24
Apr
12

Exhibition: ‘Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), Photographs’ at Jeu de Paume, Paris

Exhibition dates: 21st February – 29th April 2012

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It is not her portraits or the road trip photographs, nor her scientific work for which Berenice Abbott will be remembered. Firstly, she will always be remembered as the person who photographed Eugene Atget in 1927 just before he died and who bought the remainder of his negatives (after the French government had bought over 2,000 in 1920 and another 2,000 had been sold after his death). She then tirelessly promoted Atget’s work helping him gain international recognition until her sale of the archive to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. Secondly, she is remembered for her magnificent photographs of New York City and its urban environs, photographs that show the influence of Atget in their attention to detail and understanding of the placement of the camera, and imaging of old and new parts of the city (much as Atget had photographed old Paris before it was destroyed). However, these photographs are uniquely her own, with their modernist New Vision aesthetic, bold perspectives and use of deep chiaroscuro to enhance form within the photograph. Abbott’s best known project, Changing New York (1935-39) eventually consisted of 305 photographs that document the buildings of Manhattan, some of which are now destroyed. As the text on Wikipedia insightfully notes:

“Abbott’s project was primarily a sociological study imbedded within modernist aesthetic practices. She sought to create a broadly inclusive collection of photographs that together suggest a vital interaction between three aspects of urban life: the diverse people of the city; the places they live, work and play; and their daily activities. It was intended to empower people by making them realize that their environment was a consequence of their collective behavior (and vice versa). Moreover, she avoided the merely pretty in favor of what she described as “fantastic” contrasts between the old and the new, and chose her camera angles and lenses to create compositions that either stabilized a subject (if she approved of it), or destabilized it (if she scorned it).” 

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In the text below Gaëlle Morel observes, “Rather than the kind of nostalgic approach often brought to bear on a city’s landmarks and typical sites, this ensemble offers an exploration of the nature of modernity and focuses on the ways in which the past and future are temporarily linked together. Seeking to reinvent the forms and functions of photography in relation to the practice of documentary, Abbott sets out to capture the “disappearance of the moment” by juxtaposing motifs from a city subject to an unprecedented process of demolition and reconstruction.”

While Abbott’s photographs are definitely modernist in nature I believe that today they can also be seen as deeply nostalgic, emerging as they do in the period after the Great Depression when the economy was on the move again, a peaceful time before the oncoming armageddon of the Second World War, closely followed by the fear of nuclear annihilation and the threat of communist indoctrination. They are timeless portraits of a de/reconstructed city. The images seem to float in the air, breathe in the shadows. This is the disappearance of the moment into the enigma of past, present, future – where the photograph becomes eternal, where the best work of both Atget and Abbott resides.

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Many thankx to Jeu de Paume for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Berenice Abbott
New York Stock Exchange, New York City
1933
Gelatin silver print
24 x 19 cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

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Berenice Abbott
Treasury Building, New York City
1933
Gelatin silver print
51 x 40.5 cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

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Architecture

“The tempo of the city is not that of eternity, nor that of time, but that of the ephemeral. That is why recording it is so important, in both documentary and artistic terms.”

“All the photographs of New York took a long time to make, because the camera had to be carefully positioned. There is nothing fortuitous about these photographs.”

The exhibition features a substantial collection from Abbott’s best known project, Changing New York (1935-39). Commissioned by the Roosevelt administration as part of its response to the nationwide economic crisis, Abbott saw this piece of work as both a way of documenting the City and as a personal work of art. Eighty of the 305 photographs taken by Abbott are on show here, along with various documents providing insight into the background of this major photographic undertaking, including posters and views of the exhibition organized by the Museum of the City of New York in 1937, sketches and historical notes made by the team of journalists working with Abbott on the project, and proofs and dummies of the layout made by the photographer before she started work.

Abbott homes in on the contrasts between old and new elements in the City’s structure. Her images alternate between a New Vision aesthetic, characterised by an emphasis on details and bold perspectives, and a more documentary style that is frontal and neutral. Rather than the kind of nostalgic approach often brought to bear on a city’s landmarks and typical sites, this ensemble offers an exploration of the nature of modernity and focuses on the ways in which the past and future are temporarily linked together. Seeking to reinvent the forms and functions of photography in relation to the practice of documentary, Abbott sets out to capture the “disappearance of the moment” by juxtaposing motifs from a city subject to an unprecedented process of demolition and reconstruction.

In 1938, hoping to take advantage of the fifty million visitors expected at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, the publisher, E.P. Dutton, offered to bring out a selection of one hundred images from the project accompanied by a text by the renowned art critic Elizabeth McCausland, who also happened to be Abbott’s companion and staunch supporter. Going against the women’s original ideas for an art book, Dutton produced a more standard tourist guide, breaking the City down into a series of tours, from south to north and from the centre outwards. The text, too, was shorn of its poetic and pedagogical dimensions, leaving only informative entries about the buildings in the pictures.

In the exhibition, this set of architectural photographs is rounded out by a selection of pictures of vernacular architecture taken by Abbott during a journey in the southern states of the US in the 1930s and when she was travelling along Route 1 in the 1950s. Here, portraits of farmers and wooden houses alternate with pictures of streets and local events.

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Berenice Abbott
Triborough Bridge, East 125th Street Approach, New York City, June 29, 1937
1937
Gelatin silver print
24.5 x 19 cm
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

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Berenice Abbott
Broadway to the Battery, New York City, May 4, 1938
1938 
Gelatin silver print
17.5 x 24 cm
Museum of the City of New York
Museum Purchase with funds from the Mrs. Elon Hooker Acquisition Fund
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

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Berenice Abbott
Flat Iron Building, Broadway and Fifth Avenue, New York City
1938
Gelatin silver print
101.5 x 76 cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

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Berenice Abbott Petit Journal

With over 120 photographs, plus a selection of books and documents never shown before, this is the first exhibition in France to cover the many different facets of the American photographer Berenice Abbott (1898–1991), who is also famous for her international advocacy of Eugène Atget. She came to Paris in 1921 where she learnt her craft from Man Ray before opening her own studio and embarking on a successful career as a portraitist. Returning to New York City in 1929, she conceived what remains her best‑known project, Changing New York (1935-39). This was financed by the Works Progress Administration as part of its response to the economic crisis sweeping the country. The photographs she took in 1954 when travelling along the US East Coast on Route 1 (the exhibition presents a previously unseen selection of these images) reflect her ambition to represent the whole of what she called the “American scene.” Furthermore, in the 1950s, she also worked on a set of images for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) designed to illustrate the principles of mechanics and light for educational purposes.

A committed member of the avant‑garde from the early 1920s, and a staunch opponent of Pictorialism and the school of Alfred Stieglitz, Abbott spent the whole of her career exploring the limits and nature of documentary photography and photographic realism. This exhibition shows the rich array of her interests and conveys both the unity and diversity of her work.

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Portraits

Berenice Abbott moved to New York City in the early 1920s and went about becoming a sculptor. Mixing in the bohemian circles of Greenwich Village, she met writers and artists such as Djuna Barnes, Sadakichi Hartmann and Marcel Duchamp. She also posed for Man Ray. Economic hardship at home and the allure of what then seemed the cultural Eldorado of Europe impelled several of these artists to try their luck in Paris, and Abbott herself joined this group of American expatriates in 1921.

In 1923 she became the assistant of Man Ray, who had opened a portrait studio shortly after his arrival in France in 1921. While a fair portion of the studio’s clients were American tourists, Abbott found herself at the heart of the avant-garde scene – especially that of the Surrealists. Between 1923 and 1926 she thus learnt about darkroom techniques and portrait photography while at the same time picking up a broader intellectual and artistic education. She produced her portraits in Man Ray’s studio before opening her own in 1926. Success soon followed. Her clientele was a mixture of French cultural figures and American expatriates, of bourgeois, bohemians and literary types. Her portraits were on occasion manifestly influenced by Surrealism, and more generally show an interest in masquerade, play and disguise, but sometimes even in their use of overprinting and distortion.

The female models express a kind of sexual ambiguity, notably by their masculine haircut or clothes, deliberately exuding a sense of uncertainty with regard to their identity. In composing her portraits, Abbott developed a distinctive aesthetic, far removed from the usual commercial conventions. The absence of a set, with the background usually no more than a plain wall, helped to focus on the sitter and their posture, the position of their body and their facial expression. The use of a tripod and long-focus lenses placed at eye-height allowed her to avoid distorsions and thus heighten the physical presence of the models. In early 1929 Abbott left Paris for New York City. Back in America she continued with the same activities, opening a new portrait studio and taking part in exhibitions of modernist photography, while also promoting the work of Eugène Atget, having bought part of his estate in 1928.

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New York City

In the early 1930s, Abbott set about her project for a great documentary portrait of the City of New York, but had no luck when she approached institutions such as the Museum of the City of New York and the New York Historical Society for funding. She assembled her first efforts in an album (eight pages of which are exhibited here) in order to convey the scale of her ambitious undertaking, and in 1934 exhibited her photographs of the City at the Museum of the City of New York in the hope of attracting sponsors. In 1935, support was at last forthcoming from the Federal Art Project, a programme set up to aid artists by the Works Progress Administration as part of the New Deal; she now had the support of a team of researchers who produced an information pack with text and drawings to accompany each image. Entitled Changing New York, she conceived this commission as both a vast documentary record of the City and a personal work of art. Eighty of the 305 photographs constituting this project have been selected for the exhibition. These are accompanied by documents – a poster, exhibition views, sketches and historical notes, proofs, pages from the preparatory album and original editions – that help to convey the concerns and ambitions behind this major photographic undertaking.

Abbott focused on the contrasts and links between old and new in the City’s structure. Her images alternate between a New Vision aesthetic, characterised by an emphasis on details and bold perspectives, and a more documentary style that is frontal and neutral. Rather than the kind of nostalgic approach often brought to bear on a city’s landmarks and typical sites, this ensemble offers an exploration of the nature of modernity and focuses on the ways in which the past and future are temporarily linked together. Seeking to reinvent the forms and functions of photography in relation to the practice of documentary, Abbott sets out to capture the “vanishing instant” by juxtaposing motifs from a city subject to an unprecedented process of demolition and reconstruction.

The upshot of all this work was the publication of a book, Changing New York, in 1939. But there was considerable tension between the publisher, whose concerns were commercial, and the photographer, with her artistic ambitions. In 1938, hoping to take advantage of the fifty million visitors expected at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, the publishing house E.P. Dutton proposed to bring out a selection of one hundred images from the project accompanied by a text from the renowned art critic Elizabeth McCausland, who also happened to be Abbott’s companion and unfailing supporter. Straying far from the project originally envisaged by the two women, Dutton changed the presentation of the photographs and produced what was a standard tourist guide, breaking the City down into a series of tours, from south to north and from the centre outwards. The text, too, was shorn of its poetic and pedagogical dimensions, leaving only information about the buildings in the pictures.

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The “American scene”

This set of architectural images is completed by a selection of vernacular photographs. In the summer of 1935, Berenice Abbott went on a road trip down to the Southern US in order to create a portrait of a rural world in crisis. Choosing the kind of documentary style that would be the hallmark of the photographic survey launched by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) that same year, she focused on the modest wooden houses and the farmers. Driving around these states with Elizabeth McCausland, Abbott took some two hundred photographs which the two women saw as part of an ambitious photographic portrait of America in book form, although in the end this was never published. A similar fate befell Abbott’s piece on the small towns and villages along Route 1, which she travelled in 1954. Covering approximately 6,500  kilometres as she followed this road along the East Coast of the US, she took some 2,400 photographs, taking in stalls, shops, portraits of farmers, diners and bars and dance halls. Her photography alternated between the documentary aesthetic and Street Photography. With Route 1, Abbott continued to pursue her ambition of representing the whole of the “American scene.”

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Science

Abbott started photographing scientific phenomena in 1939. In 1944 she was recruited by the journal Science Illustrated, where she published some of her own pictures, as head of its photography department. Abbott took a committed, pedagogical approach, seeing her images as a vital bridge between modern science and the general public. In 1957, as a result of the anxiety about national science stirred by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik into outer space, at the height of the Cold War, the National Science Foundation set up a Physical Science Study Committee at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its role was to develop new textbooks for the teaching of science in schools and to use innovative photographs to illustrate the principles of quantum mechanics. Abbott was hired by MIT to produce photographs for the popularisation and teaching of the sciences. Using abstract forms to visually express complex mechanical concepts and invisible mechanical laws, she used black grounds to reveal principles such as gravity and light waves. The exhibition features a score of Abbott’s scientific and experimental images, as well as some of the books for which they were used. Harking back to the experiments of the avant-gardes, and in particular the rayogram technique, she was able to produce visually attractive and surprising images that were also rich in discovery, thus combining documentary information with a sense of wonder.”

Text by Gaëlle Morel, curator of the exhibition, on the Jeu de Paume website

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Berenice Abbott
Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, New York City, October 24, 1935
1935
Gelatin silver print
19 x 24.5 cm
Museum of the City of New York
Gift of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

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Berenice Abbott
Sunoco Station, Trenton, New Jersey
1954
Gelatin silver print
19 x 24.5 cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

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Berenice Abbott
Gunsmith and Police Department Headquarters, 6 Centre Market Place and 240 Centre Street, New York City, February 4, 1937
1937 
Gelatin silver print
19 x 24.5 cm
Museum of the City of New York
Gift of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

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Berenice Abbott
Happy’s Refreshment Stand, Daytona Beach, Florida
1954
Gelatin silver print
29.5 x 28 cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

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Berenice Abbott
Miner, Greenview, West Virginia
1935
Gelatin silver print
25 x 19 cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

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Jeu de Paume
1, place de la Concorde
75008 Paris
métro Concorde
T: 01 47 03 12 50

Opening hours:
Tuesday: 12:00 – 21:00
Wednesday – Friday: 12:00 – 19:00
Saturday and Sunday: 10:00 – 19:00
Closed Monday

Jeu de Paume website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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