As an expatriate New Yorker living in Paris in the 1920s, Berenice Abbott came to prominence as a portrait photographer after having been the studio and darkroom assistant of Surrealist artist Man Ray for almost three years. Her reputation for producing psychologically probing images preceded her, and artists, writers, socialites, and other members of her bohemian social circle, such as Sylvia Beach, André Gide, James Joyce, and Peggy Guggenheim, came to her unsolicited.
After a brief return visit to New York City in early 1929, Abbott was struck by its energy as well as the broad technological and societal changes that had occurred there during the eight years she had been away. She could not deny the hold this place had on her, and decided to return to her homeland to embark on the monumental project of documenting the streets, bridges, brownstones, storefronts, and skyscrapers of New York and several of its boroughs in order to capture the city as it was radically transforming into a modern metropolis. Abbott had worked steadily on the series for six years when the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration offered her funding in 1935. Published in book form in 1939, the portfolio Changing New York is one of the most celebrated documentations of the urban experience in the history of American photography.
A little-known chapter in Abbott’s biography has become part of Walker Art Center history. In 1943, prominent New York gallerist and arts patron Hudson D. Walker approached the artist about the possibility of documenting the operations of his family’s lumber business. Thomas Barlow Walker, his grandfather and founder of the Walker, was a lumber baron whose Red River Lumber Company (RRLC) operated mills in Crookston, Minnesota; Grand Forks in the Dakota Territory; and Westwood, California. Hudson had followed Abbott’s career closely since including her in his first photography show in 1938. Fully aware of her documentary prowess, he wrote the following to an executive of the mill in Westwood in order to persuade the company to consider a commission: “I consider her one of the dozen top-flight photographers in the country, and believe that she would be able to dig up a lot of unusual material which would be of real advertising value to us.”
Abbott accepted Walker’s subsequent offer to spend two weeks at the lumber camp for a fee of $1,000 plus supplies and traveling expenses. Accustomed to studio photography or shooting outdoors in relatively static urban environments, she was forced to acclimate quickly to working more spontaneously with a hand-held Rolleiflex camera in wind-swept, heavily forested areas and in factory settings where people and machinery were in constant motion. However, the style and content of these photographs are signature Abbott—towering Ponderosa pines take the place of the skyscrapers that had awed her more than a decade earlier. As with Changing New York, Abbott documented for perpetuity a fleeting moment of history with her images of America’s workforce at the height of World War II, when women and the elderly took over jobs once held by legions of young men who had been drafted into the armed services.
Back in her New York studio, Abbott selected fifty-four of the strongest photographs from her three hundred negatives. Although these pictures were intended to and did serve the purposes of the RRLC, Walker was quick to realize the appeal they might have to a larger art audience, and subsequently organized a touring exhibition entitled Logging and Lumbering in the Pine Forests of California. Abbott printed several exhibition copies of her photographs for the 1944 tour that traveled to two San Francisco–area museums. After the show closed, the artist filed away her set of prints and negatives in her darkroom, and Walker inexplicably stored his under a couch in his home. Upon his death in 1976, the discovery of the forgotten prints revived interest in this body of work, resulting in a 1979 exhibition at the Hudson D. Walker Gallery of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.