New York

Berenice Abbott

Marlborough | Midtown

This small show included only a sampling of Berenice Abbott’s photographs from the ’20s and ’30s, and only a few pictures from after 1940; nevertheless it managed to suggest the work’s importance in the development of Modernist photography. It was only after returning to New York from Paris in 1930 that Abbott turned to the documentary cityscapes for which she is best known. Although she was a successful portrait photographer in France, the examples of this work here show that despite a good sense of gesture she was fairly conventional as a portraitist; these pictures are distinguished largely by their subjects—James Joyce, André Calmettes, and the like.

But in undertaking a documentary portrait of New York through its architecture—following the path set out by Eugéne Atget, whose work Abbott discovered and was instrumental in preserving—Abbott pushed past the necessary fictions of portraiture to the far edges of realism, and beyond. Like Atget, she used a large-format camera to produce her stately, virtually depopulated scenes, but the harsh lighting in many of her pictures gives them an almost unearthly precision lacking in Atget’s memory-suffused images. Some of Abbott’s architectural photographs included here are virtual portraits of individual buildings, while others focus more on the space between buildings, on intersections and squares. But in emphasizing the physical structures of the city she produced an eerily archaeological view of it. When people appear in her pictures they seem to be there simply for scale, as in the expeditionary photographs of the 19th century, or else they are posed so carefully that they themselves become objects, artifacts.

Paradoxically, though, in presenting the city as “an actuality—a fact of hard material expressions” (as she described Atget’s Paris, in a 1941 essay), Abbott challenged the humanist realism that documentary photography has always relied on. Her architectural photographs are so crisp, so finely detailed, that they virtually scream with a painful objectivity. Abbott took detailed notes on the buildings in her pictures, and saw her project as one of making a documentary record for the use of future historians and city planners. But the photographs themselves relinquish the comfort of the essentially narrative contexts (of history, of function, of association, of memory) by which we tame objects. As a result they lose connection to lived experience and become dream sites. In Abbott’s photographs of storefronts (several of which were included here), the small enclosures behind the windows provide theatrical spaces in which evocative objects and signs play off one another in Surrealist juxtapositions—as they had, again, in Atget’s work before hers. In her architectural views the photographic frame itself becomes the window, and the buildings within it become the store’s contents—jumbled together by chance and design, tantalizing in their suggestion of a meaning just beyond the grasp of the conscious mind.

Charles Hagen