Fuse #8

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Review of the Day: Berenice Abbott Photographer - An Independent Vision


In the world of children’s biographies, there are gaps where you wouldn’t expect gaps, and bios where you would certainly not expect bios. At the library in which I work we sport a particularly nice collection of photographer's lives. Your kid wants to do a piece on Margaret Bourke-White? We’ve five on her alone (not including the collections of “women photographers” she appears in). How about Dorothea Lange? Yep, we’ve four. So when I saw this new bright n’ shiny book on Berenice Abbott I became curious. Just how many children’s biographies of Berenice Abbott are there in the entire New York Public Library system? Five? Three? Not even. We have one single book for children that mentions Berenice, and even then the title is, “Focus On America: Profiles of Nine Photographers”. I dare say that up until this moment in time, there has not been a single bio of Ms. Abbott worthy of children's consumption. Now all that has changed. Author George Sullivan, best known perhaps for his architectural tribute, “Built To Last”, has written a serviceable biography of a woman who was arguably the best photographer of New York to date.

Born in Springfield, Ohio on July 17, 1898, the story of Abbot begins with an unhappy childhood. She was the youngest of four children and a witness to her mother’s multiple divorces. She attended Ohio State University for a little while, but the siren call of New York City called her away her Sophomore year and she never went back. There she lived the very essence of the Bohemian Greenwich Village life before finally high-tailing it to France to learn sculpture. While in Paris she became a photography assistant to Man Ray and began to take portraits of some of the greats. Having established herself she came BACK to America in 1929. Though she had to handle a great deal of disappointment, trials, and problems, eventually Berenice was able to photograph New York City in the way she wanted, become a premier creator of scientific photographs, and be recognized for her achievements in the end.

Things I didn’t know about Berenice Abbott before I read this book: Here name is pronounced Bear-Uh-Niece. Not Bernice. She also was a prickly personality and, for unknown reasons, never turned to documentary photography like her fellow female photographers. Though she did everything from portraits to the illustration of scientific principles, she really was, in some ways, the first architectural photographer. I had never before quite understood that what Berenice liked were photographs that told the truth. Tricks with the lens and in the darkroom disgusted her. Sullivan does very well with this information. He even goes so far as to speculate how she would have felt about digital photography today (a valid question indeed). Sullivan does a brilliant job at showing both Berenice the photographic pioneer and Berenice the difficult-to-get-along-with personality. At one point she gave a speech at the Aspen Institute of humanistic Studies in Colorado in which she lambasted her old rival Alfred Stieglitz for no particular reason. But what makes Sullivan a rather good biographer is that he can show just how great Abbott’s work was while also showing her cantankerous nature.

Sullivan does not dwell on Berenice’s sexuality much, but he does mention the women she had relationships with and the fact that she was not much taken with men. Of course, in the case of Berenice’s longtime companion Elizabeth McCausland, it’s pretty clear that they were together in spite of Sullivan’s vague phrases that state that they, “formed a relationship that was to last for thirty years”. Still, credit Sullivan with even acknowledging McCausland at all. Many a children’s biographer would probably shy away from such hot topic material in favor of a dry dull text. Some kids may understand what this “relationship” was. Others will definitely not.

If your kids happen to be particularly taken with Abbott’s work (big "if" there), definitely consider showing them Douglas Levere’s particularly accomplished, “New York Changing: Berenice Abbott’s New York” for a bit of latter day compare and contrast. “New York Changing” takes Abbott’s original photographs. Then photographer Douglas Levere set up the exact same came at the exact same location at the same date and time as Abbott did. The result is a stunning series of photographs that show just how New York has come and gone over the years. As biographies go, “Berenice Abbott” does sometimes grow a little dull, but overall it’s a good look at a too-little lauded figure in the realm of photography. Well worth a read and a faithful tribute.

On shelves June 12th.

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