Interview and transcript © 1990 by Kay Reese & Mimi Leipzig. ASMP staff edited the transcript for online presentation and added supplemental biographic information.
Berenice Abbott (1898 – 1991) spent most of her life in photography of New York City. After attending Columbia University, she studied abroad in Berlin and Paris, where she met Man Ray. Working as his darkroom assistant, she discovered her own interest in the art. She set up a studio in Paris, where she concentrated on portraits (including James Joyce, André Gide and Peggy Guggenheim). But in 1929, she moved back to New York and spent the next decade on cityscapes. One result was her first book, Changing New York, which is still in print.
Later, she added scientific documentation to her repertoire. She also launched the photography program at the New School for Social Research, where she taught from 1934-58. She wrote several books, including Guide to Better Photography (published in 1941, now out of print). Among other encomiums, she received a number of honorary degrees and four U.S. patents for photographic devices.
ASMP: When ASMP first started, you were a very early member.
Abbott: Yes. I was impressed by the quality of the people. I thought they were especially alert and alive. For instance, I knew the Artists Union, too, and it seemed to me that the photographers were much more alive than the painters.
ASMP: Who introduced you to the ASMP?
Abbott: I don’t know if I was approached or not. I joined ASMP because I believed in unions for people, and photographers were having a terrible time. IBM, for instance: They wanted some work done on their computers, and an ordinary photographer couldn’t have done it. So they hired me. But they wouldn’t give any extra money. We really got the dirty end of it.
“It was subtle.”
ASMP: Were you treated differently as a photographer because you were a woman?
Abbott: Not openly; it was subtle. They would ask, “Do you process your own work?” And I said, “Yes. What do you think, somebody does it for me?” There were these subtle little remarks.
ASMP: How did you work? Did you go on assignment, or did you do independent projects?
Abbott: I always had my own business in New York City. The only time I had an assignment was on the Federal Arts Project, and that lasted for three years. Which made me extremely happy, because as a supervisor, I got a small salary of $35 a week plus the cost of materials. That was a great help to me; it was all I needed. I wasn’t looking to make money. My interest was to photograph New York, above everything.