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Books: Berenice Abbott's Paris Portraits

By David Schonauer   Tuesday November 29, 2016


It started, you might say, with a haircut.

After graduating from high school in Springfield, Ohio, Berenice Abbott went to a barber and had him cut off the long braid hanging down her back. “It was this first stylistic step that would give Abbott her new and liberating identity,” notes Thea Hawlin at the AnOther  blog. Abbott moved to New York’s Greenwich Village in 1918 and plunged into its bohemian life. “A handful of students from New York at once mistook me for a ‘sophisticate,’” Abbott wrote. “We became friends, and a new life began for me.”

In New York Abbott met Marcel Duchamp and Emmanuel Radnitzky, aka Man Ray, teaching both of them how to dance. French writer Jean Cocteau declared that Abbott “exposes her delicious memory. She is a chess game between light and shadow.”

In the spring of 1921, Abbott was advised by a friend to go to Paris. The friend was Dadaist artist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and Abbott took her advice. In France she began studying sculpture but also became involved with Dadaist publications. To support herself, she tools jobs modeling for artists, including her old friend Man Ray, who had also moved to Paris.

Then one day she learned that Man Ray was looking for a darkroom assistant who “understood nothing about photography.” She began working for him right away. “I never wanted to do anything else,” she later noted.

Thus was launched the career of one of the 20th century’s great photographers. Abbot focused on shooting portraits and ended up photographing some of the most celebrated artists and writers of the day, including Marie Laurencin, Jean Cocteau, Peggy Guggenheim and James Joyce. Within a year, her was being exhibited and acclaimed. Her early years as a photographer are the subject of a new book from Steidl, Berenice Abbott: Paris Portraits 1925-1930.

The book is the first in a series that will explore Abbott’s entire career.Today Abbott is known best for her later images of New York’s skyline and scientific photography — she became the photo editor of Science Illustrated in 1944. The new book sheds light on her formative years as a photographer.

“Abbott was a pioneering force in photography throughout her life and one of the most influential female photographers working in a male-dominated profession,” notes Hawlin. “Unlike her mentor Man Ray, it is Abbott’s acute clarity that makes her photography so compelling. Rejecting experimental techniques such as distortion and double exposure, which were so fashionable at the time, Abbott opted for simplistic and naturalistic settings and poses.”

Above: Abbott's portraits of Princess Eugène Murat and photographer Eugène Atget

Her minimalist aesthetic led the eye straight to the subject’s body language and facial expression, noted the New York Times  in 2015: “Once in the darkroom, she often cropped drastically, removing unwanted elements. She was not attempting to correct mistakes, but was acting deliberately. Using a long focal length eliminated distortions, and lighting always served a calculated purpose.”

Above: Abbott's portraits of James Joyce and his daughter Lucia Joyce


Abbott, the girl who had her hair lopped off, studied her human subjects with an astute and almost unsentimental rigor, as she would later do with buildings. “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,” she would say later.

Above: Abbott's portrait of Peggy Guggenheim. At top: her portrait of Jean Cocteau

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