Eye in the Sky

Anna Craycroft and Julia Van Haaften talk about “Berenice Abbott: A Life In Photography” at the New York Public Library, April 18, 2018.

WHEN BERENICE ABBOTT (1898–1991) began wrestling with a large-format camera to produce her iconic photographs of New York City in the early 1930s, she had to overcome a fear of heights in order to achieve a range of perspectives. On the top floors of skyscrapers, she could escape the interruptions of pedestrians, who would gather to watch her dive in and out of the bulky camera’s black focus cloth.

This month at the lion-guarded New York Public Library, curator Julia Van Haaften debuted her definitive biography of this “self-taught risk taker,” Berenice Abbott: A Life in Photography. From the cascade of copies awaiting the signing after Van Haaften’s talk, Berenice herself looked out from the book covers as though joining in this celebration of her momentous rebirth. She stands self-assured in her portrait studio in Paris, arms embracing her tripod and camera. Despite her folk-hero status in the world of photography, certain facts of Abbott’s life—her being financially independent, a closeted lesbian, a communist sympathizer—have played no small part in Abbott’s falling into obscurity since her passing.

Together with a constellation of institutions, including the Museum of the City of New York, the Ryerson Image Centre, and the MIT Museum, the NYPL holds part of Abbott’s archives, which provide the material for imagining how Abbott cultivated and sustained her photographic realism. I grabbed one of the Celeste Auditorium’s last open seats as Joshua Chuang, the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Associate Director for Arts, Prints and Photographs at the NYPL, approached the podium. He welcomed us to the release of Van Haaften’s opus, praising the book’s durational time-travel through Abbott’s networks of friends, lovers, students, adversaries, assistants, critics, and curators.

Berenice Abbott, Manhattan: Wall Street, 1938. Photo: The New York Public Library.

When Van Haaften was a teenager, she first encountered Abbott’s science photos inside a physics textbook. The two women met only near the end of Abbott’s life, after Van Haaften “agonized over a draft of a letter to her” for years. A fortuitous introduction at an award ceremony led the curator to organize the artist’s largest retrospective to date in 1989, which was exhibited in the very building we were sitting in before it traveled internationally for three years. Van Haaften delighted in the adorning details of Abbott’s milestones, such as how she arrived to the opening in a stretch limo from her hotel a block away.

As the curator of the library’s photography collection, which she founded in 1980, Van Haaften was also responsible for cataloguing more than two thousand images in Abbott’s Federal Arts Project, Changing New York, which documented the architectural and social transformations of the city during the Great Depression. The biography offers portals into Abbott’s life and oeuvre, bringing to light how she worked with an unsung caption writer for the Changing New York project, the art critic and her soon-to-be partner of thirty years, Elizabeth McCausland.

Van Haaften had invited the artist Anna Craycroft to join in the evening, and her first words at the podium revealed an unabashed reverence for Abbott: “I love her.” Craycroft talked about her installation The Earth Is a Magnet, 2016, which was commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston for its group show at the Artist’s Museum, and explores Abbott’s legacy through more than a hundred works of art and ephemera. Craycroft’s project was divided between two symmetrical galleries, one presenting an overview of Abbott’s major works, and the other featuring nine contemporary artists who activate Abbott’s various fascinations: Collages by A. L. Steiner––explicit to the point of satirizing the gaze of queer- and lesbian-identified participants of image-making––call out to Abbott’s Paris portraits. Katherine Hubbard’s black-and-white prints, which she made by placing ice on top of large-format negatives, speak to how Abbott’s later work visualized scientific principles. (The depth of Craycroft’s research is further annotated in her must-read essay in Art Journal Open).

Berenice Abbott, Manhattan: Columbus Circle, 1936-38. Photo: The New York Public Library.

At this event, the artist highlighted the discoveries she made while thumbing through Abbott’s archives, including a photograph of Abbott vigorously dancing at a party. Asking Van Haaften to name the other person swaying on the dance floor, Craycroft was met with the audience’s ragged reply: “Cornell Cappa!” Cappa was the famed LIFE and Magnum photographer, and later a founding member of the International Center of Photography. For decades, it was Abbott who was likely the unknown person in the photograph, and I couldn’t help but feel excitement about how the tables have turned.

Van Haaften and Craycroft then spoke together about the generosity of intergenerational exchange and salient multidisciplinary models embedded in Abbott’s legacy. The book is rich with such stories, including how, for four decades, Abbott procured and promoted Eugene Atget’s photographic records of Paris at the turn of the twentieth century, which Abbott finally sold to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. Craycroft and Van Haaften were equally enthusiastic about Abbott’s more idiosyncratic visions for inventions that rarely left her sketchbook, such as a truck that could convert into a camera obscura. Notably, neither devotee of Abbott clung possessively to her life and work; rather, they invited people to ruminate on the contradictions that unfold when tracing how she made portraits of fellow artists and images of an America continually under construction.

The audience couldn’t wait to jump in and ask questions about the photographer who rarely discussed her private life. Abbott despised labels and became annoyed at any mention of her gender. She vehemently resisted the word lesbian, even decades after gay liberation had infiltrated popular culture. In the biography, Van Haaften writes that Abbott was part of a group of white artists who frequently went uptown for the drag balls and salons. Before the Great Depression descended, she took portraits of renowned figures such as heiress A’Lelia Walker and musician Buddy Gilmore. Abbott also documented African American theatrical productions such as the first staging of Porgy and Bess. Asked if Abbott had contact with James Van Der Zee, the famed portrait photographer of black middle-class life in the first half of the twentieth century, or any other such contemporary African American photographers, Van Haaften admitted: “I have never seen mention of that.” The audience was thus propelled to continue looking for answers regarding her relationships with artists on parallel missions to make visible such worlds often trespassed or ignored—a resurgence of thinking about Abbott, fueled by Van Haaften’s new map.