Berenice Abbott- Great Photographer returns to MITBerenice Abbott: Vision of the Twentieth Century, at the MIT Museum, through December 27.
Remember the first time you arrived in New York City? Chances are you first set foot on Manhattan soil in one of those oversized garbage cans between West 30th and 40th Street, the Port Authority Bus Terminal or Pennsylvania Station. Eagerly emerging from their bowels, you would find yourself in the midst of a turmoil hardly equalled anywhere in the world.
There was a time that things were different. Look at the photograph Greyhound Bus Terminal, 1930s, which figures as #25 in the Berenice Abbott exhibition at the MIT Museum. Instead of the dreadful dungeon that nowadays swallows your bus, a smoothly shaped open-air garage might have welcomed your grandparents. Behind it rose the dignified fa,cade of the old Penn Station, the interior of which is shown on photo #36. Spacious and stylish, it is a far cry from the cramped all-too-real estate monster now in its place.
Pictures like this abound in this show, for during the thirties Berenice Abbott compiled an extensive survey of New York. Of a changing New York, as the title of her 1939 book emphasizes: the metropolis and its population, then as now, were engaged in continuous metamorphosis.
In Abbott's review of this drama, great actors get the attention they deserve. The columns which will carry Rockefeller Center are soaring for the first time (#29,60,68). The spectacle of the nighttime skyline is as breathtaking as it is now (#56). Canyons have already formed between the skyscrapers (# 38 with its narrow, upwardly elongated frame is particularly eloquent). The subway is still the "El" (#33,34).
But Abbott has not overlooked the more humble players. Grocery stores, shoe parlors, movie theatres, barbers, ferry stations -- all those extras of the urban landscape are recorded with care and affection. And who could have thought that it is now such a delight to scrutinize an ordinary grocery shopwindow?
Now if this sounds as if Abbott's success is in her subjects, there is abundant evidence to the contrary. This is epitomized by the Fifth Avenue Houses on #23, their geometry carved by a razor-like light; the splendid composition #65, the Flatiron Building thrusting apart two magnificent vistas; and most of all #45, the Yuban Warehouse, an ugly streetfront transformed in a symphony of bricks and shutters orchestrated with superior skill.
Yet the New York pictures from the thirties were not Abbott's first claim to fame, and perhaps not even her foremost. During the twenties she lived in Paris, first as darkroom assistant to Man Ray, then as an independent portrait photographer. At the time, cosmopolitan Paris was the indisputable art capital of the world, and Abbott's work is a Who's Who of that epic era.
Perhaps the best-known of her portraits is that of James Joyce with hat and stick, posing in an attitude halfway between nonchalance and boredom (#50). Joyce was the prime member of that legendary crowd of self-exiled litterati who made Paris in those days a major centre of English literature. But in general the exhibition is regrettably brief on this period.
There is, though, the wonderful portrait of Eugene Atget, the French photographer (#49). Abbott was one of the first to recognize the extraordinary quality of his work. After his death she bought the body of it from his heir, and took care of it until selling it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Nowadays Atget is ranked among the all-time greats of photography; his reputation has eclipsed even that of his promotor. He posed for Abbott shortly before his death (in 1927), a worn-out, amiable old man in a thick overcoat. His portrait shares in the atmosphere of enraptured contemplation that makes his own photographs so hauntingly beautiful.
What is the common denominator of all this work? I think it is fair to call Abbott essentially a portraitist -- the approach underlying her New York photos being virtually the same as that of her portraiture properly speaking. Rather than analyzing her subjects with her camera, she preserves their being; registration and documentation -- taken in the broadest sense -- are keywords to this approach.
And that finally brings us to the last section of her work, and close to familiar ground: Abbott's work as a scientific photographer. Photography as "a friendly interpreter between science and the layman" -- that is the concept underlying her later work, a sizeable part of which she did at MIT. Poets and skyscrapers cede the stage to mirrors and magnets, gravity and Van de Graaff. Here Course VIII becomes art, and art Course VIII.