Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Berenice Abbott by Julia Van Haaften

Berenice Abbott: a Life in Photography

by Julia Van Haaften

W.W. Norton, 656 pages, $45

Reviewed by Ed Voves

No good deed goes unpunished. If you find that "truism" hard to accept, read the new biography of Berenice Abbott by Julia Van Haaften. Abbott (1898-1991) was no stranger to misfortune.

Consider Berenice Abbott's 1928 photo of James Joyce. It is one of the greatest portrait photographs every taken. Yet Abbot was referred to as a "girl" photographer when she was in her forties over a decade later. Had she been a man, Abbott would have been compared to Gainsborough or Ingres.

The year before taking Joyce's photo, Abbott captured the image of the reclusive French photographer, Eugène Atget. 

Eugène Atget, 1927
Photo by Berenice Abbott
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Soon after, Atget died and his vast photo archive was in danger of being discarded. Though short of funds, Abbott saved the treasure of Atget's genius, bulky glass photographic plates and all, for posterity. In recognition of this incalculable act of preservation, Abbott was condescendingly categorized as a student or acolyte of Atget - for the rest of her life.

Recognition of her incredible skill and artistic vision did not improve when Abbott returned to the U.S. from France in 1929. She pioneered the type of documentary photos that were to become a government-subsidized art form during the New Deal years. Yet, Abbott was dumped from the W.P.A. payroll (along with most of the other photographers on staff) when Congress cut funding in 1939 for this remarkable cultural initiative.

Not content to rest on the laurels of her wonderful Changing New York book (1939) which showcased her Depression-era photos, Abbott launched a new career photographing scientific subjects during the 1940's. 

After pioneering new technical methods and creating a distinguished body of scientific photos, Abbott was hired by the Physical Sciences Study Committee (PSSC) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1958. America was reeling from the shock of the Soviet Sputnik satellite launch. The PSSC planned a series of textbooks to interest America's young people in the sciences. After supplying brilliant images for the project, Abbott was not even credited in one of the textbooks. The quality of photo reproduction was execrable and her contract was not renewed. Abbott was "too artsey" according to one of the PSSC bureaucrats.

Even the Museum of Modern Art managed to botch the retrospective it mounted of Abbott's photos in 1970.

Despite this catalog of woe, the tone of this account of Abbott's life is anything but bitter. Solidly-researched, filled with perceptive insights into Abbott's character and career, this biography is truly definitive. Abbott may have been unlucky and unappreciated in life. But she could not have asked for a better biographer than Julia Van Haaften.

This superb, much-needed book is founded upon a crucial decision by Van Haaften. Her theme was Abbott's life and she refrained from a "life and times" treatment. The temptation to take this approach must have been very difficult for Van Haaften to resist.

How easy it would have been to use Abbott's life as a framework for yet another retelling of the saga of Modernism. The Ohio-born Abbott was a "poster girl" for the mid-Western students who flocked to the "Village" during World War I. She lived the ex-pat life in 1920's Paris and was a charter member of the New York scene during the 1930's and 1940's. Abbott knew everybody.

Berenice Abbott, New York, November 1937
Photograph by Carl Van Vechten

Thankfully, Van Haaften's narrative focuses tightly on Abbott. That is not to say that the book lacks character details about other artists or relevant social commentary. At issue here is the centrality of Berenice Abbott to American art. Abbott, except very briefly as a photo assistant to Man Ray during the early 1920's, was a major, independent artist. She was nobody's "girl."  

"I'm not a nice girl," Abbott told a New York City official who warned her against taking pictures of the "skid row" at the Bowery. "I'm a photographer."

As a photographer, Abbott excelled in capturing the "spirit of the place" in the same way that William Hazlitt's incomparable essays had conveyed the "spirit of the age" one hundred years before. Unblinking realism was matched by her aptitude to catch the ineffable spark of individuality in her portraits of the Paris literati and her neighborhood scenes in New York City.

In the photos that Abbott began to take of New York City during the 1930's, she was concerned to record the great changes in the cityscape since she had left for Paris in 1921. Abbott certainly documented the "change" in New York, but she also captured the unchanging emotional dynamic of New Yorkers as well.

Broad Street looking toward Wall Street, Manhattan, July 16,1936
Photo by Berenice Abbott

Even with only one solitary pedestrian in the classic photo above, we sense and see - in our mind's eye - the generations of New Yorkers who built and maintain this fabulous city. We see this because Abbott saw it with her mind's eye as she composed this magnificent image of the canyons of lower Manhattan.

Van Haaftan writes very movingly about Abbott's ability to present image and spirit together in a single photo. Van Haaftan, in her introductory remarks, highlights Night View, New York (1932) to show how Abbott solved this "artistic paradox." She quotes Abbott's own words on the necessity for photographers to summon "a creative emotion." 

Unless you see the subject first, you won't be able to force the camera see the picture for you. But if you have seen the picture with your flexible human vision, then you will be on the road to creating with the camera, a vision equivalent to your own.

Abbott succeeded so well in matching heightened perception with exacting practice behind the camera that it is easy to overlook the sheer magnitude of her achievement. This happened to me recently with the very photo which Van Haaftan uses as an exemplar of Abbott's skill and spirituality, Night View, New York.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Modern Times, American Art exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing Night View, New York by Berenice Abbott

The Philadelphia Museum of Art included their print of Night View, New York in the current exhibit, Modern Times, American Art, 1910-1950. I was impressed at seeing Abbott’s famous photo in the Philadelphia exhibit. I was not over-awed, perhaps because of the visual overload of taking in all of the storied works in Modern Times, American Art. The second time I visited the exhibit, it was a different story.

When I entered the gallery of Modern Times, American Art, I was immediately struck by Night View, New York. The photo beckoned from across the room. Night View, New York stands out on its own. You just have to be able to see “the subject first” as Abbott said and, thanks to Van Haaftan's insights, I am now able to do so.

From atop the Empire State Building, Abbott created this incredible photographic image. The photo shoot took place on the shortest day of the year in December 1932. Abbott had chosen the date and time with strategic skill. The evening darkness having descended while the offices in nearby buildings were still open for business, Abbott was able to capture an entire constellation of electric lights, visible evidence of thousands of people at work. 

Anne Lloyd, (Photo (2018) Berenice Abbott's Night View, New York, 1932 (detail)

Considerable expertise was involved in staging this photographic coup. Abbott carefully made a fifteen minute-long exposure to capture this one single, dazzling moment. She positioned her camera looking north from the Empire State Building. We see the classical columns of the Greenwich Savings Bank (1352 Broadway), which still stands, renamed The Haier Building. The old Sixth Avenue El runs through Abbott's photo and if you look closely you can make out the rails on the elevated platform. The El was demolished a few years after Abbott took this photo, replaced by the subway and midtown automobile congestion.

It's amazing to think that this photo was taken nearly nine decades ago. The fifteen minutes that Abbott devoted to taking this photo produced an immortal masterpiece dealing with a lot more than the laws of optics or New York City architecture.

If you view Night View, New York with "your flexible human vision" it is possible to peer through the glare of each of those glimmering lights into the offices and into the lives of those long-ago New Yorkers. That is only a slight exaggeration because the sharpness of Abbott's exposure does indeed permit a degree of detail that reaches almost to the doors and windows of the offices surrounding the Empire State Building. 

Anne Lloyd, (Photo (2018) Berenice Abbott's Night View, New York, 1932 (detail)

I asked my wife Anne to get as sharp a copy as possible of Night View, New York. With that, we could illustrate the way that a flexible human vision can serve both the photographer and the viewer of the photograph as both focus ever more intently into the human drama before them.

Adjust the setting of your flexible human vision and you will be able to look inside and with insight - inside the lighted offices, insight into the people who make cities live . Time will be no barrier. Bernice Abbott's Night View, New York is a masterwork for the ages.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo (2018) Berenice Abbott's Night View, New York, 1932 (detail)

For Abbott, the late 1920's through the the early 1940's were peak years of creativity.  These were tough years, too. Except for a couple of years when she was drawing a W.P.A. paycheck, Abbott lived the precarious life of a free lance photographer. She earned a few bucks from selling prints from the Atget archive, but these she had to share with her avaricious business partner, Julian Levy.

Levy, of course, was one of the prime movers of Modernism in the U.S. In most accounts, Levy is a heroic figure. To Abbott, he was an ally who needed watching and she was wise to do so, as he eventually tried to seize control of the Atget archive. Levy was not the only Modernist "hero" with whom Abbott had issues. Paul Strand and Edward Steichen likewise crossed swords with her. 

Abbott was a photographer, as she brusquely told the New York City official. But she remained a woman "poaching" in a mostly male preserve. Abbott was also a left-wing "fellow traveler," if not an avowed Marxist, and a lesbian. Society had a lot of "issues" with her.

Van Haaftan's chapters on Abbott's sexuality and her left-wing politics match the high quality of the earlier episodes from her Paris and New York years. 

Abbott's long partnership with Elizabeth McCausland (1899-1965) is treated with sensitivity and insight. A mid-Westerner like Abbott, McCausland was an academic scholar, professionally and emotionally. Along with personal love, McCausland devoted much needed organizational support to Abbott's photographic career. McCausland's dense academic writing style, however, did little to help Abbott reach out to popular audiences in the exhibits they worked on together.

It was good thing that Abbott was so independent and so at odds with the male movers and shakers of American left-wing "cadres." Van Haaftan documents the FBI's "interest" in Abbott, but they felt that they lacked sufficient grounds to take action against her. Thus, Abbott's "deeds" of political activism went unpunished.

Portrait of Berenice Abbott, Monson, Maine, August 1989
 Photo by Yousuf Karsh 

Van Haaften knew Abbott in her later years and states that she remained supportive of the Soviet Union and its political agenda. It is rather disconcerting to think that a person of Abbott's vision and innate sympathy for the persecuted could have maintained support for a totalitarian regime whose crimes against humanity could not be ignored by the 1980's.

I think the answer to this puzzling failure is that Abbott's emotional world remained that of the 1920's and 1930's. She was the least "artsey," that is doctrinaire, photographer of all the major camera artists of her era. Yet politically, she never quite moved on from the left-wing activism that had rebelled against the Sacco-Vanzetti verdicts, the Scottsboro trials and the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. 

It is clear from Van Haaftan's wonderful book that Abbott, despite some character quirks, was a warm and generous human being. This is very apparent in the support Abbott devoted to Todd Webb whose post-World War II photos of New York carried on the tradition of street and neighborhood photography which Abbott had pioneered during the 1930's.

Berenice Abbott may have passed the baton to new generations of American photographers but she never ceased to be a remarkable artist in her own right. Moreover, she maintained her open-eyed, pragmatic "hands-on" approach to photography.

"In the search for art the subject gets lost," Abbott declared. "In the search for a subject one finds art."

As long as she lived, Berenice Abbott viewed the world with the flexible human vision that had enabled her to photograph Night View, New York. This was how she looked at the glittering Manhattan skyline on a cold December evening long ago. This is why the photo Abbott created in 1932 still seems as if she took it yesterday.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Photos courtesy of W.W. Norton, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image: Berenice Abbott: a Life in Photography2018 (book cover ) Courtesy W.W. Norton

Berenice Abbott, (American, 1898-1991) Eugène Atget1927. Gelatin silver print, image and sheet: 9 1/16 × 6 3/4 inches (23 × 17.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, # 1968-162-38 Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Zigrosser, 1968

Carl Van Vechten (American, 1880-1964) Berenice Abbott, New York, November 1937.  B&W print, 25.3 x 18.6 cm. Beinecke Library, Yale University. # 20293377.  Yale  University, Van Vechten Trust

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991) Broad Street looking toward Wall Street, Manhattan, July 16,1936. Silver Print, 8x10 in. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs collection. # 1219154. New York Public Library

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950 exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing Berenice Abbott’s photograph, New York at Night, 1932

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail views of Berenice Abbott’s photograph, New York at Night, 1932. Gelatin silver print, Image and sheet: 13 3/8 × 10 5/8 inches (34 × 27 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art, #1984-151-1. Gift of Theodore T. Newbold in memory of Lee Witkin, 1984

Yousuf Karsh (Canadian, 1908-2002) Portrait of Berenice Abbott, Monson, Maine, August 1989. Silver print.  Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. # 92PH024. New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, Gift of the photographer © Yousuf Karsh

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