A Legacy Preserved

photo: Berenice Abbott, New York

Although many of Atget’s prints had either been purchased by or donated to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris during his lifetime, no provisions had been made for the vast collection of prints and negatives still in the photographer’s possession when he died in 1927.  Berenice Abbott, Man Ray’s assistant at the time and a photographer in her own right, had befriended Atget during his last days and had seen enough of the elderly photographer’s work to appreciate the value of it.  She was the creator of the last portraits of Atget.  Just before they were about to be relegated to the garbage heap, Abbott rescued Atget’s cache of images, his life’s work, and returned to her native New York where she donated it to the fledgeling Museum of Modern Art for safekeeping.

His photographs were not the only aspect of Atget’s legacy that Abbott dedicated herself to, for she was also to spend the rest of her distinguished career employing the lessons learned from his photography in her own work.  Far from being a slavish imitator, she instead used his clear, direct approach to inform her own distinctive photographic ends, documenting the city of New York.  As Atget had done in Paris before her, Abbott made it part of her mission to create final visual essays of New York’s soon to be demolished landmarks just ahead of the wrecking ball.

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