A Review of Berenice Abbot: A Life in Photography. WW Norton, 2018. Author, Julia Van Haaften.
By Lisa E Davis, PhD
Browsing the shelves of that Left Bank bookstore, in sight of the Seine and Notre Dame, which preserves the name of expatriate American Sylvia Beach’s original Shakespeare and Company (1919-1941), I found a real treasure. A slender volume whose spine read Abbott New York in the Thirties stared up at me. Not Berenice Abbott? I mused and took the book off the shelf.
Berenice’s book had been photographs of Changing New York from 1939, a project of the New Deal Federal Arts Project (FAP, 1935-39)—where artists and civilization counted. But here was a re-edition from 1973, with original photos—compliments of the Museum of the City of New York—and unabridged photo captions by Bernice’s lover and companion of thirty years, art critic Elizabeth McCausland.
They had lived at 50 Commerce Street, a few buildings over from the Cherry Lane Theater. I rushed to the cash register and paid the nominal fee for New York in the Thirties before Shakespeare and Company changed its mind.
Another delectable surprise appeared just a few months ago. It is Julia Van Haaften’s carefully crafted history of the long and complex life of Berenice Abbott—“the most aesthetically versatile and hard-nosed photographer of the twentieth century,” according to her biographer.
Few people could have risen to the challenge this book represents. Van Haaften’s long career as curator of the New York Public Library’s photography collection, and her revolutionary digital initiatives at both the Library and the Museum of the City of New York, helped to prepare her. Previous publications about the history of photography, about Berenice and innovations in the photographic art, set the stage for this undertaking.
Still, it was a formidable task to trace the diverse career and long life of Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). The same energy and determination that kept Berenice going to the end had rescued her early on from a sad broken home and had brought her—when she was still Bernice—to the State University in Columbus, Ohio. There she met people who swept her along with them to the “Center of Everything”—the chapter title in this book—for Berenice’s years in the Greenwich Village of yesteryear. It was a time for “New Women,” the Provincetown Playhouse and Eugene O’Neill, Djuna Barnes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, hard drinking at bars beneath the Sixth Avenue El train, and permission to be a lesbian. From MacDougal to Greenwich Ave. to West 10th, Bernice stayed afloat sharing with friends and considered journalism as a career.
But by 1920, she listed herself as “artist,” and for all artists the next destination in the 1920s was Paris—which was, according to one contemporary, “lousy with art.” But then, as now, art was not a big money-maker. Berenice bought a one-way ticket to France, and struggled at first until she was lucky enough to sign on as assistant in the photography studio of an old friend from New York—Man Ray. She learned her craft well and became the photographer of choice for many of the Paris artistic crowd. Her portrait of James Joyce—whose Ulysses Sylvia Beach of the original Shakespeare and Company had published in 1922—was one of those classics that provided Berenice a bit of money and prestige throughout her career. But Berenice’s big discovery in Paris was the aging photographer Eugene Atget—and the world of fin-de-siècle Paris he had laboriously documented.
At this point in Julia Van Haaften’s narrative, I take down my copy of The World of Atget (1979 edition), with a lengthy introduction by his youthful admirer Berenice Abbott—who returned to New York after his death with literally thousands of his prints and glass plate negatives. They would be a source of inspiration and income for decades. And there can be little doubt that Atget taught her, by example, how to see a city—and to photograph it.
By 1929, it was time for Berenice to go home—“the American who came from Paris,” friends would later call her. She began photographing New York City in the wake of the Great Depression, and galleries organized shows around her work and Atget’s. Times were hard, but Berenice’s luck changed when she met her life-partner Elizabeth McCausland and got a job with the New Deal’s Federal Art Project. A year later, in 1936, Berenice and Elizabeth moved in together, from midtown to 50 Commerce Street, because Village rents were lower. Artists lived there.
First came the publication of Changing New York, then Berenice’s photos of Greenwich Village: To-day and Yesterday (Harper, 1949). She taught photography at the New School, because she needed the money. Both she and Elizabeth collaborated closely with the New York Photo League (1936-51)—that subversive cradle of American documentary photography—in classes and lectures. During the 1950s, Berenice, with her friend Lisette Model and anyone else who was anyone in the photography world, frequented Helen Gee’s Limelight Coffeehouse and Photography Gallery, 91 Seventh Avenue South. It was a Village institution ahead of its time, and the first photo gallery in the country.
But Berenice’s career was drifting north. A job with the Physical Science Study Committee out of MIT—producing innovative photographs to illustrate science texts—gave her financial stability. And it was on the way to her new property in Maine, which became her residence of choice, more exclusively after Elizabeth’s death (1965). Berenice managed to survive long enough to receive well-deserved honors and to see collecting and marketing photographs become a big business. She (and Atget) benefited enormously and, at last, made a little money.
Van Haaften knew Berenice personally in the last years of her life, which perhaps contributes to the intimate tone of this biography. She tells the stories of Paris, the Village and beyond in such detail and with such authority that we feel we have walked beside the protagonists through it all, shared their confidences and travails. And because the author knows the mechanics of early photographic art so well, she can pass them on to a new generation.
Looking back a century—long before the digital vogue, even before hand-held cameras—Van Haaften offers a realistic glimpse into the strength, fortitude, and daring it took to cling to the side of a Manhattan skyscraper for a lengthy exposure. “It wasn’t like today,” as Berenice said many years ago (1980), “when every other person is a photographer.”
See the Jefferson Market Library collection for this remarkable book with its 90 rare photographs, and look online in the NYPL digital photography collection. Berenice’s legacy and Julia Van Haaften’s tribute is the history of photography and yes, it was in Greenwich Village she became inspired.
Dr. Davis is a long time Greenwich Village resident living on Charles St. Ms.Davis has written two very accessible books on Greenwich Village history; “Under the Mink” a novel about the mafia, drag (both male and female), nightclubs, sapphic relationships and tourists. Her most recent is “Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party.”