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The puzzle that is Berenice Abbott

The first full-length biography of Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), a seminal point of reference for photography of urban architecture, has all the facts but no answers as to what made her tick.


Sean Sheehan


She came from a broken home – her father committed suicide – and attended Ohio State University before leaving for New York and then departing for Paris on a one-way ticket. Once there, she mixed with artists like Duchamp and Man Ray and set up her own studio. Her Paris photographs of James, Nora and Lucia Joyce are peerless.

Eugène Atget’s pioneering documentary photographs of street life and architecture was the decisive influence on Abbott’s work. She returned to the USA in 1929 and opened a portrait studio to earn a living. Photographing New York in the spirit of Atget, she took what proved to be signature shots of the city’s urban design, cropping them for maximum visual impact.. Her “Night View, New York” (1932), using a 15-minute exposure, remains one of her most famous photographs.

For someone of her time and experience, Abbott surely developed her own politics but they remain opaque. Her biographer writes about her left-wing leanings but provides scant evidence – although she was investigated by the FBI after being anonymously identified as a communist.

Blossom Restaurant Berenice Abbott 1935. Wikimedia Commons

Apartheid South Africa seems not to have bothered her when, seeking to convert her cash to gold, she made trips to Canada to buy Krugerrands and smuggle them back across the border (later, her house was burgled and they were all stolen).

Abbott learnt to keep aspects of her life private – being a lesbian and living with another woman was not something to shout about at the time – and maybe this became a general habit.

We learn little about what was going on inside her head though whether this is due to a lack of source material or the biographer’s reluctance to probe and speculate is difficult to say.

A  drawback to Julia Van Haaften’s book is its contentment with chronicling what she did in each year of her long life and the various commissions she gained and lost.

Eugène Atget Three Prostitutes from a print owned by Berenice Abbott Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons

What is interesting are odd little facts that crop up along the way, as when we learn that in the tiny loft apartment she shared for thirty years with her long-term partner there was no shower or tub. They managed with sponge baths using a small sink and plenty of towels on the floor.

Berenice Abbott remained remarkably self-contained and her personality only comes across in snatches.

She often appears intemperate and guarded, with few smooth edges, and the reader is left feeling curious and wanting to know more. But if what Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar said is true – “We are after all ignorant of one another, presenting selected fictions to each other” – perhaps Abbott chose instead to take pictures of the non-fictional and leave it at that. We are left with her photographs and this is more than enough.

“Berenice Abbott: A Life in Photography”, by Julia Van Haaften, published by W. W. Norton and Company.


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