A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Intense blue eyes pierce the camera. Boy-cut hair gone white. A hand at her craggy face. Her friends say: Berenice Abbot is serious about everything. When Ginsberg comes to visit, he tries to take her photograph. 'Oh don't be a shutterbug.' * Her Ohio childhood: 'I remember nothing about it without horror.' She bobs her hair, moves to New York City then Paris. Marcel Duchamps gives her that extra syllable. Ber-é-nice Man Ray's assistant, she revels in 'mixing solutions, playing with papers.' At 28, with a large format camera on a tripod: Jean Cocteau, Janet Flanner. Sylvia Beach. James Joyce with bow tie, eye patch & rakish hat. * Eugène Atget. Their names coupled forever. She photographs him, thinks of him as 'a beautiful old man.' Months later, he dies. She borrows money to purchase a precious trove of his photos that captured the 'old Paris,' honoring him as the father she never had. * 1929. She leaves Paris to photograph New York City 'to fix the image of a city for posterity.' In Greenwich Village, she goes 'tea dancing' at Child's where gay women gather. She's home. Teaching at the New School 'to bring in groceries,' partners with Elizabeth McCausland. Adjoining studios on Commerce Street for 33 years. Their collaboration: Changing New York. Abbot's iconic photos, McClausland's florid text. A diabetic, McCausland dies at 66. Abbot endures through old age in Maine a place 'not too pretty' which she loves for being 'rugged & wild.' * From her 1951 FBI file: Suspicious activity: Work with Eugene Smith & Weegee on the Photo League. Defense of Sacco & Vanzetti. Contributions to the Political Prisoners Bail Fund. Concealed communist? 'Wears slacks constantly.' * Afraid of heights, she stood on ledges. To onlookers, she'd say: Buddy, I'm not a nice girl. I'm a photographer. I go anywhere.
Copyright 2019 Joan E. Bauer
“Photography,” said Berenice Abbott, “can never grow up if it imitates some other medium. It has to walk alone; it has to be itself.” Born in America in 1898, Abbott decided not to pursue picturesque images in her work, but to document, to show the subject exactly as it was. Only by distinguishing itself from painting, Abbott believed, would photography become its own artistic medium. The project Abbott undertook from 1935 to 1939, and for which she achieved international recognition, was called Changing New York. It is a chronicle of the evolving city through more than 300 black and white pictures, taken during a time of growing depression. [Source: Les Douches The Gallery]