Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Berenice Abbott

I've been reading about the photographer Berenice Abbott and looking at examples of her body of work. I knew about her place in photographic history as the rescuer of the Atget archive but not much else. The two books I've managed to obtain give some very good examples of a number of portraits from her time in Paris and documenting the changing face of 1930s New York City. 
The two sets of work, to me, seem quite different in style. When Abbott was in Paris she was well established, had exhibited her portraiture alongside Man Ray and Kertesz, and many famous people sat for her. The portraits do look very much of their time - quite formal. There is also an air of theatricality to them. This is probably due to the 1920s Bohemian culture in Paris at that time. As with any portrait, particularly of famous people, there is a need for the sitter to project a persona and, in Abbott's images, some very strong personalities appear to gaze back at the viewer. There is also a Modernist element creeping in with very strong shapes made by the pose, limbs, elements of the background, etc.

Julia Van Haaften, in the introduction to the book "Masters of Photography," makes a statement that is confusing to me:

Abbott permitted each personality she photographed to project outward to the viewer. Even in the studio, where a photographic artist has the most opportunity for manipulatory control, Abbott preferred realism to guide her style." (Van Haaften, 1997).

I don't really see how a famous person projecting an 'idea of themselves' for the camera, for that is all they are doing, can be called 'realism.' But, to be honest this is an issue I have with portraiture in general and probably why I sometimes crop the heads off my portraits. But, even putting the issue of projection aside, how can a staged portrait in a studio with lights and pose and composition be described as a realistic style?

Abbott eventually left Paris, closed her portrait studio, and returned to her homeland in America to set herself up in New York. She had become enamoured by the buzz in the city at that time. As neighbourhoods were torn down to make way for ever more skyscrapers Abbott hoped to make a body of work in the same way that Atget did for Paris. Abbott set up her portrait studio in the city and in her spare time would meticulously plan every element of her New York City project. As it happens, the portrait business never achieved anywhere near the success it had in Paris. Abbott had a lot of spare time on her hands (I find her lack of success with portraiture in America intriguing and the reasons are not really given in the two books that I've read so far.) Although Abbott was known to be quite scornful of the likes of the Modernists, Alfred Steiglitz, his contemporaries and proteges, who dominated the photographic art scene in New York during her crucial decades there.

Abbott's New York city work is, to my mind, easily some of the best images of the city I have seen. When I look at her work I can see the influence of Atget in some of the close-up street scenes particularly when depicting store front reflections in glass. I can also see a Modernist influence that reminds me of Rodchenko with tilted verticals on buildings or roads to create strong diagonals in her compositions. In amongst these there are also what could be called 'straight' scenes that reflect her 'realistic' approach too. From the perspective of the 2010s Abbott's work screams 'machine-age Modern'.

Again, I come back to the perplexing notion of Abbott's claim to a realistic approach to photography. It is interesting how many different perceptions of an image there can be. It is so true that once an image is made and released into the public domain the photographer's intent can no longer be the only deciding factor in its analysis. Atget himself was held in high regard by Man Ray and the Surrealists in Paris even though he claimed himself to be a maker of 'documents'. Is Abbott consciously or unconsciously taking the same artistic stance? I'd also be interested to know why Abbott has ended up in New York so vehemently opposed to the Modernists. After all didn't the American style grow out of the early Avant Garde and Surrealist movement in Europe? Abbott was close to Man Ray and his circle of friends during this time. How did she come to turn away from all that these styles represented in favour of realism? Maybe I am missing something or have misunderstood an element of the history of photographic art culture. I have ordered a biography of Abbott in the hope that it will pin down and explain some of my questions.

There is also the question of Abbott's sexuality, her life-long partner Elizabeth McCausland and her left-wing politics. I obtained most of this information from internet searches as both books are pretty sparse in regards to these areas. As a member of a minority and an 'other' I think it is pretty important that these aspects of Abbott's life are analysed in relation to her influences in her work. They may shed some light as to why she was always on the outside of the artistic establishment and rarely ever received a paid photographic commission in America - was Abbott and McCausland too Out? Too Lefty for the establishment?


Van Haaften, J. (1997) Abbot, B. (1997) Berenice Abbott: Masters of Photography. London, UK: Aperture Foundation Inc. UK, Robert Hale Ltd.

Abbott, B. (2010) Berenice Abbott: Photofile. London, UK: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

No comments:

Post a Comment