Notes From the Catalogue: Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village from the midwest in 1918 to live in its now legendary community of artists, radicals, writers and bohemians. There she met a host of extraordinary women, including Djuna Barnes, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Little Review editors Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, and other notable modernist figures who influenced her for decades. While living in the village, Abbott studied sculpture, supported herself as an artist’s model and posed for photographers Nikolas Muray and Man Ray. 

Right: Berenice Abbott, Houston Gas Station, silver print, circa 1937. 

Estimate $4,000 to $6,000.

In 1921 she moved to Paris, and from 1923-1926, worked briefly as Man Ray’s darkroom assistant. At his suggestion she explored photography as a creative medium, making her first studio portraits. She subsequently met Eugène Atget, whom she befriended and photographed. After Atget’s death, in 1927, she rescued his 5,000 prints and 1,000 negatives, eventually finding a home for the archive, with the help of Julian Levy, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In Atget she recognized a photographic master and a mentor, referring to his poetic Parisian street scenes and studies as “realism unadorned.”

Left: Eugène Atget, La Villette, fille publique faisant le quart, 19e, silver print by Berenice Abbott, 1921. Estimate $4,000 to $6,000. 


Berenice Abbott, Broadway to the Battery, silver print, 1938. Estimate $6,000 to $9,000.

Berenice Abbott, Manhattan Skyline II, silver print, 1937. Estimate $6,000 to $9,000.

Upon returning to New York in 1929, Abbott embarked on a new artistic direction that employed Atget as her muse. She set out to document the city’s historic and colorful structures before they were razed and recorded its changing skyline. Abbott’s cool, stunning visual approach was beyond the ken of “the art boys” (Stieglitz and Steichen), who did not accept Abbott’s non-nonsense documentary approach as fine art. She said, “Photography can never grow up if it imitates some other medium. It has to walk alone; it has to be itself.”

Berenice Abbott, Under the El at the Battery, New York, 1936. $2,500 to $3,500.