Berenice Abbott: A Life in Photography, Julia Van Haaften and Old Paris and Changing New York: Photographs by Eugène Atget and Berenice Abbott, ed. Kevin Moore

JTF (just the facts): A discussion of two separate books:

Berenice Abbott: A Life in Photography, Julia Van Haaften. Published in 2018 by W. W. Norton & Co. (here). Hardcover, 7 ½ x 9 ½ inches, 656 pages, with 89 black-and-white photographic illustrations.

Old Paris and Changing New York: Photographs by Eugène Atget and Berenice Abbott, ed. Kevin Moore. Published in 2018 by Yale University Press (here) in conjunction with an exhibition at the Taft Museum of Art (October 8, 2018-January 20, 2019 here). Hardcover (roughly 12×10 inches), 156 pages, with 100 black-and-white photographic illustrations. Foreword by Emant Scott and Lynne D. Ambrosini; preface by Mary Ellen Goerke; essay by Kevin Moore.

(Cover and spread shots for both books below.)

Comments/Context: In the preface to Kevin Moore’s catalog for his comparative exhibition on Berenice Abbott and Eugène Atget, Mary Ellen Goerke, executive director of FotoFocus in Cincinnati, makes the startling claim that “the small extent to which <Abbott> is recognized is solely for rescuing Atget’s archive, not as a photographer herself.”

Any visitor to this website knows this to be untrue. Abbott’s portraits of James Joyce, Janet Flanner, Jean Cocteau, Atget and other artistic luminaries in Paris during the 1920s have for decades been canonical. Serious collectors of 20th century American fine art would be derelict if they did not have at least a few examples of her Changing New York series from the mid-‘30s. Her 1934 overhead photograph of an electrified Manhattan at night is, after countless reproduction as postcards and posters, more familiar to the general public than anything by Atget. One of the first beneficiaries (along with Ansel Adams) of Harry Lunn’s and Robert Feldman’s idea to create an art market for photography in the mid-1970s, Abbott has been regularly featured in auctions since their inception. There has been no shortage of exhibitions either, in the U.S. and Europe, over the last 30 years.

Goerke’s slighting of Abbott as an artist, however, confirms a presentiment the photographer suspected about her own fate, namely that she had sacrificed her own reputation in order to boost Atget’s. By the end of her life, she feared she had done her job so well that his name had eclipsed hers.

Perhaps, for a public revival of her achievements that Goerke would recognize, what Abbott has needed was a new biography to tell her eventful 20th-century American story in vibrant detail and color. (The last one was Hank O’Neal’s in 1982.) Julia van Haaften has done just that in her marvelously informed and readable, wise and balanced book. Founding curator of the photographs collection at the New York Public Library, she has a thorough knowledge of the major and minor players who shaped the medium’s unique history in the art market and museum world. She organized the traveling exhibition Berenice Abbott, Photographer: Modern Vision (1989-1992) and developed a friendship that lasted until Abbott’s death in 1991. The portrait is affectionate but clear-eyed, the product of more than 25 years of research and writing.

Bernice Abbott, as she was named at birth in 1898, was one of those Modernists—the composer Virgil Thomson was another—who remain Midwesterner however far they stray from their birthplace. Growing up in various cities around Ohio, she endured a ghastly childhood of neglect and dysfunction out of a Sherwood Anderson story. Her father committed suicide. Her mother, chronically unhappy, remarried and was soon divorced from a Mr. Wilson whom Bernice called “a madman.”

Willowy and tomboyish, with large sad eyes—like a “kewpie doll,” as someone described her—Bernice became a rebel early on, bobbing her hair before any of her friends. Two semesters at Ohio State University were all she was willing to suffer of formal schooling. In 1918 she left for New York City. There, she quickly fell in with like-minded bohemians in Greenwich Village. The actors around Eugene O’Neill and his Provincetown Players became her crowd, along with the artists and writers associated with Alfred Stieglitz. She met Sadakichi Hartmann, Marcel Duchamp, Djuna Barnes, and Man Ray,  becoming either their friends or their rivals, and in some cases both. Living in communal squalor was an adventure at first but left her highly susceptible to the 1918-19 influenza epidemic. She nearly died. The health of her lungs was a concern the rest of her life.

She left New York for Paris in 1921 because it was as easy to be “poor there as poor here.” Wherever she went she never had trouble finding wealthy older women (or couples) to support her. “Feeling entitled to largesse, monetary or emotional, from ‘haves’ when she ‘had not’ would remain a continual theme,” as van Haaften drily observes.

Bernice became Berenice in Paris. (A first name was about the only thing she shared with Racine’s tragic heroine: Abbott was a hardened survivor and nobody’s fool.) Her artistic ambitions were then inchoate. She had tried sculpture in New York and took drawing classes in Paris. Mostly, though, she partied and sought connections with anyone who could help her enjoy life in a city “lousy with art.”

Renewing her friendship with Man Ray, who had established himself as a successful portrait and advertising photographer, she posed nude for him (that’s her masked torso in his 1921 dadaphoto) and even agreed to be named as one of his paramours (which she wasn’t) when he sought a divorce and a charge of adultery was the easiest way to be granted one.

It was his casual offer of a job as his darkroom assistant in 1923 that finally channeled her restlessness. Working in the dim light, behind the scenes, she quickly fell in love with the magical ingredients of “film, paper, chemicals.” Soon she was allowed into the studio and began to make portraits herself with his cameras. By the age of 24, she had found something she wanted to learn everything about and at which she excelled. As she later put it: “I liked photography. Photography liked me.”

By the time Man Ray fired her in 1926—after learning that she was photographing his clients on the sly (Peggy Guggenheim should be his meal ticket, in his view, not hers)—Abbott had developed a more understated portraiture style, distinct from his. Her androgynous dress and manner intrigued French and American men and women. Jean Cocteau wrote a poem about her, calling her a “sexless bird catcher” (a reference to the boyish character, Papageno, in Mozart’s The Magic Flute?) Many of her subjects were gay women: Sylvia Beach, Janet Flanner, Gwen Le Gallienne, Thelma Wood, Djuna Barnes. Prestigious magazines began to hire her, such as Lucien Vogel’s Vu, the Belgian journal Variétes, Vogue and Vanity Fair. In 1928 the Premier Salon Independent de la Photographie asked her to exhibit her portraits, alongside those of Man Ray, André Kertész, Germaine Krull, Paul Outerbridge, and four others.

By the time she returned to New York in 1929, just before the start of the Great Depression, she was a star—and the owner of what she believed to be a valuable artistic and financial asset: the Atget archive.

The inspiration of Atget’s blunt and fantastical realism, and his solitary sense of mission to document ancient and modern France, guided her next phase. “How can anyone but a photographer hope today to fix for posterity the image of the modern city?” Abbott asked in 1929. She answered her question by spending the next 20 years looking intently at New York City, through both a handheld and an 8×10 camera. Until hired by the Federal Art Project in 1935, she financed the project herself for 6 years. The hundreds of photographs she made during the ’30s, whittled down to 97 for her book Changing New York (1939), constitute not only the peak of her career, they also have decisively molded how we imagine the city during that era.

Beginning in 1935, she began a relationship with Elizabeth McCausland, a Smith College graduate who had become a journalist and art critic for left-wing publications. They traveled together (Abbott’s series taken along U.S. 1 was the result of an early journey) and moved into a Greenwich Village loft. They were partners for the next 30 years, until McCausland’s death in 1965.

As Abbott spent much of her time promoting Atget, McCausland performed the same service for Abbott, writing text for Changing New York, praising her work in magazines, sometimes under a pseudonym. Photography was the focus of both their lives. They organized a show for the aged Lewis Hine at the Riverside Museum shortly before his death in 1940. Abbott taught at the New School and published a New Guide to Better Photography.

Abbott enjoyed solving technical problems and founded a company, House of Photography, in 1947, to make specialized tools for her profession. Her mind overflowed with ideas, some of which she patented. The Abbott Distorter was an easel for the darkroom that makes it easier to create bizarre effects while printing. Another was the thumb camera, a tiny device for candid, secret shots that could be operated with one finger. Her most far-reaching idea though was a lightweight telescoping pole: the monopod. As the capital behind House of Photography came mainly from Abbott’s brain, which was never good with investments, it never became a viable business and closed in 1959.

The decade of World War II marked the beginning of the last phase of her career, when she trained herself to be a photographer of science and industry. The endeavor brought together several strains in her character. Perennially short of money, these sorts of assignments broadened her client base, to business and science magazines, corporations, and universities. M.I.T. became a base of operations in the late 1950s. Illustrating concepts in physics with the camera was a new technical challenge, one she always enjoyed. Some of her solutions were elegantly simple. To illustrate wave action, for instance, she exposed a sheet of paper in a developing tray, shook the liquid, and froze the action with stop-action lighting—an experiment that Man Ray could admire. The subject matter of a spinning wrench or a swinging pendulum was modern and not “artistic” in the way that her arch-enemies, the Pictorialists and the Stieglitz circle, defined the term. That was fine with her. The new direction also finally put some distance between her and Atget: critics could no longer cite him as her predecessor as they looked at these images.

Van Haaften has been careful not to let Atget overwhelm the story of Abbott. He isn’t even mentioned on the jacket copy. His reputation would probably be lofty today even without her help. He had already sold 2,600 negatives to the Monuments Historiques in 1920 and been lionized by the Surrealists. Abbott’s early and unstinting appreciation, however, was crucial to his legacy. With money provided by a female friend, she had bought the archive for 10,000 francs (just under $10,000 in today’s money) and in 1929 transported 17 packed cases containing approximately 1,500 of Atget’s negatives and 8,000 prints to the U.S. Over the next 40 years she tirelessly championed his work, extolling him in interviews and books, selling his old prints as well as portfolios of new ones that she printed herself. Not only did her devotions on his behalf (in tandem with dealer Julien Levy, half-owner of the archive after 1930) keep the obscure Frenchman’s reputation alive in art circles, she also decisively altered the institutional history of photography.

When the Museum of Modern Art bought her Atget collection in 1968, for $80,000, it committed unprecedented scholarly resources to bear in excavating the life and work of a dead photographer. The 6 solo Atget exhibitions organized by John Szarkowski and Maria Morris Hambourg between 1969-85, and the 4-volume set of Atget books they published between 1981-85 (the first volume was dedicated to Abbott), remain among the most exhaustive and celebratory analysis the institution has ever given to a single artist not named Picasso or Matisse.

However grateful Atget and the American art world should be for her foresight and intervention, Abbott came to question her decision. Although selling prints from the archive (his originals and her reprints) provided her with some income, she barely broke even, according to van Haaften’s calculations. The psychic debt was more onerous. Toward the end of her life, as he gained more acclaim than she from curators and collectors, an understandable resentment crept in. Interviewers preferred to ask about Atget than about her own noteworthy career. “It is always easier to admire the dead than the living,” she complained to Arnold Crane in 1968. “I sold what I could of myself, but people wanted Atgets.”

Man Ray wanted to buy the Atget archive and was irked when Abbott beat him to it. He had introduced her to the aging artist in 1925 and fully shared her enthusiasm for the photographs, festooning his studio walls with examples. Had he been first to make an offer to administrators of the estate, he might have been a more glamorous sponsor but a less reliable steward. As in many families, the son is supposed to be untethered by responsibilities as he pursues his ambition, while the dutiful daughter is left to care for the aging parents. The analogy was Abbott’s own. To the publisher Leslie Katz, she once said that she had “run away from home to get away from my father and there in Paris I’d found I’d taken on another.”

Abbott is admired by her biographer for standing against the trends of her time and for her brusque, straight-talking demeanor. At the same time, van Haaften lets us see what an impossible character she could be. For one who claimed to have abhorred American competitiveness, Abbott had little good to say about any living photographer whose status was more prominent. She makes snarky remarks in these pages about Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evans, Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Edward Steichen, Margaret Bourke-White, or Man Ray. (She had kinder thoughts about Dorothea Lange, Weegee, Morris Engel, and André Kertész. What she thought of Helen Levitt, another tough-minded independent woman, we aren’t told.)

The book satisfies the reader’s curiosity about practical matters (money, sex, family dynamics, politics) that academics too often don’t mention as if they should be beneath our notice. Van Haaften has a keen eye for revealing gestures. Abbott spurned traditional adornments of femininity, preferring slacks to dresses. Late in life, after dinner at an expensive French restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, “Berenice, who carried no handbag, had to lift her elegant blouse to reach for her money belt to pay.”

Abbott was a lesbian by her twenties and didn’t hide her sexual preferences. Her infrequent attempts to couple with men, including an early one with the writer Kenneth Burke, were often farcical. (“About as well matched as Ladybird Johnson and Woody Allen,” he later described it.) And yet she never expressed support for gay rights organizations. Being childless was not a lifelong regret; she knew herself to be too self-centered to be a good mother.

“She was burned with the belief that her family’s broken history had robbed her of ‘normal’ life and most convention, and her turmoil was aggravated by her personal style,” writes van Haaften. “All her life, she compartmentalized her associates and her activities hermetically, so that often one friend or group would not even know of another. She also seemed to simply drop friends or acquaintances and pick them up against when convenient or necessary.”

Abbott knew a vast array of artists and writers, in Paris, New York, and later in Maine where she bought a house in 1954 for $600 (“so cheap…even I can afford that.”) The cameos in Van Haaften’s account—by Marsden Hartley, Edwin Land, Malcolm Cowley, Walter Rosenblum, Helen Gee, Lee Witkin, Harry Lunn, Hank O’Neal, Todd Watts, Henry Russell Hitchcock, George Antheil, and many others—have historical as well as gossip value.

At the same time, van Haaften never forgets that we care about her subject mainly because of her photography. Abbott’s strong views about the medium were never veiled in jargon. She loathed the mystical language of Stieglitz and Minor White and agreed with Goethe that “subjectivity” was a sickness of the age. At a conference in Aspen in 1951, she famously declared that “photography can never grow up and stand on its own two feet if it imitates primarily some other medium. It has to walk alone. It has to be itself.”

The last half of the book is far less exciting than the first. The final chapters are devoted to illnesses, honors, exhibitions, monetary freedom after the MoMA sale (she could at last afford to have her teeth fixed) and negotiations about her will. At the moment that she was feeling secure about her finances, a disastrous robbery in 1984 collapsed her prospects again: she had kept a safe in her Maine house but wrote the combination on the wall next to it. Thieves had an easy time when she was away in New York, making off with several hundred thousands of dollars worth of Kruggerrands she had stored in champagne truffle boxes. The catastrophe wiped out her life savings and she was forced to sell her own archive for $290,000.

Van Haaften provides background to the differences between Atget’s prints and Abbott’s from his negatives. I wish she had given more. Why some of her prints are gelatin silver and others POP, and when she decided to make the change, is still confusing. These are minor complaints, though, in a book packed with information and—a rarity these days in a biography from a commercial publisher—a thorough and accurate index. It is a pleasure to consult.

***

Kevin Moore’s book on Atget and Abbott has the disadvantage of being written before van Haaften’s biography was published. As a result, whereas her story about, for example, the sale of the archive, has specific numbers and persons, he relies on generalities (MoMA bought it “reportedly for a handsome sum.” For unspecified reasons, he believes the museum was “never a perfect fit for the hard-working antiquarian of Old Paris.”)

His essay is nonetheless an excellent general overview of both photographers’ careers, with mini-biographies of each and acute observations about their fortuitous relationship, reinforced by plenty of illustrations. A section of full-page plates at the back of the book—24 for Atget, 29 for Abbott—lets us see what she gained from his example as well as where she departed from it.

“Ambition is something that came naturally to Abbott, both by temperament and as a member her generation,” writes Moore. Until World War I shattered societal norms, as he notes, it was not respectable for women to live on their own, as Abbott had done for 4 years in New York. Atget was far more cautious and decorous and less willing to advertise his dreams to the world. She was a “young, open, and adventuresome” American with “a boundless sense of possibility.” He was deeply French, a traditionalist who “knew and respected the parameters of his society.” Even so, they had shared beliefs about what photography should do and be. Both were “empiricists, observers… literary, self-educated, and self-confident in their own viewpoint.” His ferocious work ethic would later be a model for her.

In the last decade of his life, Atget was adopted by the avant-garde. Man Ray “discovered” him, with André Breton, Walter Benjamin, and Mac Orlan interpreting him as a naif like Henri Rousseau or a proto-Surrealist. This misguided reading of the photographs was based, Moore writes, on the “circumstances of their mysterious authorship,” so that the images could be seen as “Surrealist nightmares, haunted by the socially discarded and depraved.”

How much this art world excitement about Atget provoked Abbott to invest in him, neither van Haaften nor Moore ventures. Abbott’s “commercial acumen was always pretty much subpar,” as he rightly notes, which was balanced by her gift for publicizing the purchase of the archive. Magazines at the time played up the idea of an “American Girl” saving the work by “the greatest of all photographers.” Van Haaften notes that The New York Times and The New Yorker ran stories on the archive in 1929 and valued it at $200,000, or $30 million in today’s dollars—wildly inflated figures almost certainly supplied by the buyer. As her resume was thin, she was rightly shy about boasting of her accomplishments. A reporter found that “it was difficult for me to get Abbott to tell me directly about herself after she had begun to talk about Atget.”

What she learned by studying the archive and how she applied her reading of it to her photography of New York during the Depression has received many answers from different scholars. Moore thinks that the thousands of subject categories in the archive were key. “She probably wouldn’t have thought to notice the huts of the unemployed if it had not been for Atget’s images of ragpickers and zoniers.”

The plates in the book allow for instructive comparisons. Atget’s fondness for the haphazard clutter of the modern age stands behind a group of images in Changing New York, such as Newsstand (1935), Blossom Restaurant (1935) and Hardware Store (1938). His temporal collages of architectural styles from disparate eras informs her Cedar Street from William Street (1936) and Old Post Office (1938). She likely would not have made Doorway: 16-18 Charles Street (1938) did she not share his obsession with this fundamental feature of all buildings.

At the same time, the selection here underlines her native self-sufficiency as an American Modernist. The series of vertiginous shots, swooping down from or up at Manhattan skyscrapers—Seventh Avenue Looking South from 35th Street (1935) and Canyon: Broadway and Exchange Place (1936)—owes little to his sensibility, which was grounded in the order of the 19th century. The strong contrasting light on the facades of Fifth Avenue, nos. 4, 6, 8 (1936) is her own personal invention. It’s the haunted cityscapes of Giorgio de Chirico and Edward Hopper recast through the lens of a large-format camera.

She (and McCausland) were sensitive that critics often could not write about her without mentioning him. Moore isn’t correct, though, when he writes that as the “1930s elongated Abbott increasingly disowned Atget.” She continued to promote his work throughout the ‘40s-‘60s. Van Haaften writes that in 1951 Abbott made new prints from Atget’s negatives for a show at the New School, and then another in 1952 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1955 Yale University Art Gallery paired them in its galleries. She published The World of Atget in 1964 and even wrote a half-hour TV show about him that was broadcast on PBS in 1966.

Atget’s left-wing radicalism was hard to discern in his oeuvre (despite the efforts of some scholars to try.) Abbott was more overtly Socialist. Shaped by the national privations and despair of the Great Depression, her affiliations with the populist Photo League, her hatred of Rockefeller Center and other architectural feats of capitalist might, as well as her natural kinship with all underdogs, she made several photographs in the ‘30s that expressed her political sympathies. It’s doubtful Atget would have taken a photograph as didactic as South and DePeyster Street (1935), with its street peddlers framed against two distant Wall Street towers. (According to van Haaften, Abbott was crushed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which had embodied her and McCausland’s communist ideals.)

Moore offers some rudimentary formal analyses of Abbot’s style in Changing New York. He shares the opinion of Peter Barr that she crafted different perspectives in the book and that these reflected her feelings about the city: low-to-the-ground, frontal camera positions for her views of old, small-scale New York; and an aerial, floating, dynamic when photographing the colossal structures then transforming midtown and downtown. “Abbot emphasizes balance, stasis, approval in her neighborhood street views,” Moore writes, paraphrasing Barr, “and disorientation, disorganization, uncertainty among the skyscrapers.”

I can’t agree with this reading. If anything, her street-level photographs of small businesses are more disorganized—more cluttered and chaotic—than the Godlike perspective she adopts when staring down at the orderly grid of the modern city. If Abbott truly disapproved of skyscrapers, it’s a cruel irony that her most enduringly popular views of New York have been those from on high.

Abbott exhibited 110 prints for Changing New York at Museum of the City of New York in 1937. It was a critical hit. The book that followed two years later was also well-received, although it seems to have left her unsure how to push forward. As Moore writes, after the acclaim, “she appears to have been in one ontological scrape after another, defending her views on photography against an establishment she deemed conformist, dim-witted, and openly antagonistic to all that she had accomplished.”

Was Abbott her own worst enemy in promoting herself? It’s easy to think so after reading both of these books. Van Haaften intimates (on scant evidence) that Szarkowski was homophobic and because of this, may have given a much larger retrospective to Evans than to her. It’s both brave and crazy of Abbott that she did nothing to curry favor with him, when MoMA was pretty much the only game in town for photographers. She is quoted here as referring to him as “disgusting” and was furious with the 1970 retrospective he gave her, accusing him of sabotaging her career in his unorthodox hanging of the 62 photos. Not that she was hurting for accolades late in life. In his New York Times review of a 1973 exhibition at the Witkin Gallery, Hilton Kramer called her “one of the truly remarkable figures in the history of 20th century photography.” The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters elected her to membership in 1982, along with George Balanchine, Orson Welles, and Martha Graham.

Abbott’s embattled stance against the governing powers of her country and the art world was reflexive. “Her identity was always as an outsider,” writes Moore, “which she seems to have both preferred and resented.” What she never lost was confidence in her own professional skills or artistic instincts, and these beliefs overrode any insecurities she may have harbored about her commercial appeal. Perhaps this was another lesson she absorbed from Atget. Like her view of photography itself, she knew no other path to follow than the lonely one. To be herself, she had to walk alone.

Collector’s POV: Abbott’s work is nearly ubiquitous at auction, with dozens of prints (a mix of vintage and later) coming up for sale in any given year. Prices have typically ranged from as low as $1000 to nearly $90000. Atget’s works are consistently available in the secondary markets, with dozens of images for sale in any given year. Prices range from a few thousand dollars for later/faded prints and unknown views to nearly $700000 for rare and iconic vintage prints.

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Read more about: Berenice Abbott, Eugène Atget, W. W. Norton & Company, Yale University Press

One comment

  1. Pete /

    I have to admit, like Goerke, I had always dismissed Abbott as an also-ran. Terrific write up. thank you.

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