Berenice Abbott. Portraits of Modernity

Berenice Abbott. Pioneer, modern, fearless provides a detailed look at the artistic journey of this American photographer(Springfield, Ohio, 1898 – Monson, Maine, 1991). Her body of work, some of the most captivating North American photography of the first half of the 20th century, acted as a bridge between the avant-garde of the old continent and the burgeoning artistic scene of the East Coast of the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.

Abbott‘s work reflects her masterful ability to identify and depict the changes in her surroundings. Altogether, her photographs provide an exceptional portrayal of the modernity of the new century, a central concept of this current exhibition.

The exhibition is arranged into three thematic sections and covers her career by means of almost two hundred vintage photographs. Among them, in dialogue with those of this American photographer, are eleven photographs by Eugène Atget, which Abbott herself printed at the end of the 1950s.

Berenice Abbott. Retratos de la modernidad
West Street, 1932 International Center of Photography Purchase, with funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lois and Bruce Zenkel Purchase Fund, 1983 (388.1983) © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott

Modernity. The concept of modernity infuses all of Abbott’s work, from her portraits of the most cutting-edge artists and intellectuals of the moment, through to the breathtaking views of New York, as well as her scientific-themed photographs in which she captures the results of diverse phenomena and experiments. It is also a reflection of the modernity of Abbott herself, of her ground-breaking and bold personality.

Paris. Scarcely three years after moving to New York, Abbott travels to Europe and installs herself in Paris, where she begins to work in Man Ray’s studio and comes into contact with photography. Through Man Ray she meets Eugène Atget, whose work she came to greatly admire. For several decades she dedicates herself to promoting his work and encouraging its collection in the United States, becoming a key figure in the critical reception and historiography of this photographer.

New York. In 1929 Abbott returns to New York and embarks on the production of her biggest corpus of work: a photographic documentation of this city’s expansion. She develops this project independently until she secures government funding in 1935. These pictures, published under the heading Changing New York in 1939, are a testament to the photographer’s amazing ability to perceive the endless possibilities that New York offers in order to embody the modernity of the changing times.

Documents? The photographs Abbott takes are much more than documents. Although she wished to escape from the supposed artifice of art, the visual outcome is so rich and diverse that it is difficult to categorize it as merely “documentary” work. Her portraits and scientific images from the end of the 1950s, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and which feature in this exhibition, are characteristic of this duality.

The exhibition was produced by Fundación MAPFRE and curated by Estrella de Diego, Professor of Contemporary Art at the Complutense University of Madrid and member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando. For its realization we have had funds from some of the most important American collections: The New York Public Library, The George Eastman Museum (Rochester, New York), The Howard Greenberg Gallery (New York), The International Center of Photography (New York), the MIT Museum (Cambridge, Massachusetts) and The Museum of the City of New York.

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