Pictures of the Jazz Age

Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
Berenice Abbott at her studio on the rue Servandoni, Paris, 1928

The celebrated photographer Berenice Abbott, who began her career as Man Ray’s darkroom assistant in Paris from 1923 to 1926 and shot her first portraits on his studio balcony, does not appear in his four-hundred-page autobiography, Self-Portrait (1963). This omission was “rather dirty,” Abbott felt, even “bitchy,” and seemed to show that Man Ray was still miffed at her early success, as Julia Van Haaften recounts in her comprehensive new biography, Berenice Abbott: A Life in Photography. Abbott and Man Ray had been good friends for years, meeting soon after her arrival in New York from Ohio as a journalism student in 1918; they were so close in New York, in fact, that Man Ray had asked if she would do him the favor of being named as co-respondent in his divorce case.

She had starved in New York and was starving in Paris when Man Ray hired her for his darkroom. It was Abbott’s idea. He had complained about his latest “know-it-all” studio assistant, and Abbott jumped in: “What about me? I don’t know a thing.” Her rapid learning surprised them both. “I liked photography. Photography liked me,” she recalled. Eventually Man Ray suggested that she take some portraits with his camera during lunch and after work. “It was his way of giving her a raise at no cost to him,” writes Van Haaften. Abbott always insisted that Man Ray “had never shown her how to take a picture: ‘Never once. Not with lighting or anything else. In fact, I didn’t want him to show me. Somehow, this was a new adventure…something I was doing.’”

Starting with her friends, a glittering roster of Jazz Age Paris sat for Abbott, including Sylvia Beach, Jean Cocteau, Djuna Barnes and her lover Thelma Wood (Abbott’s ex), André Gide, Buddy Gilmore, Max Ernst, Marie Laurencin, and Janet Flanner. Abbott agreed to charge the same amount as her employer and to reimburse him for supplies. Their arrangement went smoothly until Peggy Guggenheim asked that Abbott, rather than Man Ray, take her portrait. And thus a star was born—or at least forced to set up shop independently in a different part of Montparnasse.

It must have vexed her former employer that another of Abbott’s early portrait commissions was James Joyce, in his post-surgical eyepatch, a sitting at his apartment that he would further immortalize in Finnegans Wake: “Talk about lowness! Any dog’s quantity of it visibly oozed out thickly from this dirty little blacking beetle for the very fourth snap the Tulloch-Turnbull girl with coldblood kodak shotted the as yet unremunderanded national apostate, who was cowardly gun and camera shy.” Joyce had earlier sat for Man Ray—a publicity shot for the 1922 publication of Ulysses, commissioned by Sylvia Beach. One looks in vain for signs of Man Ray’s influence…

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