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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 on Abbott’s work. Her portraits of Joyce (from two different sessions) seem to convey more of the writer’s personality than Man Ray’s grainy, tightly cropped profile and three-quarter-view shots—perhaps an effect of the natural light she used or her greater depth of field. The classical composition of her best-known image of Joyce (with the hat) from the second sitting also displays his beautiful, long hands, a revelation.

In other instances when Abbott and Man Ray photographed the same subject, such as their portraits of the dancer and choreographer Helen Tamiris, the differences are just as pronounced as one would expect: Man Ray’s portrait is eye-catching and stylized, with the sitter’s hair whirled into a black meringue above her head, while Abbott’s is understated. Instead of confronting the camera, Tamiris leans in from the side of the frame and looks back over her shoulder.

Soon, Janet Flanner began to promote Abbott’s photography in her “Letter from Paris” column in The New Yorker, and Abbott’s first exhibition—at a Left Bank gallery, Au Sacre du Printemps, in June 1926—was enthusiastically reviewed. The Herald described her as Man Ray’s pupil, then declared that she was now “his serious rival.” Abbott told the Herald’s reporter that women, “because of their native intuition and ability to give attention to details, make especially good portrait photographers.”

Although frequently exhibited, Abbot’s Paris portraits have only recently been brought together, in a handsome clothbound volume, Paris Portraits: 1925–1930. The collection is edited by Ron Kurtz, who purchased Abbott’s archive in 1985 and opened a licensing agency for her images called Commerce Graphics (which co-publishes Paris Portraits); and by the music producer Hank O’Neal, her friend and former assistant. Julia Van Haaften helped assemble biographical notes. A few New York portraits, such as that of the Harlem entrepreneur and arts patron A’Lelia Walker, have also been included. The novelty of this volume is that each photograph is first shown with Abbott’s original crop and then full-frame, printed from the original glass plate negatives, now held by the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto. “I never tried to take portraits that would use the entire negative,” Abbott explained. “I was more interested in spontaneity and expression and I didn’t want to fool around too much with mechanics that might make a sitter uneasy or bored.”

Paris Portraits is part of an impressive series of Steidl volumes on Abbott (co-published with Commerce Graphics), all with introductions by Kurtz and essays by O’Neal that are full of new information and personal memories. Anyone interested in twentieth-century photography or fine art publishing will want to see, touch, and smell these books. They include images from each of Abbott’s four innovative bodies of work: her portraiture; her classic book of urban photography, Changing New York; her science pictures; and her documentary photographs on the road across America. Volume three of the five-volume collection The Unknown Berenice Abbott—the book of her logging photographs from 1943 and 1967, Deep Woods—proves unexpectedly moving, the immense trees (standing or fallen) presenting the same formal challenges as the influential pictures she took of New York streets and skyscrapers, interspersed with her typically direct images of working men.

Abbott worked quickly as a portraitist. For her photo of the dashingly butch Jane Heap, Margaret Anderson’s partner and the co-editor of The Little Review, Abbott captured what she needed in two exposures, but pretended to take more to put her sitter at ease. Nor would she schedule more than one sitter a day: “Five or six exposures, [it’s] exhausting to take a portrait of somebody you have to sort of turn yourself inside out to get through to. You can’t just snap one after another, you’d be doing it mechanically.” This sounds like the confession of an introvert, something to keep in mind when reading contemporaries’ accounts of Abbott as “odd, very odd,” with a “slow way” and an “attitude.”

Abbott’s empathy for her sitters may have resulted from her own modeling experiences. Unlike most of the male artists in her circle, Abbott knew the lens side of the camera fairly well. Perennially hard up for cash, she had modeled (clothed) for life drawing classes in Ohio, and eventually modeled both draped and nude in New York. Around 1920, she posed for a moody, graceless nude taken by Man Ray titled Nue sur un lit. Van Haaften mentions the session but does not discuss or reproduce this particular image, now part of the Man Ray archive at the Pompidou. Man Ray does not seem to have printed it at the time, and one can see why. Some awkwardness, some resistance on Abbott’s part undermines his typical panache here. Nue sur un lit seems to shrug off the traditional, gendered subject/object dichotomy that he exploited so fully in his work: woman as plaything, as object of desire, as a collection of fascinating parts. Van Haaften describes Abbott as “elfin but somber” in this series. I would add “androgynous,” a quality Man Ray did not generally seek out in his female models, despite the occasional short-haired muse.

With her prominent blue eyes and characteristic forward-swept pixie cut, Abbott was normally photogenic—even, in some early images, mesmerizing. Man Ray won ten dollars for a portrait of her (Portrait of a Sculptor) that he’d entered in 1921 into the annual photography competition sponsored by Wanamaker’s department store. There is no practical reason why the young Abbott, poor and artistically directionless, could not have become a fine model. Since abandoning her journalism program at Ohio State and arriving in New York, she had been drawn into the center of the Greenwich Village art community—her first room, on MacDougal Street, was next door to the Provincetown Players—but could not get her footings financially or artistically. Was she a journalist? An actress? A sculptor?

Though she drank with the Millay sisters (and with nearly everyone else), shared an apartment at 86 Greenwich Avenue with Malcolm Cowley, Djuna Barnes, and others, and stumbled into a half-hearted dalliance with Kenneth Burke, Abbott’s closest friend and roommate in the Village was the legendary Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who also modeled for quick money. A Dadaist poet and performance artist, the baroness has been recently revived as the possible originator of the idea to submit a urinal entitled Fountain by Marcel Duchamp to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. Some of Abbott’s other modeling photos survive; they are unremarkable, and in a different category from the baroness’s playful, loopy extravagances for artists like Duchamp and Man Ray. A 1920 nude of the baroness—again by Man Ray—looks like an early movie still from an art world melodrama, all chiaroschuro and pantomimed dread.1

Berenice Abbott/Commerce Graphics/Getty Images; Museum of Modern Art/Scala/Art Resource
James Joyce, Paris, 1926; photograph by Berenice Abbott

In her remarks to Hank O’Neil about the two exposures she made of Solita Solano, Janet Flanner’s great love of sixty years, Abbott maintained her conventional concealment of same-sex relationships, referring to the sitter as “a good friend of Flanner’s.” The biographical notes in Paris Portraits correct these evasions, though with some lapses: the bookseller Adrienne Monnier is described as “a close friend of Sylvia Beach,” coy wording for a decades-long romance. More significantly, there is no mention of Abbott’s love affair with Princess Eugène (Violette) Murat, who broke her heart in France in 1930 and may have made it easier, as a result, for her to dismantle her Paris portrait studio and return to America, where her next great work awaited her. (After a holiday fling in New York, Murat had paid Abbott’s passage back to France so that Abbott could set up a transcontinental photographic enterprise but then “dumped” her and withdrew financial support.) Abbott did not make this loss explicit in her comment on the portrait she made of Murat:

This is a strong woman; a strong portrait taken in New York in 1930. I had met her briefly in Paris, she was the granddaughter of Napoleon III, but I got to know her better in New York. She was responsible for introducing me to Harlem and the dancing at the Savoy. She was simply smoking a cigarette when I took this; there was another negative but it has been lost. I should have taken more of her. She was a good subject and I don’t know why I didn’t, except that I rarely went back to photograph the same people again.

Among the French artists Abbott discovered in Paris, she developed a special regard for the street photographer Eugène Atget. Man Ray shared her interest, although it was Abbott who convinced Atget to pose for her in the spring of 1927. His sudden death that August shocked her. She wrote at once to his executor to see if his studio contents had been preserved. Not long after, she borrowed 10,000 francs (about $10,000 at the time) from her then girlfriend, Julie Reiner, to buy the entire archive. Although motivated by a “near-daughterly attachment to Atget,” as Van Haaften writes, Abbott also assumed she could turn a quick profit by selling his prints in America. Instead, she saddled herself with the Atget archive for decades, tirelessly hawking his original prints and reprints, supervising his exhibitions, and pursuing one failed project after another. Her association with him often overshadowed her own creative work and reputation, particularly in light of her documentary focus on New York City in the 1930s.

A 1929 trip back to New York upended her career in Paris: “When I saw New York again, and stood in the dirty slush, I felt that here was the thing I had been wanting to do all my life.” In the midst of an economic boom, the city was transforming itself. Abbott began a photographic exploration of New York—first at random, then systematically—with an increasing sense of urgency. Sometimes she would identify an old building of interest, only to find it razed when she returned with her camera. Her initial sharply angled, modernist shots gave way to a straightforward, realist documentary style as she upgraded to a larger-format 8×10- inch view camera that “allowed her to correct distortions of perspective.” At this time, Abbott’s aesthetic shifted away from the more consciously “artistic” architectural photography of her peers, such as Margaret Bourke-White, whom she knew slightly. Abbott’s clean lines and her responsiveness to the city’s dynamism later attracted the influential critic Hilton Kramer: “Many of Miss Abbott’s finest pictures of old New York derive from this perspective of an impending and impersonal change threatening to sweep everything before it.”

“Trading her smaller cameras’ speed and flexibility for the large format’s greater detail and control had forced a change in shy Berenice’s street photography practice, from nimble anonymity to awkward conspicuousness,” Van Haaften notes.

The whole procedure—erecting the tripod, deploying the camera, assembling plates for exposures, ducking her head in and out from under the huge black focusing drape—could not help but attract passersby. The first time she tried, she packed up and left. “But I knew I had to do it and I made myself come back.”

With this larger camera, Abbott captured some of her most acclaimed images, like New York at Night (1932) and her dizzying view from above of the fifty-six-story Chanin Building (circa 1929). To nail this shot, Abbott had the building guard hold on to her while she leaned perilously out the window with her camera. When Douglas Levere set out to rephotograph Abbott’s New York images at the end of the century (published as New York Changing in 2005), he found it impossible to recreate Henry Street (1935), even though he was using the same type and brand of view camera, and standing in the same place she had set her tripod. Eventually he realized that Abbott had removed part of the lens assembly and customized her equipment to get the desired perspective.

One benefit of Van Haaften’s exhaustive detail in her book is that it reminds us how many rejections even the most successful and well-connected artists face. No one would pay Abbott to complete the New York project. She privately funded her work for five years during the Depression until she finally gained support from the Federal Art Project (WPA) in 1935. The project was published as Changing New York in 1939 and has never been out of print.

Van Haaften, founding curator of photography at the New York Public Library, knew Abbott well, and is able to supplement the already rich historical record with her own conversations with the artist. She seems to have a soft spot for Abbott’s elegant science photography and her photographic inventions, like the amusing “Abbott Distorter” and her camera lumina, “Super-Sight,” with which she captured very close, detailed images, like Fish Head (1944). In 1939, Abbott argued that science needed photography by skilled artists: “It needs the vivification of the visual image, the warm human quality of imagination added to its austere and stern disciplines.” She became photographic editor of Science Illustrated in 1944; she was also teaching at the New School and elsewhere, trying to make ends meet. Fourteen years later, she landed her dream job at the Physical Science Study Committee at MIT, tasked with explaining scientific concepts through photographs. Her ingenious images like Light Through a Prism (circa 1958) and A Bouncing Ball in Diminishing Arcs (1958) fascinated a generation of American students when they appeared in a 1960 physics textbook published by Heath.

“I was a rebel,” said Abbott in old age. This rebellion could take subtle forms—not only her artistic independence and nonconformity, but a prickly manner, an argumentative streak, and a distaste for “cliques,” which meant that she held herself aloof from some friends and colleagues who might have benefited her. Some of this Abbott blamed on coming from a broken family. When her parents separated, they divided the children between them. Her mother and scattered siblings so neglected her that she washed up on the shores of bohemia almost as an orphan. She could be petty. She could also be exceptionally kind, as when she offered her own assistant Hank O’Neal to the elderly, reclusive Djuna Barnes, the Trevi Fountain of verbal abuse. (This gesture was kind only to Barnes, I should clarify. O’Neal’s tragicomic memoir of his three years trying to help Barnes is a jaw-dropping coda to mythologizing accounts of lesbian frolics in Paris between the wars.2)

Abbott is sometimes described as openly lesbian—probably due to her unconcealed affairs among the lesbian demimonde in Paris—but as Van Haaften accurately observes, she was semicloseted for the rest of her life. Abbott insisted that scholars skip all but the sparest biographical account in their books about her, including O’Neal’s 1982 monograph and Julia Van Haaften’s 1988 volume for the Aperture Masters of Photography series (which was redesigned and expanded in 2015). She never spoke publically about her sexuality, and while proudly feminist, showed no interest in the emerging gay rights movement. She had been slow to accept her own feelings for women, or any sexual feelings at all, and had battled with internalized homophobia before coming to terms with her sexual identity in the arms of Thelma Wood, Tylia Perlmutter, and other women. (Perlmutter once pretended to caution a young friend against lesbians, urging her to “avoid being alone in a car with one: ‘[I]f she gets her leg onto your lap, you’re done for.’”)3

When Abbott left the relative freedoms of Paris for 1930s New York, she adopted the habitual secrecy of lesbians of her generation who hoped for professional or social acceptance, or to stay out of jail.4 In her wild Parisian youth, Abbott was in fact carted off with Gwen La Gallienne in a police raid on a gay-friendly dance hall, but she more often attracted police attention for public drunkenness. When she did form a lasting partnership with the art critic Elizabeth McCausland, they enjoyed an active but discreet gay social life in their across-the-hall studio apartments at 50 Commerce Street. McCausland served as Abbott’s secretary, collaborator, sparring partner, and booster for thirty years until her death in 1965, yet Abbott was not mentioned in her obituary.

Abbott moved to Monson, Maine, full-time after her companion’s death, becoming the village eccentric: drinking beer while she drove, dancing in redneck bars, and installing bidets (“the wonder of the county”) in some log cottages she had built on Lake Hebron. She lived long enough to successfully sell both Atget’s archive and her own, and to watch her reputation skyrocket. Finally, she was financially stable, and if there were no loves to replace McCausland, there was a steady stream of young assistants, journalists, aspiring photographers, and film crews eager to hear her story. “Time, place, and circumstance,” she told one interviewer: “They are like three balls that you toss in the air, and they control your life.”

Letters

Abbott’s Absence November 8, 2018

  1. 1

    This image can be seen on the cover of the baroness’s collection, Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (MIT Press, 2011), edited by her biographer, Irene Gammel, and Suzanne Zelazo. Djuna Barnes had been the baroness’s friend and literary executor, and instrumental in preserving her legacy.  

  2. 2

    Hank O’Neal, ‘Life Is Painful, Nasty & Short…: Djuna Barnes, 1978–1981: An Informal Memoir (Paragon House, 1990).  

  3. 3

    An engaging recent memoir of lesbian bohemians in Paris, Renate Stendhal’s Kiss Me Again, Paris (IFSF, 2017), takes the story through the 1970s. Stendhal was the artist Meret Oppenheim’s assistant. Classic works in the field include Andrea Weiss’s Paris Was a Woman (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) and her 1996 film of the same name, and Shari Benstock’s Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900–1940 (University of Texas Press, 1986). See also much of Terry Castle’s work, including her priceless London Review of Books review of Diana Souhami’s Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho, and Art: The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks (St. Martin’s, 2004).  

  4. 4

    Among many other restrictions in the pre-Stonewall years, the State Liquor Authority prohibited homosexuals from congregating in New York bars until 1966. Police raids and entrapment were rife. Sodomy remained a crime in New York until 1980.