- Berenice Abbott: A Life in Photography by Julia Van Haaften
Berenice Abbott (1898–1982) is well known to the photography world for her breathtaking shot of New York at Night (1932); her architectural views, Changing New York, made in the 1930s; her sparkling portraits of the cultural avant-garde made in Paris in the 1920s; and her rescue of the archive of Eugene Atget. During her lifetime, she was the photographer most exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art, then America's most influential collector and exhibitor of photography. She won prizes and prestigious grants and published popular books. If this had been the career of anyone else, or anyone male, Berenice Abbott would already be as familiar to the wider public as her teacher Man Ray, her friend and contemporary Walker Evans, or even Lewis Hine, whose important career she helped bring back to light at the very end of his life.
Thanks to exhaustive research and unusual commitment to a difficult subject, Van Haaften now brings us more about Abbott than the diffident artist ever allowed, and in the process, we learn an enormous amount about the times in which she lived. Abbott's small, androgynous, and spookily observant figure was well known to Greenwich Village bohemians before World War I, and to Parisian surrealists in the 1920s. Her experience as a working photographer in 1930s New York adds plenty to our information about the workings of the American art world. Even Abbott's failures—books never published, exhibits never held—show us what it was like to be an artist whose chosen medium had only marginal stature, when recognition depended upon a very small number of people whose influence could not be challenged. We learn in detail how she befriended Eugene Atget, raising the money to buy his studio contents by turning to a friend within the lesbian expatriate community. We enter the international [End Page 985] lesbian network of friendship and romance, filled with outsized personalities and now-forgotten stars, many of whom we know best through Abbott's portraits. As the story reaches past the postwar years, Van Haaften sets Abbott's story against a background that follows the rise of photography in the American art market. Much of this story is still so new that almost no secondary sources exist. Luckily Van Haaften, the founding Curator of Photographs at the New York Public Library, can call on her own impeccable experience to shape this part of the story.
Van Haaften is sympathetic but never indulgent. She allows us to appreciate Abbott's great stamina in the face of bad luck (returning to New York as the Depression hits) and tough choices (she supported Atget's archive and reputation at the expense of her own career). Yet we cringe at her tendency to marry personal slights with aesthetic judgments. For example, Abbott broke with Paul Strand because he placed her too firmly in Atget's shadow and because he cheated at ping pong; but more importantly, Abbott believed that his extreme reverence for sensual print quality also tied him to the Pictorialist tradition, what she called "the general illness in photography, which is the Strand, Weston, Stieglitz group" (p. 323).
Abbott's strong endorsement of photography as a documentary medium brought her into opposition with nearly every photographer who sought recognition as a fine artist. For her, photography served to represent the world that came before the lens. A modernist to her core, Abbott insisted art came from the manipulation of the materials peculiar to photography—light, silver, paper—not the endorsement of a fickle art world where standards changed along with fashion. Postmodernism killed this debate but has only slowly influenced the view of historians whose retrospective judgment constructs the canon. When Berenice Abbott is mentioned alongside Hine and Strand, we will know that the world has finally caught up with her.
It seems evident that history punishes women with strong opinions; their peers find them difficult, and historians in search of informed opinion too often take the...