A few weeks after her arrival in New York, Berenice rented an apartment at the stylish Hotel des Artistes on Sixty-seventh Street, just west of Central Park. It had wonderful natural light, ideal for studio portraits. She began purchasing the equipment she needed for her studio and a darkroom.
While Berenice was in high spirits about New York and her plans to photograph the city, there were some aspects of her life in France that she missed. In New York there was really nothing to compare to the Paris café light, and she often recalled how she and her friends would gather in the evening after work and exchange information and ideas. And whereas in Paris she felt her role as a photographer was commonly accepted, in New York things were different. Homemaking and motherhood were still considered to be women’s chief responsibilities. In many professions, including photography, women were seldom to be seen.
Berenice understood that to be successful she would have to demonstrate a level of
skill and talent well beyond that of her male counterparts. “I realized from very early
days that the cards were stacked against women and that things are more difficult
for them,” she said. “My mother even told me that. But I don’t think I realized until
pretty late just how deep it was. … It’s a very profound prejudice that permeates
everything without you being aware of it.
” She admitted there were times when
she was disheartened and discouraged by the situation. [...]
Berenice’s first photographs of New York, taken in 1929, were made with her
hand-held camera. She assembled about two hundred of these images in an ordinary
photograph album with standard black pages. To Berenice these were no more than
preliminary studies. “Just notes,” she called them.
While she felt these photographs were satisfactory, she knew that she could do
much better with a bigger camera, so she bought a Century-Universal view camera.
It required the use of a tripod and took one photograph at a time on a large 8” x 10”
film negative, from which prints of that size were made. Such cameras are often used
today for commercial work, particularly architectural photographs. With its oversize
negatives, the view camera produced prints that were finely detailed. Berenice’s
photographs were now deeper, richer, stronger. [...]
Men often made fun of Berenice. “Women did not wear slacks then; they wore
skirts,” Berenice recalled. “When I photographed New York, I put on ski pants. Truck
drivers yelled at me, ‘Lady, take that off.’ It bothered me. But I found the way was to
ignore them, as if they weren’t there.” […]
Just as Atget was often taunted by passersby, so it was with Abbott. “I was shy about
setting up my camera in New York,” she said. “The first time I tried I packed up and
went home. But I knew I had to do it and I made myself come back.”
One day Berenice lugged her equipment through Times Square and began setting up
her camera before the eight-foot statue of soldier-priest Father Francis Patrick Duffy,
a hero of World War I. The statue was tightly wrapped from head to toe in heavy blue
cloth in preparation of its unveiling a few days later.
As Berenice adjusted the tripod and began focusing, several curious people stopped
to watch. Soon the gathering became a sizable crowd. Then a police officer arrived. He
scolded Berenice for creating a disturbance.