Berenice Abbott, New York, November 19371937 by Carl Van Vechten

No good deed goes unpunished. If you find that "truism" hard to accept, read the new biography of Berenice Abbott by Julia Van Haaften. Abbott (1898-1991) was no stranger to misfortune.

Consider Berenice Abbott's 1928 photo of James Joyce. It is one of the greatest portrait photographs every taken. Yet Abbot was referred to as a "girl" photographer when she was in her forties over a decade later. Had she been a man, Abbott would have been compared to Gainsborough or Ingres.

...Recognition of her incredible skill and artistic vision did not improve when Abbott returned to the US from France in 1929. She pioneered the type of documentary photos that were to become a government-subsidized art form during the New Deal years. Yet, Abbott was dumped from the WPA payroll (along with most of the other photographers on staff) when Congress cut funding in 1939 for this remarkable cultural initiative.

After pioneering new technical methods and creating a distinguished body of scientific photos, Abbott was hired by the Physical Sciences Study Committee (PSSC) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1958. America was reeling from the shock of the Soviet Sputnik satellite launch. The PSSC planned a series of textbooks to interest America's young people in the sciences. After supplying brilliant images for the project, Abbott was not even credited in one of the textbooks. The quality of photo reproduction was execrable and her contract was not renewed. Abbott was "too artsey" according to one of the PSSC bureaucrats.

Even the Museum of Modern Art managed to botch the retrospective it mounted of Abbott's photos in 1970.

Despite this catalog of woe, the tone of this account of Abbott's life is anything but bitter. Solidly-researched, filled with perceptive insights into Abbott's character and career, this biography is truly definitive. Abbott may have been unlucky and unappreciated in life. But she could not have asked for a better biographer than Julia Van Haaften.

This superb, much-needed book is founded upon a crucial decision by Van Haaften. Her theme was Abbott's life and she refrained from a "life and times" treatment. The temptation to take this approach must have been very difficult for Van Haaften to resist.

How easy it would have been to use Abbott's life as a framework for yet another retelling of the saga of Modernism. The Ohio-born Abbott was a "poster girl" for the mid-Western students who flocked to the "Village" during World War I. She lived the ex-pat life in 1920s Paris and was a charter member of the New York scene during the 1930s and 1940s. Abbott knew everybody.

Abbott, except very briefly as a photo assistant to Man Ray during the early 1920's, was a major, independent artist. She was nobody's "girl."

"I'm not a nice girl," Abbott told a New York City official who warned her against taking pictures of the "skid row" at the Bowery. "I'm a photographer."

As a photographer, Abbott excelled in capturing the "spirit of the place" in the same way that William Hazlitt's incomparable essays had conveyed the "spirit of the age" one hundred years before. Unblinking realism was matched by her aptitude to catch the ineffable spark of individuality in her portraits of the Paris literati and her neighborhood scenes in New York City....

Ed Voves
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