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This category contains the following articles
Grammar of the Everyday: Notes on Roman Ondák
Curtain up - The Premiere of Frieze New York
Sober Beauty: The Photographs of Berenice Abbott
No Place like Home - The 2012 Whitney Biennial
Gate to the Present - Wilhelm Sasnal in the Haus der Kunst in Munich
“Color in outer space is nonsense, in any case.”: Tracing Thomas Ruff’s Work
An interview with Brendan Fernandes
A visit to the Städel Museum’s new Garden Halls
An Interview with Städel Director Max Hollein
Elegant Solutions: Gerhard Richter in Berlin and Frankfurt

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Sober Beauty
The Photographs of Berenice Abbott


“Changing New York” is generally considered to be one of the most important photographic projects ever made. Between the years 1935 and 1939, Berenice Abbott documented the rapid change American cities were undergoing at the time. Now, the Jeu de Paume in Paris dedicates a retrospective to the photographer, many of whose works are part of the Deutsche Bank Collection. Achim Drucks on an artist with an unerring eye for the beauty of reality.


“The world doesn’t like independent women. Why, I don’t know, but I don’t care.” At the age of 92, these are the laconic words Berenice Abbott used to sum up her life experience. Before her death in 1991, the photographer had a sixty-year career behind her—beginning with her initial success as a portrait photographer in Paris, followed by the huge project Changing New York and her pioneering work as a scientific photographer, and culminating in a major retrospective at the MoMA. Now, the fruits of Abbott’s artistic career can be seen at the Jeu de Paume. The Paris museum has dedicated a magnificent exhibition to her work that will subsequently travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Among the more than 120 original prints on show are her famous architectural and street scenes, early portraits, and little-known photographs made in the summer of 1954 during a trip up Route 1 from Florida to Maine—a fascinating record of the American way of life in an era of resounding optimism. A selection of Abbott’s works will soon be on view in Hamburg in the exhibition New York Photography 1890-1950 at the Bucerius Kunst Forum, which naturally includes her iconic images of the metropolis.

Abbott always went her way with courage and determination. Originally from Springfield, Ohio, Abbott, who many years later would live with her girlfriend, the art critic Elizabeth McCausland, was indifferent to social conventions. “The day I graduated from Lincoln High School… I had the barber cut off the long, thick braid which hung down my back… My bobbed hair startled the campus. A handful of students from New York at once mistook me for a ‘sophisticate.’ We became friends, and a new life began for me.” And this life led her out of the boondocks and straight into the center of the American avant-garde—to New York, the “homeland of the uprooted,” as her friend, the writer Malcolm Cowley, called it. At first she wrote, and then she tried her hand at sculpture. She belonged to the bohemian scene of Greenwich Village, was roommates with the author Djuna Barnes, taught Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp how to dance. The eccentric “Dada Baroness” and living work of art Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven—who wore tea balls as earrings and tomato cans for a bra—advised Abbott to go to Paris, the hub of modernism at the time and an even more inspiring environment for art.

In the spring of 1921, the 22-year-old boarded a ship to France. In Paris, she happened upon her artistic medium entirely by chance when she met Man Ray on the street, who had also just moved there. He was looking for a darkroom assistant that “understood nothing about photography,” and Abbott took the job. When Man Ray discovered her talent, he allowed her to take her own photographs in his studio. Like her mentor, she first worked in portraits; as her success grew, she was soon able to open her own studio, where she photographed artists and writers like Cocteau and Joyce while refining her style. Whereas Man Ray often used experimental techniques such as distortion and double exposure, Abbott posed her models before simple backgrounds and emphasized the natural and spontaneous. She staunchly opposed the soft, blurry images of the Pictorialists that resembled Impressionist paintings and dominated the photographic aesthetic of the time. Instead, Abbott found the soberness that she so valued in the works of Eugène Atget, who had tirelessly photographed the streets, buildings, and storefront windows of the French capital. She had met the photographer shortly before he died; afterwards, despite her limited means, she purchased a part of his legacy. In 1929, she returned to New York in search of a publisher for her mentor. After eight years abroad, it had turned into a different city: a metropolis currently undergoing its second skyscraper boom. “New York is wretched and opulent, with its countless tiny brick houses squatting beneath the marble palaces which house banks and industrial offices,” wrote Bernard Fay in his book of the time, The American Experiment. For the French historian, “New York is the only city sufficiently wealthy to be modern.” Abbott realized immediately that the rapidly changing metropolis with its wealth of contrasts offered motifs that were far more exciting and contemporary than any studio portrait; she decided to return.  

“The truly modern artist regards the metropolis as an embodiment of abstract life,” said Piet Mondrian in 1919. “It is closer to him than nature, it will give him an emotion of beauty. For in the metropolis, nature has already been straightened out and regulated by the human spirit. The proportions and the rhythm of planes and lines, will mean more to him that the capriciousness of nature. In the metropolis, beauty expresses itself more mathematically.” But painting did not seem to be the appropriate medium to record the dynamics of the big city. Photography and film, the two young, “mechanical” arts, had a greater affinity to the phenomena of the machine age, whose social changes primarily manifested themselves in the urban environment. Life on the streets, skyscrapers reaching up to the sky, cars, storefront windows, advertisements—everything stood for movement and change. Work and everyday life were mechanized, and the arts followed suit. “Photography fits in with the speed of our time,” said Abbott. “It is a realistic medium appropriate to a realistic and scientific age.”

Abbott’s new images were a synthesis of Atget’s Paris typology, the visual language of modernism, and a straight aesthetic, paired with an “unsentimental love” for her new home town. While Atget looked back nostalgically to “old Paris,” Abbott was far more interested in the present and, as she formulated it, “realism—real life—the now.” She developed the idea for a work that can only be compared to August Sander’s photo project People of the 20th Century. While Sander tried to document the spectrum of the various social and professional circles of the Weimar Republic, Abbott’s Changing New York is a portrait of a metropolis in a state of flux. She spent a good deal of time looking for financial support for her proposal until the Federal Art Project (FAP), a governmental support program for fine artists, enabled her to immerse herself in her ambitious plan from 1935 to 1939.

To achieve her idea of a realistic photograph, Abbott abandoned the 35-mm camera she used to make her first pictures, such as Building New York (1929), a picture of a skyscraper under construction with differently structured geometric surfaces and lighting that quotes the formal language of Cubism. But the quality of the prints possible with a 35-mm. negative did not meet her expectations, and so she decided to photograph with a large-format 18 x 24 cm. camera. This meant that she now had to work with a tripod and a black cloth—and 66 lbs. of equipment. She sacrificed the flexibility of the 35 mm-camera for the immense wealth of detail and depth of field that could be achieved with a larger negative. This decision also changed her choice of motif: she moved away from representing the speed of the American way of life in favor of more static images that focus on the architecture rather than the people. With her “artless” style, she deliberately chose to set herself apart from the artificiality that was fashionable at the time.

The “mathematical beauty” propagated by Mondrian also characterizes Abbott’s photographs in the Deutsche Bank Collection, such as Theoline, Pier 11, East River, N.Y. (1936) and Rockefeller Center (1932). The tall Art Déco building rises up like a gigantic, finely chiseled crystal—a perfect symbol for the cool aesthetic of the technical age. The photograph of the schooner Theoline on Pier 11 with the Manhattan skyline in the background is a masterpiece of composition. The tangle of diagonals and verticals—ship masts, rigging, the buildings in the background—is grounded by the deck in the lower portion of the photograph. Together with the depth of field that reaches from the sail in the foreground to the skyscrapers on the river bank, this compositional ground ensures that the image coheres. The motif presented a serious challenge to Abbott: “This boat was rising and lowering, and I had a tremendous depth of field to cope with here. All these lines which I wanted very clear. When the boat was up, the buildings would go down, so it was all very carefully and slowly arranged.”

One of her most spectacular photographs of the city also required elaborate preparations. New York at Night was supposed to show the nighttime city from a bird’s-eye view, illuminated by the light of countless offices. But most employees only work until 5 p.m., and the lights are turned off after that. In order to photograph the motif the way she envisioned, Abbott had to choose the day of the year when it gets dark the earliest. Her chance came on December 20, 1934: she had found a building that provided the view she sought of Manhattan. She succeeded in talking the landlord in letting her photograph from a window; only a building’s interior would provide an environment free of vibrations, enabling her to expose the negative for 15 minutes without blurring. Luckily, the weather was fine and she took a picture that would become iconic.  

Due to political pressure, the Federal Art Project slowly ground to a halt in 1939 and could no longer fund Abbott’s project. Although Changing New York wasn’t anything close to finished, she had to turn to a new theme. She began taking photographs of scientific experiments. A logical step, because for Abbott, photography is “an offspring of both science and art.” These pictures are also striking due to their “mathematical beauty.” The scientific photography culminated in the images she made in 1958 for the Physical Science Study Committee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and for physics textbooks. They visualize themes such as gravity, kinetic energy, and electricity. The photographs of light waves refracted by a triangular glass plate and the trajectory of a pendulum’s ball before a black background are at once precise documentation and unusually elegant, abstract compositions whose aesthetic drew on Man Ray’s experimental photography of the 1920s. Yet Abbott was not interested in creating “art,” but in elucidating scientific principles.

Whether she recorded the changes in New York or physical phenomena, Abbott’s works document the self-evident visual power of highly skilled straight photography. She herself summed it up in her characteristically laconic way: “People say they have to express their emotions. I’m sick of that. Photography doesn’t teach you how to express your emotions; it teaches you how to see.”

Berenice Abbott
2/21–4/29/2012
Jeu de Paume, Paris

New York Photography 1890–1950—From Stieglitz to Man Ray

May 17, 2012—September 2, 2012
Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hamburg




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On View
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