Nonfiction: Berenice Abbott: She Was a Camera

It’s funny that such a strong personality devoted her career to creating what she saw as an egoless, anonymous art. Her ideas derived in part from the only photographer about whom she spoke glowingly, Eugène Atget. In the 1920s, during her days as a young expatriate in Paris, she saw her first Atget photograph and was instantly captivated. Atget, at the time, was a poignant figure who sought to provide a comprehensive record of the architecture and streets of turn-of-the-last-century Paris. While most of his fellow artists wrote him off as a joke, Abbott believed that his devotion to realism made him “a Balzac of the camera.” When he died in 1927, shortly after they met, she tracked down his executor and purchased the bulk of his enormous archive — some 1,500 glass negatives and 8,000 prints. She hauled the material back to New York and kept it in her studio on Commerce Street. She deserves credit for saving his work from oblivion and selling it, in the interest of eternal safekeeping, to the Museum of Modern Art.

As historically important as all of this is, Van Haaften’s biography could have benefited from more analysis and insight. She has a tendency to pile up facts without putting them in perspective. In a typically careless passage, she reports that Lynn Davis became Abbott’s assistant in 1974, but the author fails to identity Davis as a photographer. Instead, she tells us that Davis was a married woman who arrived for the summer “with her painter-teacher husband and their young son.” Surely there is far more to be said on the subject. Davis, one of our leading contemporary photographers, is known for black-and-white images that lend the natural world (icebergs, gushing water) the monumentality that Abbott brought to her scenes of the city.

How should Abbott and her work be remembered today? Some of her ideas can put her admirers in an awkward position. Few of us are likely to agree with her dictum that photography is best practiced as a purely objective art that makes no concession to inwardness or interiority. Today, we are more likely to avoid such reductive binaries, to acknowledge that even the most objective photographs are inseparable from the identity of their makers.

But Abbott, who died in 1991 at the age of 93, remains a giant despite some regressive ideas. You cannot think about the ’30s in New York without thinking about her images — the old Greyhound bus terminal, the former Penn Station, the streets of the Lower East Side where brick buildings light up in the sun and rusty fire escapes cast a jagged play of shadows across their facades.

When you look at Abbott’s pictures, you see not only buildings that have vanished, but a style of photography that itself has waned. “Straight” or documentary photography is no longer fashionable among artists. We’re in a moment when many younger photographers, schooled in postmodern theory, are less interested in taking photographs than in critiquing the limitations of the medium. Their pictures can require a thousand words to explain, and they can make you miss Abbott’s blunt and lucid immediacy.

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