Get to Know Berenice Abbott, a Pioneering Gay Artist with Ohio Ties

As Columbus celebrates 40 years of Pride, learn about the work of the Springfield-born photographer on display at the Columbus Museum of Art.

Virginia Brown
Portrait of American author and artist Djuna Barnes

Three unassuming black-and-white photographs by the same artist hang in a corner of the Columbus Museum of Art as part of the Queer / Modern exhibition, on display since Jan. 1. One is packed with intricate swirls, the other with magnified drops of water. The smallest of the three depicts a woman sitting sideways in a chair, a hint of a smile on her lips. 

The subject is modernist writer Djuna Barnes, the author of the 1936 work of lesbian fiction “Nightwood” and a friend of the photographer, Berenice Abbott, an influential artist who isn’t widely known in her home state. 

Abbott was born in 1898 in Springfield, Ohio, and was later raised in Cleveland. In 1917, she enrolled at Ohio State University but left Columbus in 1918 for New York City, where she met Barnes. Leaving may have been a way to shed her upbringing, says Tyler Cann, director of exhibitions and curator of contemporary art at the museum. “I can’t imagine her experience as a young lesbian woman was great in Ohio at that period.” 

“Magnetic Field”

He notes that the picture of Barnes fits well within the Queer / Modern exhibition, which celebrates gay artists of the early 20th century. Cann adds, “It was Barnes who convinced Abbott to change her given name, Bernice, to the French, Berenice.” 

Her renaming happened in Paris, where the artists both migrated in 1921. There, Abbott discovered her passion for photography, taking portraits of notable figures like James Joyce. A decade later, her greatest project, Changing New York, involved photographing that transforming city for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. 

Her other two photos in Queer / Modern, “Soap Bubbles” and “Magnetic Field,” reflect Abbott’s deep scientific interests and were printed in physics textbooks of the 1950s. She died in Maine in 1991, and her work is also in OSU’s Thompson Library.