New York

Berenice Abbott

Marlborough | Midtown

Berenice Abbott was originally known in the ’20s for her unadorned portraits of such famous people as James Joyce, Djuna Barnes and Marcel Duchamp. They were shorn of fantasy embellishments or formality, qualities thought to be necessary accoutrements of portrait photography at the time. One feels Abbott was completely comfortable with her sitters; occasionally, though, she allowed people to present themselves as dramatic personages. Accessories or props, like the attributes of saints in medieval art, were sometimes used successfully. In an attempt to show his inner, turbulent nature, Max Ernst is depicted as almost fusing with an elaborate high-backed chair in which he is seated. The wild points of his hair echo the carving of the chair. In a series of photographs also included in the exhibition, Cocteau is shown as a fey poseur with several mannequins. These theatrical props seem in keeping with the sitter’s character.

Some of Abbott’s photographs are in the tradition of Jacob Riis, but her interests did not lie in the reform of social conditions. Instead, she sought to document the abstract graphic qualities of the urban environment. She often approached her street scenes straight on, paralleling a building facade with the picture plane. In her many scenes of shops, the newspapers, tools, or other items displayed become geometric modules filling the entire photograph with a particlelike field. Often dramatic shots of New York were the result of extreme camera angles, many produced by means of her acrobatic feats on perilous ledges and flagpoles. Her series of the staggered ziggurats of the skyscrapers and the dark canyons between them went romantically beyond mere record making to shape our view of the modern city.

Abbott’s sense of the present juxtaposed extreme modernity with the past. In a single photograph, the dark Gothic spires of Trinity Church are outlined against the stark rectangular masses of office buildings. More characteristically, she divided the various facets of city life into separate series. Simultaneously she would photograph the streetscapes of Lower Manhattan with its pushcarts and three-story buildings, the rooflike masses of the El, the zooming diagonals of the bridges, and the verticals of the skyscrapers. Her principal photographing of New York City took place from 1935 to 1939, when she supervised a document for the Federal Arts Project resulting in a book, Changing New York, with photographs by Abbott and a text by the critic Elizabeth McCausland (1939).

In an essay she wrote about Eugene Atget, Abbott said: “The photographer’s punctilio is his recognition of the now—to see it so clearly that he looks through the past and senses the future. This is a big order and demands wisdom as well as an understanding of one’s time. Thus the photographer is the contemporary being par excellence; through his eyes the now becomes the past.” These words are equally true of Abbott. We do not look at her photographs merely for reasons of nostalgia. Rather, they act as a crucible, fusing a way of life that has vanished, the city as it still is, and a potential future.

––Ann-Sargent Wooster