Portland Museum of Art
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North and South: Berenice Abbott's U.S. Route I
During the summer of 1954, photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) set off with two companions to tour the expanse of Route 1. The group left from New York City and drove south to Key West, Florida. There, they turned around retracing their route until they reached the last northerly point; Fort Kent, Maine. During this excursion Abbott took more than 2,400 negatives. She devoted the next two years developing prints and a prospectus illustrating the historical importance of the project. Her goal was to capture the character of the time in the ever transient face of America. "North and South: Berenice Abbott's U.S. Route I" will be on view from September 21, 2000 through December 3, 2000 at the Portland Museum of Art. (left: Roadsign, Route 1, Maine, 1954, vintage gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 inches, Syracuse University Art Collection, 1981.2643; right: Untitled, boy and bicycle, 1954, vintage gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 inches, Syracuse University Art Collection,)
"What is interesting about this show is that it is a complete body of work in a concentrated time," said Aprile Gallant, Curator of Prints, Drawing, & Photographs. "Abbott works to preserve sites that are specifically 1954, rather than documenting the progression of years. Abbott's goal was for people to remember and see it as it was." Typically, Berenice Abbott has taken years to journal Paris and New York City; in contrast the Route 1 documentation allowed her only one moment of one summer with her selected subject matter. (left: Virginia,1954, vintage gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 inches, Syracuse University Art Collection, 1981.2661)
"North and South: Berenice Abbott's U.S. Route I" captures a variety of subject matter, from the ferris wheels that spotted the landscape to the people who inhabited it. She wanted to capture what was familiar, the things that are overlooked until they are gone. Abbott's portraits of Maine potato farmers and Georgia peach pickers caught the flavor of everyday life. Cruising along the coast Abbott documented the individual cities and towns. These images demonstrate a fondness of detail with which she defined the character of the area. (left: Milikin's General Store on Sunday Morning, Bridgewater, Maine, 1954, vintage gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 inches, Syracuse University Art Collection, 1981.2210; right: Melbourne, Florida, 1954, vintage gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 inches, Syracuse University Art Collection, 1981.2351)
After her summer touring the east coast, Abbott rarely mentioned the Route 1 photographs. The public focused on her New York work and her scientific photographs. Abbott saw her role as a photographer to be centered around capturing whatever she was photographing as it was at that moment; the Route 1 pictures are exactly that, a chronicle of the summer of 1954 on Route 1.
She showed the people and the places just as they were, without embellishment or editorializing. She once said in an interview, "In broad terms the work I have done here is really the American scene, which I think is important to photograph because the United States is such a changing country and is still young. Photography can only represent the present. Once photographed the subject becomes part of the past." (left: Untitled, parking meters, Augusta, Georgia, 1954, vintage gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 inches, Syracuse University Art Collection)
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