At first glance, Berenice Abbott’s art seems distinctly American. Supported by both the public money and spirit of the New Deal, that is to say American social democracy, she captured the patchwork character of New York City’s metropolitan transformation with unequalled attentiveness. Her later work as the preeminent postwar photographer of science does little to undermine this impression; even if science is an international project, the reality of America’s postwar influence was vast (appropriately, Abbott took most of her photographs at MIT, a central juncture of national power and science). Her later pictures of the American South do little to disabuse us of this notion of a domestic, if singular, artist.
But to see Abbott’s style and artistic concern as purely American is to misread both the genesis of her style and the path by which she came to her latter subject matter. In fact, it is only by looking toward the international character of modernism, a movement that she documented, argued with, and ultimately advanced, that we get a clearer picture.
There is no better introduction to this essential period in Abbott’s life than Paris Portraits: 1925–1930 (Steidl). Paris Portraits is a prologue to the five-volume The Unknown Berenice Abbott (2013) and, taken together, they to count as one of essential reconstructions in the last decade of a major photographer’s oeuvre. Paris Portraits is a welcome and sprawling introduction to both the artist and the period.
Like a moth to a summer lamp, Abbott came to Paris in 1923, with an offer from Man Ray to work as his darkroom assistant. She toiled for two years in a role she quickly outgrew (by her own admission, “Man Ray did not teach me photographing techniques”). This was not just due to the minuscule pay, but because although Ray took “fantastic portraits of men . . . his women were mostly just pretty objects.”
Abbott did more than her share to correct this imbalance. Her profile and full-face portraits of the novelist Djuana Barnes are by turns beautiful and stern (they became lifelong friends in New York, as well as lovers of Thelma Wood, who also appears in a touching photo). Another American, Sylvia Beach, the owner of Shakespeare & Co. (perhaps, after the person of Ezra Pound, the physical location of Western literary modernism), appeared at Abbott’s studio in a reflective raincoat, marking an electric contrast to the white background, a motif present in in much of her best early work.
Like Marcel Sternberger, the great master of the early 20th century psychological portrait, Abbott liked to talk with her sitters. She was determined to let them wait, sometimes all day, for the spontaneous moment when his or her personality would come through the artifice of the studio. As the shorthaired and powerfully built Princess Eugene Murat stares out with a cocked eyebrow and a cigarette, it is easy to believe, according to Abbott, that she was a “good subject . . . with a mean streak.”
These figures are both obscure and famous, and sometimes the collocation is striking. James Joyce, handsome and eye-patched, in an image that has rightfully become near universal on the author’s page of Ulysses, looks like a great crowned bird. But no less engaging is what follows: his daughter Lucia, an aspiring dancer (later to be diagnosed with schizophrenia), in four electrifying poses. This commitment to capturing motion recurs throughout the book. In one of the few posed photographs, the American Jazz drummer Buddy Gilmore carries an expression of glee as his sticks descend toward the snare. In the longest series of the collection, Abbott captures Jean Cocteau intertwined in white sheets, performing a simultaneously campy and touching totentanz with a white mask.
Finally, there is a diptych of Eugéne Atget, whose posthumous canonization is primarily thanks to Abbott’s purchase and promotion of his work. Abbott’s photography expands on this French tradition—the interplay between naturalism and displacements of modernist abstraction—that includes not only Atget but also Baudelaire, and the luminous pre-Haussmann street photographer Charles Marville (who, much like Abbott in New York, was commissioned by the city of Paris to document what capitalist modernity was in the process of destroying). In these portraits of Atget, Abbott captures both his vatic quality and the fogginess that accompanied Atget, visionary of Paris, near the end of his life. Of all the stunning portraits in this collection, these stand beyond the rest.