Straightforward and Without Affectation

“Without denying the incisiveness of her portraits and the clarity of her scientific images, Miss Abbott’s major testament and achievement is her documentation of New York City, which for a time was funded by the Federal Art Project of the W.P.A. and which was published in book form in 1939 as ”Changing New York.” These pictures take inspiration from Atget’s comprehensive vision of Paris, but are compositionally of several sorts. Some are contorted, neck-bending views looking up at skyscrapers as if from the bottom of a canyon; others look down on city rooftops from privileged perches. Some are clearly Cubist-inspired, blending signs, streets and facades into a patchwork, flattened whole. The best, however, forsake Cubist foreshortening and bird’s-eye and worm’s-eye views; they are, like the photographer’s best portraits, head on, straightforward and without affectation.” [Andy Grundberg on Berenice Abbott]

Bernice Abbott Penn Station New York City 1937

“Abbott’s ideas about New York were highly influenced by Lewis Mumford’s historical writings from the early 1930s, which divided American history into a series of technological eras. Abbott, like Mumford, was particularly critical of America’s “paleotechnic era”, which, as he described it, emerged at end of the American Civil War, a development called by other historians the Second Industrial Revolution. Like Mumford, Abbott was hopeful that, through urban planning efforts (aided by her photographs), Americans would be able to wrest control of their cities from paleotechnic forces, and bring about what Mumford described as a more humane and human-scaled, “neotechnic era”. Abbott’s agreement with Mumford can be seen especially in the ways that she photographed buildings that had been constructed in the paleotechnic era—before the advent of urban planning. Most often, buildings from this era appear in Abbott’s photographs in compositions that made them look downright menacing.” [Berenice Abbott Wikipedia]

Berenice Abbott New York At Night 1932

Shortly before she took Nightview, Berenice vowed to “rip to pieces” any picture she caught herself making “arty.” She held that “subject matter creates form” but scorned random, meaningless photographs—of “some spit on the sidewalk”—just to “make a big design.” Her Nightview is utterly realistic in the documentary sense: its streets are mappable, its buildings anchored in time. Yet it remains her most sublimely expressive arty image, its luminous beauty offering a fairylike ethereality. She bristled at the notion of emotional photographs, but Nightview makes us feel what she saw.
Teaching this artistic paradox, the style now called documentary Modernism, Berenice required her technically capable students to summon “a creative emotion. Unless you see the subject first, you won’t be able to force the camera … to see the picture for you,” she wrote in 1941. “But if you have seen the picture with your flexible human vision, then you will be on the road to creating with the camera a vision equivalent to your own.” [Julia Van Haaften on Berenice Abbott]

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