A Day in the Archives with Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott, Daytona Beach. Published on Art Blart. Courtesy Getty Images.

I’ve been spending the last few days in the archives at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto.

Archives are strange places. As the book Archive Stories points out, archives have individual personalities and identities. Some are staid and bureaucratic. Others are more informal. Individuals can be archives, as well as some websites in addition to bricks and mortar spaces.

The Ryerson Image Centre is a type of hybrid. On the one hand it’s terribly structured, with limits on what photographs can be viewed or handled due to the status of the negatives or images. One of the archivists walked me through a number of uncatalogued images; other were too fragile to even be handled. A giant climate controlled space, similar to a huge refrigerator, is used to store the photographic negatives.

But on the other hand, it’s a very loose space. It’s busy, with archivists and researchers talking to one another in normal voices. Some people wore headsets to block out the distractions from people talking and writing.

A quiet space it’s not.

Nonetheless, I found myself getting caught up in the “time” of the archive I was researching. I’m doing a new project about female photographers. Berenice Abvott’s archives are held, in part, by Ryerson. I’ve spent the last week reading her notebooks, looking at a (very small) selection of her images, and reading her oral history.

Berenice Abbott, billboard at Palisades Park New Jersey.

I’m struck immediately about how little things have changed. In an interview Abbott did for an oral history project at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, she said,

There are a great many social factors that guide women in one direction, but this is not natural. It is not human nature. They are being absolutely deprived of their birthright. It starts way back before birth. They’re cooked by the age of four.

This was in 1975. Forty-one years ago.

I’m going to hash out some thoughts on this in the next few days. But one of the reason I’m drawn to Abbott is the detail of her photographs. In the Route 1 series, she traveled America’s Atlantic Coast from Maine to Florida in the mid-1950s. This is a lovely detail of a particular point in American life, and worth sharing.

Sunoco Station, Berenice Abbott. Published on Art Blart. Courtesy Getty Images.

 

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