A great work of art is evident almost at once. We sense its greatness the moment we experience it. It may be a painting or a work of fiction or a piece of music or a body of work, but intuitively we know it to be a masterpiece. It is unique, special and a rarity.
There is no pretense to a great work of art, there is only a clarity to the work, making it accessible to all. We can’t predict when something wonderful will be created. Great ideas and vision come together all the time. People paint, write books, choreograph, photograph all with the intention of creating a masterpiece. Unfortunately, it is not enough to have desire or even talent and skill. Sometimes the creation of a great work of art is simply all the given variables thrown into together at the right moment and like magic a masterpiece is created. That masterpiece will live on as such to the end of humanity. Each generation who experiences a great work of art seems to have a better understanding of its importance and raison d’etre, than the generation before.
Berenice Abbott came back to live in New York City after living abroad for many years. She was amazed at the changes taking place in the city. Skyscrapers were being built all over. The city was growing vertically. The contrast between old New York and new development was stark on many levels. These changes had tremendous effect on Abbott and she began to document what she saw by photographing it. Originally Berenice used a hand held camera and then switched to a large format camera for its ability to capture detail and contrasts unavailable to her with a small camera. Her new method required her to have an intuitive sense of what she wanted. That coupled with natural talent and technical finesse enabled her to create a great body of work.
Berenice Abbott worked hard at her art. Her education as a photographer began in Paris in the 1920’s. The great photographer Man Ray was in need of an assistant and Berenice was in need of a job. He hired Abbott as his assistant and eventually she became his equal. He gave her the necessary experience which would become her guided education. Man Ray understood Abbott’s talent, experienced her devotion to her craft and her hard work to achieve her goals and he generously offered his studio to her. Within a short time she became a desired photographer and a member of the avant-garde movement.
After eight years in Europe, Bernice was back in New York City. She photographed the city with the documentary style she came to embrace. Her images were of the moment, unaltered and authentic. The tradition began with artists such as Eugene Atget who Berenice devotedly admired. Atget documented Paris in the late 1800’s up to the late 1920’s and it is Berenice Abbott who made sure his legacy would not be forgotten. Berenice gave up a thriving Paris based business to come back to New York. Unfortunately she had to work at maintaining the level of success she had in Paris. Her scramble for work left her little time to photograph New York. She understood that she would have to receive financial support to achieve her goal. Times were tough in America, the market had crashed and money simply was not as plentiful as it had been. Berenice was always on the brink of success in finding a patron only to be rejected in the end. She ended up teaching and worked on projects with other artists, sometimes traveling outside the city for work, she also did exhibitions during this period.
Berenice’s situation changed with the establishment of the Works Progress Administration or WPA in 1932 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Federal Art Project or FAP was a small part of the WPA. Berenice was able to be a part of it. She was given money and access to a staff for her work. Though the arrangement was not ideal. Initially she was not given a car and she would lug her equipment around the city for many months before she was given one. Having a staff and working in a complicated, disorganized bureaucracy was not to her liking. She persevered and the result is hundreds of photographs of New York City. Individually the photographs are truly great works of art and the complete body of work as whole can only be described as a masterpiece.
Please join Bonnie Yochelson at the Mid-Manhattan Library on Tuesday, April 28th at 6:30 PM as she presents a slide-lecture & discussion of Berenice Abbott, Changing New York, The Complete WPA Project.