's.
A wonderful biography and a full description of the Changing New York photographs can be found in Berenice Abbott Changing New York by Bonnie Yochelson published by The Museum of the City of New York, 1997.
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