This autumn Huis Marseille will present a large retrospective of the famous American photographer Berenice Abbott (1898–1991). This is the first time that an extensive selection of her work, held by important American collections, will be shown in the Netherlands. Abbott is one of the key figures in the history of 20th-century photography. Her legacy is not only an eclectic photographic oeuvre but also a strong opinion on the role of photography in society, to which she gave expression in numerous publications. Her work forms a bridge linking the artistic avant-garde in the ‘Old World’ with the emerging art scene of the 1920s and 1930s in New York.
The idea of modernity pervades all of Berenice Abbott’s work: from her portraits of pioneering artists and intellectuals, and her astonishing views of the city of New York, to her photos of scientific themes, documenting the results of various physics experiments. Abbott’s oeuvre also reflects her own modernism, her constant desire to be on the front line, and her exceptional talent for not just noticing the changes that were going on around her but for depicting them to striking effect. Berenice Abbott was an enthusiastic proponent of modernism in photography, and was strongly opposed to picturalism, the painterly style that dominated photography in the early 20th century. In her view a good photograph was shaped by the specific characteristics of photography itself, and not by those of painting.
The heart of the exhibition is formed by Abbott’s photos of New York City. When she returned to New York in 1929 she felt an immediate urge to photograph the city itself, with its enormous contrasts and contradictions, a city that changed constantly and was never the same from moment to moment. In 1935 she received a substantial grant from the Federal Art Project, a government initiative that was intended to create jobs and boost the economy following the crisis years, and this allowed her to begin work in earnest. She called her project Changing New York; it was also published in book form in 1939, with texts by her partner Elizabeth McCausland. Her camera transformed New York into a living being, with an extraordinary character, which visitors can experience to this day as they move through its busy streets and stare amazed at the modern beauty of its skyscrapers. Shops, people, bridges, streets, interiors, construction sites, iconic buildings seen from outside or from above – everything comes together to create a portrait of the city.
The exhibition was created in collaboration with Fundación MAPFRE, a Spanish non-profit organization with which Huis Marseille has worked regularly over the last ten years – most recently in 2016 for the Stephen Shore retrospective in Huis Marseille. It was curated by Estrella de Diego, Professor of Modern Art at the Complutense University of Madrid, and has been shown in Barcelona and Madrid. The exhibition comprises almost 200 vintage photographs generously loaned from the New York Public Library, the Museum of the City of New York, the International Center of Photography (NY), the George Eastman House (Rochester, NY), the Howard Greenberg Gallery (NY) and the MIT Museum (Cambridge, Massachusetts), together with a selection of Abbott’s publications on loan from the Rijksmuseum library and other collections.