Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991), 'Portrait of Eugène Atget,' 1927. Gelatin silver print on paper, 13 1/4 by 10 1/4 inches. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. Museum Purchase

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991

Portrait of Eugène Atget, 1927
Gelatin silver print on paper, 13 1/4 x 10 1/4 in.
Museum Purchase

This work represents a significant confluence in photographic history. When it was made, Eugène Atget was 70 years old and just a few weeks away from death. Berenice Abbott was a 29-year-old American expatriate in Paris and a relative beginner in photography. More than eighty years later, both of them are among the most revered contributors to this art form.

Born in Ohio and starting out as a sculptor, Abbott traveled in 1921 to Paris, where she worked as a studio assistant to the American photographer Man Ray. After gaining a grasp of basic photographic skills, she abandoned sculpture and opened a portrait studio. Abbott’s photographs of Djuna Barnes, Jean Cocteau, and James Joyce, among others, are considered iconic images of the interwar period.

Man Ray introduced Abbott to Atget’s photography. The older artist had cultivated a business that supplied images of Paris for reference purposes to local historical organizations, museums, artists, and designers. The painter Maurice Utrillo, for example, bought his photographs to serve as painting aids. Parisian surrealists admired how Atget could capture uncanny aspects of seemingly mundane scenes, and they saw a relationship between his work and their interest in finding the absurd within the commonplace. Ray had acquired Atget prints and shared them with Abbott, who noted how these sharply focused, unsentimental images of the French capital differed from the romantic subject matter and dreamy wistfulness of pictorialism, which was still the predominant mode of art photography.

In July 1927, Abbott obtained Atget’s permission to take his portrait, and a session was arranged. She made three exposures: a standing view, a seated frontal view, and the profile that is in the Ulrich Museum collection. Atget died on August 4, before she could show her results to him. For the rest of her life, Abbott zealously pursued the preservation and promotion of his work. With contributions from friends, she purchased many of Atget’s negatives and prints and so began making American photographers and collectors aware of
his achievements.

As Abbott catalogued her new acquisitions, she came to see with increasing clarity Atget’s singular ability to craft a photographic commentary on imperial-era Paris and its transition to a modern metropolis. In 1929 she returned to the United States to visit her family and passed through New York. She was so mesmerized by the city that she impulsively decided to put aside her well-established life in Paris and move to Manhattan. There, from 1929 to 1939, she concentrated on a project she called "Changing New York." Inspired by Atget’s precedent, Abbott created an epic survey, remarkable for its sensitivity, wry humor, and exquisite design, of another intensely vibrant, multifaceted world capital as it lurched toward the future.

--Patricia McDonnell, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art