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Toronto’s Ryerson Image Centre has acquired the archive of Berenice Abbott, one of the most important photographers of the 20th century, it was announced Wednesday. The archive, which includes more than 6,000 photos and 7,000 negatives, was purchased from the U.S.-based Abbott Estate for an unspecified amount by a small group of anonymous Canadian philanthropists who then donated it to RIC.

The acquisition, which also includes correspondence, personal journals and other ephemera, represents to date the largest intake of photographic works by a single artist by RIC since its opening in fall 2012 on the Ryerson University campus in downtown Toronto. Multi-stage negotiations for the acquisition took more than three years to complete, involving, among many others, Ronald Kurtz, the U.S. businessman who acquired the Abbott archive in 1985, represented the photographer until her death at 93 in 1991 and served as estate administrator.

Interference Pattern Cambridge, Massachusetts (Berenice Abbott Archive, Ryerson Image Centre)

RIC has a deep familiarity with the Abbott oeuvre. In spring/summer 2012, before it opened its on-campus gallery, the centre mounted a career-spanning exhibition, in association with Paris’s Jeu de Paume, of more than 120 Abbott photos at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The centre also hosted a one-day Abbott symposium that May featuring such participants as Kurtz and Gaelle Morel, the exhibition’s curator and RIC’s chief curator.

Abbott, born in Ohio in 1898, had a varied photographic career that brought her into contact with many of the titans of 20th century culture. She travelled to Paris shortly after the end of the First World War to study sculpture but by 1923 she was working as a studio assistant and dark-room technician for the pioneering avant-garde photographer Man Ray. She soon took up the camera herself and, over the next six or seven years, made now-iconic black-and-white portraits of such luminaries as James Joyce, Pablo Picasso and Djuna Barnes, Janet Flanner, Eileen Gray, Jean Cocteau and Eugène Atget. She, in fact, befriended Atget in the years just before the great photographer’s death, in 1927, championing his then-little-known artistry, later owning 1,000 Atget glass negatives as well as 7,000 original prints. (Most of these were donated or sold to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the late 1960s.)

Jean Cocteau with Gun, 1926 (Berenice Abbott Archive, Ryerson Image Centre)

Returning to the U.S. in 1929, Abbott took up residence in New York and began to capture on film the life, work and architecture of that city much as Atget did with Paris. She also became a science photographer, keen, she said, “to combine science and photography in a sensible, unemotional way. Some people’s ideas of science photography are just arty design, something pretty. The idea was to interpret science sensibly, with good proportions, good balance and good lighting, so we could understand it.”

RIC director Paul Roth said Wednesday the Abbott archive is a valuable addition to RIC’s holdings, in part, because “she is one of the most important photographers ever for understanding documentary practice.” Her work offers a compelling combination of “the graphic nature of the European avant-garde style with the very direct and forthright and descriptive nature of American modernism.” As such, it helps both “buttress and contextualize” the 292,000 images in the famous Black Star Agency photojournalism collection that RIC acquired in 2005.

Nightview, New York City, 1932 (Berenice Abbott Archive, Ryerson Image Centre)

In addition, the Abbotts are a “really interesting” complement, Roth observed, to the work of two other important female photographers for whom RIC has significant holdings: Britain’s Jo Spence (1934-1992) and America’s Wendy Snyder MacNeil (b. 1943).

Roth was quick to acknowledge RIC is “not the only party that contains significant Abbott resources.” The museum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for one, has more of Abbott’s papers and “deeper holdings than we do of her scientific photography.” The Museum of the City of New York, moreover, “has a substantial archive” of images from Changing New York, the epic documentary project Abbott undertook between 1935 and 1938 for the Federal Art Project. “Our goal is to collaborate as openly as possible” with these institutions, Roth said. “We’re going to try to be really inclusive and share information and appeal to researchers and we’ve been talking about doing projects together.”

Berenice Abbott, Monson, Maine, July 17, 1991 (Courtesy of Hank O'Neal)