LEXINGTON, Mass. — When Berenice Abbott turned her station wagon down Route 1 in the summer of 1954, with two young colleagues, a mobile darkroom and a giant schnauzer named Schoen in tow, she didn't think she'd find Nirvana.
She found exactly what she expected: gritty wharves and rundown trailer parks, peach pickers in Georgia and potato farmers in Maine, roadside fruit stands and chrome diners, sparkling new beachside hotels and sharecroppers' shacks just off the shoulder of the highway.
After the trip ended in Fort Kent, Maine, the shutters of Abbott's three cameras had created a vast array of images. She shot more than 2,400 negatives, or about one for every mile that she and her two companions traveled up and down what was then America's coastal backbone.
The National Heritage Museum in Lexington opened an exhibit on Feb. 15 of more than 60 of those photographs. "North and South: Berenice Abbott's U.S. Route 1" chronicles in silver gelatin the late photographer's three-month journey through the heart of the East Coast with her handheld Rolleiflex, her Century Universal and her Deardoff cameras.
The exhibit closes July 13.
"I think almost more than any other work she did, this really got to the heart of what she was interested in illustrating, which was the sense of a changing landscape through photographs that were truly objective in their presentation," said David Prince, curator of the University Art Collection at Syracuse, which loaned many of the prints for the exhibit.
Abbott, who was born in 1898 and died in 1991, went to Paris in the 1920s, intending to study sculpture, and instead ended up as an assistant to the surrealist photographer Man Ray, in large part because he wanted an aide completely ignorant of photography.
It was in Paris that her sense of artistic aesthetics were cemented. Though Man Ray left an indelible impression, she was also deeply influenced by Eugene Atget, who documented a changing Paris before his death in 1927, Prince said.
She took up the same theme when she returned to New York in 1929. She may be best known for her "Changing New York," a project funded by the Works Progress Administration, which recorded both the city's soaring skyline and chaotic streets.
But she wanted to take on a project to photograph an endangered part of America's past "before bulldozers and derricks moved in." She chose Route 1 as the backdrop before Interstate 95, the nation's primary north-south roadway, was built.
"What inspired her to do this project was that she was on a train trip traveling essentially where Route 1 goes, and she noticed how much change there was on the journey, and she wanted to capture some of that before it was altered irreparably," said Hilary Anderson, director of collections and exhibitions at the National Heritage Museum.
Abbott piled into her station wagon with a young married couple, Damon and Sara Gadd, promising to teach Damon Gadd the craft of photography in exchange for his help with her project. They left New York and headed south. When they reached Key West, they turned back to New York, then kept going to Maine, where the trip ended.
Along the way, they photographed people they met and the places, both gaudy and elegant, they saw: a shirtless man wrestling with an alligator in the sand. A young girl in a country dress strumming a guitar. A leering man on a Virginia street corner. A ramshackle row house in Baltimore. A tony walk-up on Boston's Beacon Hill. A lighthouse and a lobsterman in coastal Maine.
Not everything Abbott saw pleased her. Nor did she want it to. Her photographs show the vulgar and crass as often as they depict simple splendor and dignity.
She later wrote: "Florida is a place where they say people should go to play, so there are all these amusements around to keep the north visitors occupied. Dog races, amusement parks, the beach, vulgar postcards and so forth. I found much of it appalling, but I'm afraid it was typical of what many people wanted."
Kathy Vaaler of Sharon brought her two children, 6-year-old Benjamin and 3-year-old John, to see the exhibit. Vaaler said the family sometimes gathers for breakfast at the International House of Pancakes on Route 1 in Norwood.
She says she's always been fascinated by the storied roadway, and wanted to see how it looked in 1954.
"It's so different," she said, referring to one of the exhibit's photos. "Now, if you just drive the freeways down to Florida, you won't see that much of an interesting, different world. I think it will help remind people of a world that isn't all strip malls from Maine to Florida."