What Memes Owe to Art History
Printed in c. 1930; available framed upon purchase, if desired; additional framing and shipping charges may apply
Born in Springfield, Ohio, Berenice Abbott spent the early part of her artistic career studying sculpture in New York, Berlin, and Paris, where she worked as Man Ray's studio assistant. This experience led her to photography, and in 1926 she established herself as an independent photographer whose portraits of well-known artists and writers rivaled those of Man Ray in excellence and renown. Through Man Ray, she met Eugène Atget, whose photographs of the transformation of Paris from the ancien regime through the mid-1920s impressed her with their methodical technique and intuitive inflections of artistry. Upon Atget's death, Abbott purchased his photographic oeuvre, and for more than forty years tirelessly promoted his work. It is largely through her efforts that this great photographer is still known today.
In the fall of 1929, Walker Evans became interested in the work of the French photographer Eugene Atget, who eschewed deliberately artistic effects in his simple, economic photographs of Paris and its environs at the turn of the 20th century. The photographer Berenice Abbott, the most dedicated supporter of Atget’s work, had acquired his residual estate of prints and plates and brought the collection with her upon her move to New York in 1929. It is through their common interest in the work of Atget that Evans and Abbott would become aquatinted in 1929 or 1930, around the time this portrait photograph of Abbott was taken by Evans. Evans’ friend James Stern remembered—almost half a century later—that he and Evans had gone to Abbott’s apartment to see Atget’s work, perhaps for the first time in America. Stern said that in Evans he had caught the glimpse of an obsession, causing him to ask, “Surely it is not invidious to ask what kind of Evans we would have, which way his art would have developed, had there never been an Atget?”
Abbott had returned to the United States in 1929, bringing not only Atget's vast oeuvre, but also a desire to embark on what would be her best-known body of work--a documentation of New York City for which she developed her famous bird's-eye and worm's-eye points-of-view. She worked on the project independently through the early years of the Depression, and in 1935, secured funding from the Federal Art Project (a part of the Works Progress Administration). It is through both Abbott's and Evans' involvement with the Federal Art Project that we can presume they continued to develop a professional relationship during the later part of the 1930s. Her pictures were published as Changing New York (1939), which was both critically and commercially successful; it remains a classic text for historians of photography.
One of Abbott's later final projects was an illustration of scientific phenomenon, produced in the 1950s in collaboration with the Physical Sciences Study Committee based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although not as well known as her New York work, these pictures are exquisite examples of her acumen for technical experimentation and her natural instinct for combining factual photographic detail with stunning artistic accomplishment. With their clear visual demonstration of abstract scientific principles, the photographs were chosen to illustrate physics textbooks of the 1950s and 1960s.
Few images capture a moment in American history as clearly as Walker Evans’ groundbreaking 1938 monograph American Photographs and his 1941 collaboration with author James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. A pioneer of documentary photography, Evans catalogued the essence of 20th century America in his photographs of Main Streets, churches, factories, and New York City commuters, whom he shot by hiding a 35mm Contax camera underneath his coat. Toward the end of his long career, the two-time Guggenheim Fellow began experimenting with the color Polaroid SX-70. His groundbreaking work influenced generations of photographers, including Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander, and served as source material for Sherrie Levine’s conceptual appropriations. Photography, Evans once said, “is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing; it is the defining of observation full and felt.”
American, 1903-1975, St. Louis, Missouri
What Memes Owe to Art History
What We Can Learn from the Brief Period When the Government Employed Artists
The New York Subway in More Than 50 Years of Art