The Ongoing Moment

TO BE IN THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME—nothing requires and activates this bromide as much as photography. And there, then—in the center of it all in New York and Paris, and yet out of the picture, behind the camera—was the photographer Berenice Abbott (1898–1991). “The photographer’s punctilio is his recognition of the now—to see it so clearly that he looks through it to the past and senses the future,” she wrote in 1964. Many of Abbott’s best projects, such as her famous series “Changing New York,” shot over ten years beginning in 1932, are rooted in a perpetual pursuit of finding the right position from which to capture the frank reality of a particular place and time. And though she might return to the same location, she never took a sentimental view.

In Abbott’s process, the past functions as something extra: the material that gets snagged while she is out trawling for the living, flapping, present. And that present had become, as she described in 1951, an accelerated modernism at “the brink of a realistic age as never before”; therefore, she urged her fellow photographers, “a greater responsibility is put on us.” Through the composition and content of her photographs, Abbott declared war on the two poles of photography that she found most capricious: the “plague” of romanticizing pictorialism at the start of the twentieth century (in which photography tries too hard to be “art”), and the “hackneyed” whimsy of the amateur enthusiast at midcentury (in which photography tries too little to be anything). She declared that the medium required “an inordinate amount of hard physical work, even drudgery.”

Now we get to discover anew our debt to this hard work with Steidl’s The Unknown Berenice Abbott, edited by Ron Kurtz and Hank O’Neal, a five-volume, linen-bound anthology covering over three decades of the photographer’s production (including her most obscure commissions and unrealized projects): New York (1929–31), The American Scene (1930–35), Deep Woods (1943, 1966–67), Greenwich Village (1935–50), and U.S. 1, U.S.A. (1954). The whole slipcased set is challenging to lift, but each album alone is a pleasing measure, almost square, perfect for slow browsing. And the collection’s heft feels appropriate to a photographer who once built a camera prototype the size of a walk-in closet in her studio—to get a crisper image, of course.

Presenting the “unknown” artist typically implies the discovery of a worthy but under-recognized figure—the Vivian Maiers of the world—or uncovering the “less known” side of an established artist. The latter is the case here, to a point: Many of the photographs have been seen before—in magazines, gallery shows, or books—but reached only a small audience before spending half a century in shoe boxes. This anthology doesn’t really touch on Abbott’s fascinating peripheral endeavors: as a writer, inventor, science photographer, and vocal advocate for documentary photography throughout a long career. She even founded, in 1947, a commercial enterprise, House of Photography, which filed three patents (including one for the giant “supersight” camera mentioned above) but was never financially viable. O’Neal’s 1982 book Berenice Abbott: American Photographer delves a little deeper into these subjects, as does Terri Weissman’s 2011 The Realisms of Berenice Abbott. Instead, this collection cuts to the chase, beautifully reproducing Abbott’s photos, one to each spread, with a descriptive title printed on the left page and the image alone on the right.


Certain photographs include brief comments from Abbott; these annotations underscore how carefully she considered each view, even if just of a doorway in an empty street. And while almost all of the images here are in her signature black-and-white—color “crowds the picture,” she once wrote—volume 5 does offer a few, never-before-published exceptions to the rule, including the intense, complementary juxtaposition of a barefoot worker dressed in red in a bright-green tobacco field, and the universal pop Americana of faded Coca-Cola billboards and flags. The more we see of Abbott’s oeuvre, the more we realize that while its space is expansive, its scale (even when picturing a cluster of skyscrapers or ponderosa pines) is against grandness. Her photographs locate a visual detail at work in the world, and let it slowly activate an ordinary scene, whether it’s the shadow of a building, falling hard and flat against another, or the synchronous expression in the eyes of a birdsmith and his dog.

AS A YOUNG WOMAN, Abbott moved from Ohio to New York, dropped out of Columbia after a week of classes, roomed with the writer Djuna Barnes, and drank with a group that included Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven—who encouraged Abbott to go to France. So she did, to pursue sculpture, but then ended up working as an assistant in Man Ray’s photography studio. Before a trip to Amsterdam, he lent her a small camera; upon her return, she began photographing friends while on her lunch break, and soon set up her own portrait practice. These photographs were less staged than Man Ray’s, with an unaccessorized directness. She exhibited in the First Independent Salon of Photographers in 1928 and received a glowing review. In Man Ray’s studio, she also first encountered the prints of Eugène Atget, and experienced what she described as “a sudden flash of recognition—the shock of realism unadorned.” When she discovered that the elderly photographer’s studio was only just down the street, she headed over to pay her respects, up four flights of stairs to his humble apartment, with its “Documents pour artistes” sign on the door. Abbott ended up photographing the photographer, and collecting as many of his prints as she could afford. Atget died soon after, but Abbott remained a lifelong champion of his work and helped establish his reputation in the United States.

Returning to New York in 1929 with a handheld Curt Bentzin camera, which she later supplemented with an 8 x 10" Century Universal view camera and a Rolleiflex, she sought out her own way of photographing a city; not like Atget, exactly, but inspired by his scrupulous eye for grace in the ordinary or the obscure. Abbott’s viewpoint, both in her writing and in her handling of the camera, also reflects the new Soviet school of photography, led by Aleksandr Rodchenko, with its focus on radical perspectives and making “photo-moments of documentary, not artistic, value.” “Only the camera is able to reflect contemporary life,” Rodchenko declared in 1928, a rallying cry Abbott would also take up: “I believe there is no more creative medium than photography to re-create the living world of our time,” she wrote. She set up a studio practice, but allowed herself Wednesdays for wandering around the streets and taking her own pictures.

These are the photographs that fill volume 1 (all but fifteen have never been published before). Abbott’s New York City is ours, too: Chinatown, Harlem, Coney Island, Greenwich Village, Wall Street. New York is flags limp on poles, stolen views of rooftops, cranes and construction sites, buildings razed and raised, a city where everything—oysters, dolls, shirts out of a suitcase, fans—is for sale on the sidewalk. “For what our age needs is a broad, human art, as wide as the world of human knowledge and action; photography cannot explore too far or probe too deeply to meet this need,” she wrote in 1941. She covered every borough from subway to roof-deck, and captured it all in her straightforward style.

It was during these peregrinations that she had the idea for recording the city in flux through “Changing New York.” Even that project involved “drudgery”: A 1932 proposal to the New-York Historical Society was rejected, and it would not be until 1937, under the auspices of the Federal Art Project, that 110 photographs from the series were displayed at the Museum of the City of New York; in 1939, a photo book of the same name, with ninety-seven photos and captions by the art critic Elizabeth McCausland, Abbott’s life partner, was published. Many more projects followed, including her famous series of artists living and working in Greenwich Village, and her later collaboration with scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But there were also decades in which her work was ignored. She taught photography for twenty-three years at the New School in New York, had a job as photo editor at the magazine Science Illustrated, and supplied photographs for the textbook American High School Biology, among other anomalous commissions. In the 1960s she moved to Maine, where she lived for nearly three decades, far from the madding crowd.

A PHOTOGRAPH FROM THE LATE 1920S in volume 1 provides a prime example of the far-reaching contexts and yet unpretentious, unequivocal approach of Abbott’s work. A statue of Abraham Lincoln lies in the dirt, on a plank of a sawhorse, in Union Square, during the park’s renovation. No people are visible; just Lincoln on his back, arms clutched as if in prayer. Our eyes drift to the buildings that surround the square, the block of windows, some open, some with awnings, and, behind the empty pedestal, placards pinned against one facade: “Fight Police Terror, Unemployment, and War Preparations!” A little farther to the right, on the edge of the picture, a column and part of its engraved lettering: “Union.” Like many great works of art, the photograph seems to contain not just its present, but what came before it, and what was still to come—Abbott’s “punctilio.” The Civil War we know through its photo-documentation is everywhere: in the rubble around Union Square Park, the tipped-over sawhorses like barricades, the pieces of stone and scrubby grass and mud in a tonal range of gray, even the associative snippets of legible text. Abbott considered the Civil War albums of Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady to be the great beginnings of photography; here, she pays homage. But this work also looks ahead to street photography some forty years later, with its glancing commentary on history and the unrestful American city. (Lee Friedlander’s 1976 The American Monument is also here.)

Like Maier after her, Abbott prided herself on traveling to the least photogenic neighborhoods and seeing what people do—and how they make do—with the stuff of their lives. In quick succession in volume 1, we encounter tugboats in port with a lone figure sitting on the deck and a man’s overalls and work shirt covered in flaky muck at the fish market. We move from a policeman helping shoppers across Fifth Avenue, to Hooverville in Central Park, where someone has constructed a home from found bricks, Bob White peach crates, towels, and string. In a stunning portrait of two older lumberjacks in volume 3, the entire background is filled with hundreds of stacked logs from a day’s work, like patterned wallpaper. One man stands, hard hat on, hands on hips; the other has taken off his hat for the picture, as if entering a church—or in the presence of a woman, which of course he is—and his hair sticks up in tufts that somehow, against all logic, make him seem dignified out in the forests of Maine. We find more of this engagement with her subjects in volume 5, in an extraordinary series of tobacco workers, including a young girl stringing leaves along a pole (they form a kind of skirt against her body), shirtless men wrestling huge bundles, and an old farmer, his downturned, weather-worn face the same lined texture as the dried plants he holds.

Occasionally, Abbott reflected on the activity of photography through the medium itself. In several images of Daytona Beach, Florida, in the final volume, she captures makeshift photo stands, set up with cardboard Clark Gables or giant fish cutouts, or a strangely out-of-place bull tourists can sit astride. In Miami, she photographed a man taking a picture of his wife and young boy by a fake camel at the kitschy Sahara Motel. These scenes remind us of the quick rise of popular photography for middle-class America following World War II, and of Abbott’s ability to expose its true realism—a mixture of flimsy artifice and hopeful striving.

But volume 5 is most fascinating for its overarching project: to travel Route 1, the highway that runs from Kent, Maine, to Key West, Florida, taking pictures along the way, and create a portrait of the United States over several months in 1954. This potential book, which Abbott called in its mock-up U.S. 1, U.S.A., was never published during her lifetime, though it was her sole photographic activity during the 1950s. In this volume’s brief essay, O’Neal points out that Abbott “shelved” the project due to lack of interest at the exact moment that Robert Frank’s The Americans was first published in 1958. (His iconic cross-country documentation of the United States was supported by a 1954 Guggenheim Fellowship.) Abbott took thousands of photographs on the road, and repetitive groups of images accumulated along the way, including highway-marker signs and endless religious billboards. One of the series’ most compelling features—its sheer volume—is truncated here (understandably), with a few gridded pages in the back of the book hinting at the larger archive. As those of us who have reveled in the serial photographs of Walker Evans, Ad Reinhardt, Ed Ruscha, Sol LeWitt, and Martha Rosler (among many others) have discovered, such thematically driven excesses of the banal or raw landscape can marshal a kind of representation of the limitations in chronicling our position relative to other people and things in the world.

For all their frankness, Abbott’s photographs don’t directly confront a central aspect of the American landscape in the 1950s—its pervasive racial tension. But there are traces of this history along Route 1. A man with an eye patch sits on an old slave block in Virginia talking to a black man who is barely visible, smoking a cigarette behind a pole. A woman walks across a town square in Georgia, where a gazebo is still labeled as a “slave market.” At a segregated water fountain in Jacksonville, Florida, a teenager waits to drink, looking suspiciously back at where Abbott must be standing to take the picture.

Abbott always assumed a specific position—whether advocating for documentary photography, or while literally taking a picture—that pushes the life of the scene to the foreground. Her wonderful 1941 A Guide to Better Photography, edited by McCausland, hints at how her own sharp images were produced (again we might think of Rodchenko): “A chair, door step, roof, window, fire escape, may offer a better height from which to organize your composition,” she advises. And while her photographs can be deceptively matter-of-fact—even, at first glance, boring—they are taken from a vantage that rewards the viewer with some shiver of detail. This is clear in a portrait of an oyster vendor, parked on the Lower East Side, in the act of shucking oysters at his cart. Abbott’s camera placement—behind the cart, looking back to the male customers who are partially obscured by its umbrellas—allows narrative delights to emerge: the planks of wood the short proprietor stands on to bolster his height; the bottles (is it wine? I’d like to think so) cooling in a bucket at his feet; the brooms resting against the cart; the way a well-dressed gentleman, about to eat his oyster, holds it just above the hands of the vendor shucking more.

Abbott believed that the photographer’s responsibility was organic and mechanical: to train her eye through knowing the technical parameters of the field, and to constantly push those limits. Composition was “as closely tied up with the body of the picture as veins and muscles are articulated with the human body.” In her 1964 book on Atget, she discusses in wonderful specificity how he must have achieved certain effects with his pictures, including photographing in wet weather. And hers was a relentless call to arms against settling lazily into the now. “Unless they do their share of growing up to their responsibilities the photographer can languish or take up knitting,” she stated. “What we need of equipment is this: let it possess as good a structure as the real-life content that surrounds us. We need more simplifications to free us for seeing.” Thus she made that huge camera, but also a pinhole camera out of a Quaker Oats box.

That we often forget the woman standing behind the camera—at the base of a giant tree being sawed in half in the dead of winter, or walking alone under the El some bright weekday morning—is perhaps the strongest testament to Abbott’s photography, and gives us another way to read the title of this collection. She never spoke about her gender or sexuality in relation to her art. In the final year of her life, at the age of ninety-two, during an interview for a documentary, she did admit her difficulties as a woman in science in the 1950s. And when she commented that her onetime mentor Man Ray “took some fantastic portraits of men,” while “his women are mostly pretty objects,” she added, “I didn’t think about the male-female thing at the time, but it just turned out the photographs I took were different from his, particularly the women.” In many of Abbott’s pictures that are not studio portraits, she is the only woman in (or really, just outside of) the scene.

But Abbott’s vision of photography kept her musings about gender mostly practical. In her Guide she counsels: “Comfortable clothes with many pockets are certainly desirable. Women, wear small hats, and don’t carry handbags! Keep your hands and arms free for work.” And when a senior official in the Federal Art Project, examining photographs she had taken on the Bowery, opined that “a nice girl should not go into such neighborhoods,” Abbott replied, “I’m not a nice girl, I’m a photographer.”

Prudence Peiffer is an art historian and a senior editor of Artforum. Her forthcoming book is about the photographs of Ad Reinhardt.