Berenice Abbott Retrospective Photography Exhibition in Paris, France
The Jeu de Paume museum in Paris is hosting a retrospective of Berenice Abbott. Having taught university courses for nearly twenty years, her name has come up with some frequency in classes and I often felt a little embarrassed that I usually was only presenting her as the person who played such an important role in saving the work of Eugene Atget after he died. I knew especially her project on New York city which was an effort to capture and save images of the disappearing parts of New York in the 1930s just as Atget had done with Paris from the end of the 19th century into the 1920s. But I never found myself particularly struck with the strength of her work. This retrospective, then, was a chance to finally see a full cross section of her work so that I might see if she measured up to her teachers.
Sadly, while there are some quite beautiful images, more often than not the photos don’t have the same spark as many of her influences–Atget, Walker Evans, Paul Strand. This, then, raises the question of what exactly holds her work back. There are undoubtedly countless reasons and different ones for different photographs. One could imagine that maybe for an American like myself the photos of Paris might have a greater inherent appeal than anything from New York–even from a New York I never saw. However, there are other photographers–notably Strand–who took some very striking images of New York. And I should add, Abbott does seem at her best when photographing New York although she does best with dramatic architecture and not so well as Walker Evans with more modest structures. Like Walker Evans, she sometimes plays with photographing signage–and sometimes there’s an interesting element there but her successes seem much less frequent than Evans. Too often her buildings seem to lack character. They’re just neutral structures and we don’t necessarily feel what it is that made her stop and set up her camera to take the picture. The print quality is sometimes quite beautiful and most of the time it’s quite passable and yet there aren’t many pictures that have a glowing quality.
Where she seemed least confident or skilled was in photographing people in a somewhat documentarian manner. It’s unclear if she didn’t spend enough time looking, if she was too tentative and so shot too fast or what but more often than not the people don’t seem to be an important part of the photos. They’re a presence but they don’t come across as overly intriguing. She didn’t have the talent of a Helen Levitt, for example, to find really striking interactions between humans and their environment. In the end I’m led to feel she might not always have pushed herself enough to try to capture the essence of something. She gets closest when she’s dealing with architecture but she doesn’t seem to have had the poetic talent that Atget had. Somehow with Atget there was an energy that seemed to emanate from the buildings and streets he photographed whereas with Abbott too often the buildings seem lifeless. Maybe she wasn’t enough in love with New York or architecture in general to really show these buildings as powerful identities. With Atget every paving stone seems to have a story to tell.