April 08, 2020

Following U.S. Route 1> Photographer Abbott captured scenic life along popular highway

Follow U.S. Route 1 from Key West, Fla., to Fort Kent and you’ll discover a human, physical landscape of sharp contrasts.

Daytona Beach, with its skyscraper-hotels and T-shirt shops crawling with tourists and retirees, stands out starkly against the vast, sparsely inhabited land of Aroostook County.

Those different worlds were captured by Maine photographer Berenice Abbott when she spent the summer of 1954 recording life along U.S. Route 1 from the southern tip of Florida to the northern reaches of Maine. The series — her largest project devoted to one subject — never was published. Now, fittingly, it is being featured at the University of Maine Museum of Art in Orono.

Running from Jan. 30 through March 18, “North & South: Berenice Abbott’s U.S. Route 1” is a selection of 50 black-and-white images from the more than 2,000 photos taken by Abbott during her north-south odyssey along the Eastern Seaboard.

Two photos hanging together at the gallery’s entrance seem to sum up Abbott’s aim.

One is of Melbourne, Fla., at the outset of the tourism boom in the 1950s. The Melbourne Hotel is shown, its golden dome gleaming in the light, with “Hotel” signs positioned at all angles. Strings of traffic lights converge at the street corner where empty taxicabs sit waiting.

The other photo shows a bend in the road of Route 1 in Maine. A man clad in work clothes strides blithely down the middle of the empty highway bordered by snow-covered ground. He looks utterly unconcerned by the chance of being hit by a car.

“We wanted to capture visually the character of an historic section of the United States, its beauties and incongruities and all,” wrote Abbott, who believed photography should “see things as they are, whether a portrait, a city street or a bouncing ball.”

Earlier this year, UM museum Director Wally Mason learned Syracuse University had put together Abbott’s U.S. Route 1 series as a traveling show. He saw it as something many Mainers could identify with.

“I was most familiar with her celebrity portraits during the ’20s,” he remarked this week. “Every time I had seen the Route 1 photos, it seemed they were only of Florida.”

Born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1898, Abbott lived in Piscataquis County for more than a quarter-century. Her last years were spent in a small cabin on the quiet shores of Lake Hebron in Monson. Once a heavy smoker, who had had part of a lung removed, she was drawn by Maine’s comparatively clean environment.

“I think it was the air,” Abbott told Maine art critic Edgar Allen Beem in an interview in the 1980s. “I got out of Manhattan and the darkroom … the dust and dirt and airlessness. Here the air is like champagne, only better.”

While Abbott produced the U.S. Route 1 series and the book “A Portrait of Maine” with Prospect Harbor writer Chenoweth Hall, she is best known for her portraits of Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and other artists and writers living in Paris during the 1920s.

In addition, Abbott’s “Changing New York” photos shot during the 1930s are considered classics of modern photography. She is also credited with saving the works of master French photographer Eugene Atget, whose glass plates and prints now belong to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

While she became a world-famous photographer, Abbott struggled financially until her death. Much of her work was done when photography was not a widely accepted art form. She relied heavily on teaching to make a living.

Maine photographer Olive Pierce, whose stark portrait “Up River: The story of a Maine fishing community” toured Maine last year, had Abbott as her first photography teacher back in the 1950s.

“Berenice looked at my drugstore snapshots and said at least they aren’t cornball,” Pierce recalled this week, speaking from her winter home in Cambridge, Mass. “She hated anything hokey. That rubbed off on me.”

Pierce remembers Abbott as being crusty and cynical.

“Particularly about men,” she said. “She was very generous with me. She taught me everything from scratch. The first thing she told me was making pictures was about putting three dimensions into a two-dimensional frame.”

Edmund Yankov, the UM museum’s education specialist, got to know Abbott when he worked for the New York gallery that represented her. He remembers her as a tough, blunt woman.

“She drank beer out of a can. She didn’t want it in a glass,” he said this week. “She was really tough. But when she smiled, it just lit you up.”

Abbott’s warmth, wry wit and artistry shine through in her U.S. Route 1 series. The photos have broad appeal. Follow the sequence of unlabeled photos as they move up the Eastern Seaboard. Then check the printed gallery guide to see if your guesses match the places either identified or hinted at in the listed titles.

Some images are just plain funny. In one, the hefty steer “Ferdinand” stands beneath an umbrella at Daytona Beach. “Have your picture made in one minute” reads the sign. A shovel, presumably to keep manure from sullying the white sand, is propped up against the stand.

Some are documentary in nature. A stark portrait of Aroostook County potato farmers makes them look like 19th century sheep farmers in Ireland.

Other pictures are works of art. In another Daytona Beach shot, a lean, tanned man casts his fishing line in a wide arch. He’s wearing a cowboy hat. His white T-shirt is stuffed in his back pocket. He has a cigarette clamped in his mouth.

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