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Berenice Abbott

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Though she went to Paris in 1921 to study sculpture, Berenice Abbott would transition to photography when she became Man Ray’s assistant in 1923. Three years later, she set up her own studio, photographing the French capital’s bohemians, artists and intellectuals—and famous friends such as writers James Joyce and Jean Cocteau—before moving back to the States in 1929.

For the next two decades, Abbott focused her lens on Depression-Era New York, producing a number of moving, black-and-white images that would become part of her book Changing New York. This series, along with nearly 120 other images, is being featured in a new exhibition at Toronto’s Ryerson Image Center called Berenice Abbott: Photographs.

“She was an underestimated photographer during her life and even today,” says Gaelle Morel, the exhibition’s curator and author of the accompanying book, Berenice Abbott. “But Berenice has this capacity of mixing different aesthetics, depending on the subject, which was really extraordinary. She can do a more modern, New Vision style when it came to photographing New York buildings, or take a more documentary approach for her portraits.”

Keystone-France / Getty Images

Berenice Abbot standing for a portrait, behind a view-camera, circa early 1900s

Abbott gained acclaim for her own comprehensive career, which would later involve photographic work on physics, commissioned by Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But she also became famous for her staunch support of French photographer Eugène Atget, whom she met in 1925 while living in Paris. Atget died two years later, and it was Abbott who would photo-edit a book of his work and help stage an exhibition of his work in New York. She sold her Atget collection to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968.

“Berenice always said she had two careers—one of her own, and one championing Atget,” Morel says. “She wanted to be recognized as the Atget of New York, not necessarily his aesthetic, but his intellect.”

Berenice Abbott: Photographs, co-organized by The Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto and the Jeu de Paume in Paris, is on view through Aug. 19 at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario. The accompanying book is published by Editions Hazan and Yale University Press.

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© Leonard Misonne

© Eugene Atget

© Jules, Louis & Henri Seeberger

© Henri Cartier-Bresson

© Eli Lotar

© Eugene Atget

© Alvin Langdon Coburn

© Alvin Landon Coburn

© Brassaï

© Brassaï

© André Kertész

© Walker Evans

© Alvin Landon Coburn

© André Kertész

© Berenice Abbott

© Berenice Abbott

© Berenice Abbott

© Berenice Abbott

© Berenice Abbott

© André Kertész

© Izis Bidermanas

© Lee Friedlander

© Bruce Davidson

© Josef Koudelka

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“Eugène Atget: ‘Documents pour artistes,’” an exhibition of photographs by Atget that opened this week at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, takes its name from the sign outside Atget’s studio door. The sign underscored his humble intention to make “documents” that could be fodder for the creative output of other artists. Atget’s work to document the old Paris that was disappearing as it yielded to modernization began in the late 1880s and continued into the 1920s. Far from being a mere record-maker, Atget is remembered as a forerunner of modern art and photography, and was particularly admired by the surrealists. Man Ray lived down the street from Atget, but it was Bernice Abbott, an American photographer, who bought the contents of his studio when he died and brought the contents to MoMA. The current exhibition is the first extensive presentation of Atget’s oeuvre in 25 years and is accompanied by the rerelease of the book “Atget” by John Szarkowski. On view through April 9.


Marchand de paniers en fil de fer, 1899-1900. Albumen silver print. Eugène Atget, MoMA


Fête du Trône, 1925. Gelatin silver printing-out-paper print. Eugène Atget, MoMA


Avenue des Gobelins, 1925. Gelatin silver printing-out-paper print. Eugène Atget, MoMA


Parc de Sceaux, June 1925. Gelatin silver printing-out-paper print. Eugène Atget, MoMA


Romanichels, groupe, 1912. Gelatin silver printing-out-paper print. Eugène Atget, MoMA


Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève, June 1925. Gelatin silver printing-out-paper print. Eugène Atget, MoMA

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Prostitute at angle of Rue de la Reynie and Rue Quincampoix, 1933

Brassai with Tony Ray-Jones, Creative Camera, April, 1970

Tony Ray-Jones: How did you start your life?

Brassai: I was born in Transylvania in 1899. My father was a teacher of French literature. He lived in Paris and loved it and studied at the Sorbonne. When I was five my father brought me and my family to Paris for a year. I

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Zoniers, Porte de Choisy, 1913By Stephen Longmire, Afterimage, May 2001It has been 20 years, amazingly enough, since New York City's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) launched its landmark cycle of exhibitions of the work of French photographer Eugene Atget (1857-1927), who spent his last 30 years documenting the architectural record of Paris and its surroundings at the beginning of the last century.

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