Discovering surrealism in Berenice Abbott’s straight photography

1948 - Berenice Abbott - Self Portrait

1948 – Self-portrait

Berenice Abbot(1898 – 1991) was one of the most unsettling photographers of the 20th century. She approached cityscape, portraiture and scientific photography and she championed the aesthetic power of all these disparate genres.

1936 - Washington Street no. 37 Manhattan

1936 – Washington Street no. 37 Manhattan

Ιn the 20’s she moved to Paris where she worked as an assistant to the very famous artist Man Ray and she started working on photography in 1923. Later, she wrote: “I took to photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else.” Ray was impressed by her darkroom work and allowed her to use his studio to take her own photographs. She got the opportunity to photograph all the prominent personalities of the time such as James Joyce and Jean Cocteau. Sylvia Bleach, the woman behind the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, once said: “To be ‘done’ by Man Ray or Berenice Abbott meant you rated as somebody”.

1928 - James Joyce

1928 – James Joyce.

Amongst the people that she met in Paris was Eugène Atget, a photographer who captured the renovation of Paris in the late 19th century. It seems that Abbott admired Atget’s work so much that she acquired a part of his archive while he was still alive as well as some more of his work a few years after his death from his friend and executor André Calmettes. In 1930, she participated as a photo editor in the book Atget of Paris and in 1968 she gave her Atget’s archive to the Museum of Modern Art. All of these years she preserved his archive and tried to introduce him to a wider audience. Atget’s international recognition probably wouldn’t happen if she didn’t put all of this sustained effort.

1927 - Eugène Atget

1927 – Eugène Atget

It seems that Abbott discovered her own “Paris” when in 1930 she returned to New York, after the gold era of the roaring twenties. She found out then that the city was transitioning rapidly to a huge modern metropolis. Skyscrapers contrasted intensively the old remaining buildings of the 19th century while infrastructure for rapid transportation and communication were some of the elements that attracted Abbott to cross the Atlantic. During the difficult years of the Great Depression, she captured the dramatic social, financial and technological changes of New York.

1938 - Normandie, North River, Manhattan, from Pier 88

1938 – Normandie, North River, Manhattan, from Pier 88

From the very beginning she adopted the realistic aesthetics of Atget, but within her material we can find glimpses of surrealism that conceal within them some of the artistic genius that she was. While she seems to be impressed by technological progress and the continuously developing cityscape, in many of her shots realism is eradicated. For example we can observe some surrealist value in the look of that a girl behind a column on Blossom Restaurant or in the view of the Seventh Avenue at sunset where cars and traffic of the streets make it look like the vein of a living organism.

1935 - Blossom Restaurant 103 Bowery

1935 – Blossom Restaurant 103 Bowery

1935 - Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street in Manhattan

1935 – Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street in Manhattan

Also let’s not forget the symbolic contradictions of her photographs. For example, in the photograph ‘Tempo of the city’, the symbolism of time as a ruler of people is clear. She achieves this by placing the clock on her frame, in front of and over people, making them seem so ignorant and immodest in the sway of time.

1938 - Tempo of the City I. Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, Manhattan

1938 – Tempo of the City I. Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, Manhattan

In the photo ‘Central Park Plaza, from Fifth Avenue at 58th Street’, she places a tree in front of her frame, in such a way that it prevents the view of the building from behind while there is a strong contrast between the strict lines of the building and the almost random structure of the tree. Also, the fact that the tree looks dead, decayed as opposed to the thriving building from behind, is a strong message of the modern man’s departure from the bucolic life due to the comforts of the modern way of life.

1937 - Central Park Plaza, from Fifth Avenue at 58th Street

1937 – Central Park Plaza, from Fifth Avenue at 58th Street

Was it realism contained in surrealism or surrealism contained in realism? Τhe fact that she did not use the pictorialists’s soft focus techniques does not mean that her job was characterized by simple realism. We find surreal values in photographs that are not visible at first glance. In her book ‘A guide to Better Photography‘ she asserted that “man’s need for self-exrpession and his capacities for creative action were as vital to human existence as air and food”.

1948 - An Industrial Designer's Window, Bleecker Street

1948 – An Industrial Designer’s Window, Bleecker Street

1937 - Gunsmith And Police Station

1937 – Gunsmith And Police Station

Abbott used to say that she was an admirer of straight photography. This is why it is impressive that she compresses so much surrealistic values in her work in New York. As time passed, the contrast that characterized her work became much more intense as she worked with great success with the Physical Science Study Committee for a MIT project that helped to improve the development of the secondary school curriculum. Through the scientific pretext of the research, a surrealist ‘landscape’ unfolds, which clearly sources from the influence of the great master Man Ray.

1958 - Parabolic Mirror

1958 – Parabolic Mirror

Interference Pattern, 1958-61

Interference Pattern, 1958-61

Abbott came from a difficult background, she was born in Springfield Ohio and grew up with her divorced mother Lillian Alice Bunn while she lived with her friend, art critic Elizabeth McCausland, for 30 years. She managed, despite the odds, to have a brilliant career and to die at an old age in 1991 in Monson, Maine.Berenice Abbott wanted to be remembered as a person who took risks and won them all.

1979 - Berenice Abbott by Hank ONeal in NYC

1979 – Berenice Abbott by Hank ONeal in NYC



Wikipedia page Photohistories Artnet MOMA Brittanica Guardian article Museum of the city of New York

Berenice Abbott’s obituary by NYT here


New York in the Thirties by Elizabeth McCausland and Berenice Abbott

A Guide to Better Photography by Berenice Abbott

Aperture Masters of Photography: Berenice Abbott – Introduction and commentary by Julia Van Haaften