- A Portrait of MaineBy Berenice Abbott
- Berenice Abbott: Changing New YorkOur PickBy Bonnie Yochelson; photographs by Berenice Abbott
- New York in the ThirtiesOur PickBy Elizabeth McCausland; photographs by Berenice Abbott
Important Art by Berenice Abbott
In this portrait, Eugène Atget, with a bemused expression on his face, stares out at the camera. The elderly French photographer presents himself formally dressed in a suit and tie under a thick dark overcoat and in his right hand, which rests on his thigh, he holds a pair of glasses. Yet, the personal interaction between Abbott and Atget is the actual subject of this portrait, partially revealed in Atget's facial expression.
The photo-historian Gaëlle Morel contends that, "through her compositions, Abbott succeeded in formulating a genuine aesthetic, with its rejection of commercial conventions. The absence of décor and the fact that the background is more often than not reduced to a neutral section of wall tend to isolate the subject, emphasizing his or her bearing, physical position, and facial expression."
This portrait is significant since Abbott was the only artist to have taken a formal portrait of Atget. Abbott considered Atget, "...the most important forerunner of the whole modern photographic art." She dedicated part of her career to promoting and including Atget's work into the most important modern photography exhibitions in late twenties and thirties.
Berenice Abbott portrays Jean Cocteau, French surrealist artist, poet, writer, and filmmaker, sitting in bed with a somewhat vacant expression, which mirrors the expression on the paper mâché doll head he cradles in his left arm. Cocteau and the paper mâché doll are covered by a white sheet and the white, neutral color of the bed linens plays off the striped wallpaper on the background wall. As a whole this image echoes the contradictory pairings of objects and humans often found in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte.
This photograph is one in a series of portraits Abbott took of Jean Cocteau, sitting or lying in bed. The series, rather than a single photograph, Abbott contended, could best capture the complexity of a person's character. On another level, it points to Abbott's interest in the interplay between the visible and invisible aspects of character. Cocteau addresses this very issue from a surrealist viewpoint by drawing out the complicated relationship between his body as object and himself as subject. While Cocteau chose to frame himself in this way, Abbott reacted to both his appearance and unconscious self in the taking of the photograph.
Portraiture served as Berenice Abbott's primary livelihood while living in Paris in the mid-1920s. It marks the formative phase of Abbott's realist photography, which she practiced throughout her career. Abbott's approach to the practice of portraiture owes much to Man Ray in terms of flattering soft-focus, artificial lighting to create a sense of mystery and depth, among other details. Yet unlike Man Ray, Abbott used the portrait as a vehicle to reveal the sitter's character, as gleaned through their communicative expression, physical presence, and intellectual depth. Abbott's approach to portraits and her desire to highlight the unique qualities of her subjects can be seen as laying the foundation for artists working today such as Gillian Wearing who uses portraits to make statements about the relationship between public and private identities.
Abbott's photograph depicts the city of New York at night, which is identified in the title. The white of the lights in the buildings and headlights of cars on the streets below contrast starkly with the solid structures of the numerous buildings that dominate the city. Taken between 4:30 and 5:00 pm, when the office lights remained on and the city was slightly darkened, Abbott scouted the exact view from an upper floor of the Empire State building. She calculated the exposure for 15 minutes, using only the light that emanated from the city below. On December 20, 1934, Abbott captured New York at night to represent the emergence of this modern city, characterized here by its illumination, as seen from the dizzying heights of a skyscraper.
Upon returning to America from Paris in 1929, Abbott was immediately struck with New York City. She once stated, "New York is the face of the modern city, bred of industrial centralization. Our age is ruthless, hard, competitive, tense, greedy. It shows as much in the faces of buildings as in the faces of people. That character I have sought to recreate in my photographs." This image, perhaps her most well-known, remains a visually exciting example of the many hundreds of photographs Abbott produced to document New York City, which were published in her book Changing New York (1939).