Nothing in Berenice Abbott’s background indicated the thrilling life she would lead and the stunning photographs that she would take. Perhaps, she created her life much like the way she created her photographs, with careful preparation and an appreciation for detail and balance. Or perhaps not, given the spontaneity and intuition that seemed to guide her professional choices.

Abbott had a knack for being at the right place at the right time, and impeccable judgment about what would make a good photograph: the right lighting, the right angle, and the right subject. “A photograph needs to be visually exciting and important, otherwise you write about it,” she commented. Her life practically spanned the entire 20th century, and had a flow and a continuity in spite of all the moves she made – from Springfield, Ohio where she was born in 1898, to New York in 1918, Europe in 1921, Paris in 1922, New York City in 1939, Boston in the late ‘40s and finally Monson, Maine in the 60s, that reminded her of her small town childhood home. She lived there, happily in tune with nature, until her death in 1981 at the age of 93. This sense of connection is also present in her art in which a fascination for the process of change – where the past leads to the present and points to the future – played an essential role.

All this and more is revealed in the wonderful, one woman-show Berenice Abbott: Photographs that recently opened to great public acclaim at the Jeu de Paume (Paris), in association with the Ryerson Image Centre (Toronto). Over 120 of Abbott’s finest black and white prints are shown on the first floor, while the work of the contemporary Chinese artist, blogger and photographer Ai Wei Wei is exhibited upstairs: a daring and successful comparison of two important documentary photographers from the last and the present century. The queues snake around the Jardins de Tuileries and reservations are de rigeur. Be sure to reserve your tickets for the exhibition in Toronto in May!

The exhibition explores the different stages of Abbott’s expansive career through photographic prints, personal documents including letters, book mock-ups; drawings, magazines and scrapbooks and first edition books. Her enormous natural talent, both in taking photographs – portraits, architecture and construction work, cars and gas stations, rural and urban areas and finally scientific phenomenon – and developing them into luminous silver-gelatin prints in black, white and tones of grey, is in full display.

Man Ray, Portrait de Berenice Abbott, 1925, Épreuve gélatino-argentique, 22 x 14,5 cm, Collection Hank O’Neal, New York © Man Ray Trust/ADA GP, Paris, 2011

“Thank God for France.”

First we discover her astonishing and often iconic Parisian portraits taken in the late 20s. In 1923 she had approached Man Ray, whom she had previously met in New York, for help in finding a job. When he told her that he was looking for an assistant for his flourishing portrait studio, she proposed herself. Man Ray claimed that he hired her because he wanted someone who knew nothing about photography so that the person would do exactly what he wanted! Imagine learning about photography from Man Ray!

In fact, he soon realized her value: not only was she an excellent technician in the darkroom, in his opinion she was also a born photographer. Three years after giving her one of his old cameras to practice with, he advised her to open her own studio, which she promptly did. Eschewing surrealism as well as the pictorial approach to photographs promulgated by Steichen and Stieglitz, Abbot went for the essential of the people who posed for her – members of European high society and writers and artists in Paris such as James Joyce, Jean Cocteau, Sylvia Beach, and Djuna Barnes. Her intimate knowledge of homosexuals (she lived with Elisabeth McCausland, a friend from Springfield who went on to become a well-known art critic, and who remained Abbot’s faithful supporter and collaborator for over 30 years until her death), brought out her sitters’ pride in their sexual choices and allowed her to celebrate their striking originality. Abbott’s own personal intensity often produced portraits that expressed more about the sitters than the people themselves in reality.

Her two portraits of the elderly Eugène Atget, taken in 1927 a few days before he died, are works of love and beauty. When Man Ray introduced him to her, she immediately recognized a kindred spirit; the father of documentary photography soon became her mentor. After his death, she began a long negotiation to purchase several thousand of his glass negatives, the remains of his massive archives. Her mission to promote Atget’s work in America began as soon as she arrived in New York City in 1929. Considering him equally as important as Picasso and Matisse, her selfless, sustained efforts on his behalf (including books, essays and exhibitions) were instrumental in gaining international recognition for his work. She sold the archives to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968.

Pont de Triborough, 125e Rue est, New York, 29 juin 1937, Épreuve gélatino-argentique, 24,5 x 19 cm, Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Federal Works Agency, Work Projects Administration, Federal Art Project © Berenice Abbott/Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

“I gotta do New York!”

After a short visit to New York City in 1928, Abbott decided that she would rather live in a city in the midst of transformation than in Paris. She sold her studio in Paris and arrived just before the Wall Street Crash and the beginning of the Depression, which might seem to be the wrong time. However, after closing her newly opened portrait studio, she applied for and received a grant to begin her most famous project, Changing New York (1935-1939) thanks to President Roosevelt’s New Deal which in part employed artists and photographers throughout the country to documentary contemporary society. A large section of the exhibition is rightly devoted to her attraction to architecture and buildings under construction, often juxtaposed with old-fashioned storefronts. “I don’t know why only men understand buildings. They are so damn fascinating”, she commented about Rockefeller Center in the excellent film about her life that accompanies the exhibition.

“A photograph is a prisoner of its time,” she claimed, referring to the slow speed at which photographs – shutter speed, setting up shots, developing and printing – functioned. This is abundantly reflected in her aesthetically beautiful and technically original scientific photographs that set her apart from all other great photographers. In 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Americans woke up to the importance of science. With her usual audacity, she convinced the Physical Science Study Committee at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology to hire her to produce both pedagogical and popular photographs. The abstract forms showing complex mechanical concepts and normally invisible physical phenomena such as gravity and undulating light waves have to be seen to be believed and appreciated. Beauty, in Abbott’s work and world, is everywhere she turned her eye.

Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume
1, place de la Concorde, Paris
du 21 février au 29 avril 2012