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Abbott, Berenice (1898-1991)  

Accomplished American photographer Berenice Abbott may be best known for her photographs of New York City's changing cityscape, but she also made memorable images of lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men in Paris in the 1920s and in New York from the 1930s through 1965.

Born in Springfield, Ohio in 1898, Abbott briefly attended Ohio State University before moving to New York City in 1918. In New York, she lived in a semi-communal Greenwich Village apartment shared by Djuna Barnes and others. Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp were part of her social circle.

In 1921, Abbott moved to Europe where she studied sculpture in Paris and Berlin. Among her lovers in Paris were artists' model Tylia Perlmutter and sculptress and silverpoint artist Thelma Wood. In Paris, between 1923 and 1925, she studied photography while working as Man Ray's assistant. In 1926, she opened her own portrait studio and had a successful one-person exhibition. Two years later, she showed photographs at the Salon des Indépendants.

During Abbott's Paris years, she photographed many figures from the worlds of literature and the arts, including James Joyce, Foujita, Coco Chanel, and Max Ernst. However, her most significant contribution to history and aesthetics are her vivid portraits of lesbians and bisexuals. Among these are the younger expatriate lesbian writers Margaret Anderson, Jane Heap, Sylvia Beach, Bryher, Janet Flanner and Flanner's lover Solita Solano, as well as the artist Gwen Le Gallienne, with whom she frequented gay bars.

Another of Abbott's most memorable images is that of a masculine-appearing Thelma Wood, made after she and Abbott were no longer lovers. Abbott also photographed Wood's new love, Djuna Barnes, whose affair with Wood was the inspiration for the novel Nightwood (1936). Unlike her image of Wood, Abbott's photograph of her lover, Tylia Perlmutter, is delicate and dreamy.

Abbott also photographed the French bookstore owner Adrienne Monnier, Sylvia Beach's lover; the wealthy Violette Murat (Princess Eugène Murat); and artist Marie Laurencin, a bisexual who may have had an affair with Murat. Abbott made images as well of such gay or bisexual men as André Gide, Robert McAlmon, and the flamboyant Jean Cocteau. Abbott's bisexual Paris clients also included painters Margaret Sargent and Betty Parsons (later of the Betty Parsons Gallery in Manhattan) and architect/designer Eileen Gray.

Returning to New York City in 1929, Abbott photographed the rapidly changing city. She also photographed U.S. Highway 1 from Maine to Florida and created images to illustrate the laws and processes of physics. But she also continued making images of lesbian and bisexual women. In particular, she photographed such subjects as poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Harlem Renaissance art patron A'Lelia Walker, and actress/director Eva Le Gallienne, Gwen's step-sister.

In New York, Abbott formed an alliance with critic Elizabeth McCausland, which lasted from the early 1930s until McCausland's death in 1965. Abbott's portraits of McCausland confirm the aptness of the nickname she gave her lover, "Butchy." McCausland wrote early essays about Abbott's work.

Having almost flaunted her love of women early in her life, Abbott later obscured and even lied about her lesbianism, distancing and closeting herself as thoroughly as possible. In 1968, she moved permanently to Maine.

Had her lovers been male and her lesbian and bisexual subjects been heterosexual, Abbott's work--given its quality and the accomplishments of her subjects--would have achieved earlier and greater recognition. Still, her work brought her fame and financial security. Her images of blatantly lesbian-appearing women, such as Jane Heap, for example, have been exhibited in art galleries and museums for decades. As the story of her life and the lives of her subjects become better known, her role in creating memorable images of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people finds greater appreciation.

Tee A. Corinne


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A photo mural by Berenice Abbott (circa 1932).
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   Related Entries
arts >> Overview:  Photography: Lesbian, Pre-Stonewall

The most significant examples of pre-Stonewall lesbian photography convey relationships, reflect lesbian iconography, or show the photographer looking at and recording her beloved.

literature >> Anderson, Margaret

Best known as editor of the early twentieth-century literary journal The Little Review, Margaret Anderson also published a frank lesbian novel and a three-volume autobiography.

literature >> Barnes, Djuna

American novelist Djuna Barnes sought new forms of self-representation of lesbians in the face of society's compulsory heterosexuality.

literature >> Beach, Sylvia

Through her Parisian bookshop and her editorial work, American expatriate and lesbian Sylvia Beach did much to influence the course of modern literature.

literature >> Cocteau, Jean

An outspoken homosexual, Jean Cocteau was a prolific poet, novelist, critic, essayist, artist, and filmmaker.

arts >> Cocteau, Jean

For prolific French poet and artist Jean Cocteau, filmmaking may have served as the best medium for the expression of his genius.

literature >> Flanner, Janet

An expatriate journalist, novelist, and translator, Janet Flanner spent most of her adult life in Paris with her lover Solita Solano.

arts >> Freund, Gisèle

Though she was an accomplished and respected photojournalist, Gisèle Freund is today best remembered as a chronicler of the vibrant bohemian community of artists and writers that made its home in Paris during the 1930s.

literature >> Gide, André

André Gide, one of the premier French writers of the twentieth century, reflected his homosexuality in many of his numerous works.

arts >> Gray, Eileen

Renowned designer of furniture, rugs, and lacquered screens, Eileen Gray also gained fame as an architect who created elegant and spare residences.

arts >> Hujar, Peter

Photographer Peter Hujar created stark, stunning, affecting , and sometimes disturbing images in black and white.

arts >> Le Gallienne, Eva

Actress, director, producer, teacher, and memoirist, as well as translator, Eva Le Gallienne was one of the most successful figures in the American theater for several decades; she had many lovers, but was never comfortable with her lesbianism.

literature >> McAlmon, Robert

American publisher and writer Robert McAlmon made significant contributions to twentieth-century literature, both by publishing avant-garde writers and by depicting a queer subculture in his own works.

literature >> Millay, Edna Saint Vincent

Poet and playwright Edna Saint Vincent Millay expressed her bisexuality in both her life and her work.

arts >> Parsons, Betty

American artist and gallery owner Betty Parsons retreated into the closet after World War II, but her support of gay, lesbian, and bisexual artists during a time of repression and her later candor are important contributions to glbtq history.

arts >> Teske, Edmund

American photographer Edmund Teske created a distinct and inventive body of work that embraced multiple styles and subjects, from somber urban vistas to intimate, often eroticized, portraits.

social sciences >> Walker, A'Lelia

Hostess A'Lelia Walker, the "joy goddess" of the Harlem Renaissance, especially valued the company of black glbtq artists and writers, which gave her gatherings a distinctly gay ambience.

arts >> Wood, Thelma Ellen

Although she is best known for her affair with Djuna Barnes, as depicted in Barne's classic novel Nightwood, Thelma Wood was herself an artist; originally a sculptor, she also practiced the obscure craft of silverpoint drawing.


Abbott, Berenice. Berenice Abbott Photographs. New York: Horizon Press, 1970. Washington, D.C. and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990.

Mitchell, Margaretta K. Recollections: Ten Women of Photography. New York: Viking, 1979.

O'Neal, Hank. Berenice Abbott: American Photographer. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.

Peters, Susan Dodge Peters. "Elizabeth McCausland On Photography." Afterimage 12.10 (1985): 10-15.


    Citation Information
    Author: Corinne, Tee A.  
    Entry Title: Abbott, Berenice  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 13, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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