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Berenice Abbott’s Greenwich Village

It is your job to make photographs,
let the future look at them.

—Berenice Abbott, 1936

Berenice Abbott

Photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) first arrived in Greenwich Village from her native Ohio in 1918. She quickly made friends with some of those involved with the Provincetown Playhouse and was introduced to the inner circle of artists, dancers, poets, and other intellectuals who lived and worked in Greenwich Village. She found herself at the center of the contemporary artistic movements then flourishing in the neighborhood. Friendships from that period, including with Man Ray and Edna St. Vincent Millay, would be life-long, as would Abbott’s relationship to Greenwich Village. The life she led in our neighborhoods was seminal to who she was to become, as well as intrinsic to her work.

Abbott came to New York with the intention of pursuing a career in journalism and sculpture, but a trip to Paris from 1921 to 1929 took her into another realm of expression and creativity: photography. She began training in the atelier of Man Ray. In Paris, and in the circle of Man Ray’s friends and colleagues, Abbott encountered and photographed many of the modernist figures she had known during her initial stay in Greenwich Village: the eccentric editors of the avant-garde literary magazine The Little Review, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap; founder of the Village’s Civic Repertory Theatre Eva Le Gallienne, writers Djuna Barnes and Solita Solan, as well as locals like Jean Cocteau, Coco Chanel, Eugène Atget, and the American foreign correspondent for The New Yorker, Janet Flanner.

Berenice Abbott’s portrait of Jane Flanner

Upon her return to New York in 1929, now fashionable and successful, Abbott saw the city with new eyes. She set up a portrait studio, photographing prominent American businessmen for Fortune magazine, as well as prominent New Yorkers who ran in her social circle, like Carl Van Vechten, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and A’Lelia Walker, hoping that the profits would allow her to devote time to her real passion of documenting the ever-shifting urban landscape. In 1934, she began teaching photography at The New School for Social Research. By 1939, with her partner Elizabeth McCausland, she would publish her most well-known project, Changing New York, financed by the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, and featuring ninety-seven of the roughly three-hundred photographs she took throughout the five boroughs between 1935 and 1939.

From 1935 to 1965, Berenice Abbott and art critic Elizabeth McCausland (1899-1965) lived and worked in two flats they shared on the fourth floor of the loft building at 50 Commerce Street.

50 Commerce Street

A sought-after portraitist, among Abbott’s subjects were New Yorker writer Janet Flanner, writer Djuna Barnes, founders of the avant-garde literary magazine Little Review Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson, and poet  Edna St. Vincent Millay. Abbott’s A Guide to Better Photography (1941), The View Camera Made Simple (1948), and Greenwich Village, Today & Yesterday (1949; with text by Henry Wysham Lanier) were also published while she lived here.

Interestingly, Abbott saw fit to photograph the currently relevant 14-16 Gay Street. 14 Gay is the subject of much controversy at the moment as it is has been demolished due to neglect and illegal work by its current owners. Village Preservation has led the fight to ensure that city agencies take swift action on the property and the owner who undermined the landmarked 200-year-old house at 14 Gay Street, prevent harm from befalling five other adjoining properties, and ensure that 14 Gay is faithfully rebuilt in its original form. You can write to city officials to show your support for our efforts by clicking here.

You can view the art of Berenice Abbott in two exhibitions in New York City this winter. Berenice Abbott’s Greenwich Village is on display at the Marlborough Gallery, 545 West 25th Street, from January 24 through March 11, 2023. And Berenice Abbott’s New York Album, 1929 will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from March 2 through September 4, 2023. Both are perfect ways to view her magnificent photography through different lenses.

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