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A Tale of Two Cities:
Eugene Atget’s Paris and Berenice Abbott’s New York

March 2 - May 2, 2012
Opening Reception: March 2, 6:00pm

Untitled, (Along the Seine), c. 1921-1926 © Eugene Atget

“The first time I saw photographs by Eugene Atget was in 1925 in the studio of Man Ray in Paris. Their impact was immediate and tremendous. There was a sudden flash of recognition - the shock of realism unadorned.” –Berenice Abbott


More than an exhibition of architectural photography, this show examines the work of two artists who were inextricably linked to each other and to the development of modern photography. Eugene Atget turned to photography after a career of acting on the stage and an earlier stint as a commercial seaman. He was dismayed by the amount of architectural history being destroyed during the modernization of Paris and began photographing the city’s shop fronts, streets, and neighborhoods.

Berenice Abbott met Atget in 1925 when she was working as a darkroom assistant to Man Ray. Abbott was deeply and permanently affected by Atget’s images, saying later that there was a sudden flash of recognition - the shock of realism unadorned. Upon returning to New York after an eight-year absence, Abbott realized the city had changed tremendously. She embarked on a project to document the ever-changing Gotham landscape. Her efforts produced a catalog of images that, like Atget’s earlier photographs of Paris, records the essential character of the city.

This exhibition is on loan from the Syracuse University Art Collection.


Berenice Abbott was in Paris working as a 27 year old lab assistant to Man Ray when she first saw the photographs that had such an impact. She had begun her career in New York in journalism school, changed to sculpture and then booked a one way passage to France where, as Gertrude Stein said, “the twentieth century was.” She discovered her medium in photography, worked for Man Ray, and started her own studio that gained for her a prominent clientele of Avant-Garde Parisians.

Atget was at the end of his quixotic life that had included an early stint as a commercial seaman, and later as an actor who, because of his short, squat stature, played the less flattering dramatic roles in small provincial playhouses. His travels around Paris made him acutely aware of the city’s physical transformation due to the removal of many tenement buildings and modernization projects like the Paris Metro. Atget became inspired to photograph the city’s remaining historical sites to make documentary images useful to libraries and antiquarians.

In 1927, after she had set up her own studio on the Rue du Bac, Abbott persuaded Atget to come for a portrait sitting. A few days later Abbott returned to Atget’s studio to show him the proofs only to find the little sign, “Documents Pour Artistes” missing from its door. Inquiring at the concierge’s apartment Abbott learned of Atget’s death. She heard that his collection of photographs was entrusted to Andre Calmettes, an old theatre friend. After a series of negotiations, Abbott convinced him to sell her the entire collection of photographs and glass plate negatives.

In 1929, Berenice Abbott returned to New York City after an eight year stay in Paris. She had left as a fledgling art student who was in her words “scared of New York” and dissatisfied with the general commercialism of the country. Inspired by Atget she said upon her return, “…when I saw New York again, I felt that here was the thing I had been wanting to do all my life, photograph New York City.”

In 1935 she submitted a three page outline to the Federal Arts Project explaining her ideas. To Abbott’s great delight, “Changing New York” was officially approved by the FAP in 1936. She was given a salary of $145.00 a month, plus expenses for the 1930 Ford Roadster. Her assigned staff included a driver, a darkroom technician, a person to spot and file information on locations, and two research assistants. Her earliest photographs of the city were made using a hand held view camera and later with an 8 x 10 inch Century Universal view camera. In 1939 E.P. Dutton published Changing New York that contained over one hundred photographs of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Nine years later Abbott published Greenwich Village Today and Yesterday, an intimate, more personal look at a New York “neighborhood” and its inhabitants.

Click HERE for the "Tale of Two Cities" Essay

Berenice Abbott Eugene Atget
Berenice Abbott
An Industrial Designer's Window, Bleeker Street,
c. 1948 © Berenice Abbott
Boutique, c. 1921-1926 © Eugene Atget Doorway 204 W 13th St, Manhattan, 1936
© Berenice Abbott

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