ESTRELLA DE DIEGO*
In 1927 Berenice Abbott took front and profile portraits of Eugène Atget, the photographer adored by the Surrealists. It is an amazing interplay that mimics unexpected documentary-style, archive work, almost policelike – in the 19th century style of Bertillon – while also highlighting Abbott’s extraordinary quality as a portraitist of an intellectual, modern class, which she came across for the first time on arriving in Greenwich Village (New York) from her native Ohio.
At that time, Greenwich Village had not yet turned into that chic bohemian neighborhood it would later become.
However, back in 1918, its most avant-garde inhabitants were already trying to turn art, literature and prevailing customs on their head. This was the meeting place for certain, shall we say, “new women”, independent characters who had been exploring gender freedom since the late 19th century. Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven — model, vaudeville artist and incarnation of Dadaism in the United States; the English poet Mina Loy; the American designer and model Clara Tice; or the writer Djuna Barnes – photographed by Abbott – were all seeking their destiny, breaking free from all the established norms, as was Abbott herself.
These are the same “new women” that the photographer found years later in Paris, where she took portraits of other daring figures on the artistic scene – such as Marie Laurencin or Peggy Guggenheim – together with writers like André Gide or Jean Cocteau. Indeed, while these are truly wonderful portraits, it is no less true that she used them to document that segment of the population to which she herself belonged: people who were creative and modern, just like the way she constructed these images.
In all of her snapshots – ranging from her portrait series, her images of New York from the fabulous series Changing New York, with its magnificent portrait of the city, right up to her final scientific works – Berenice Abbott, a friend of Man Ray with whom she took her first steps in photographic techniques, had put forward one clear idea: the old points of view were no longer valid for portraying the new heroes or the new cities.
Just as Atget – so venerated and championed by Abbott in the United States – had done with the streets of Paris, using her camera she pursued that New York which reveals a city turned into a portrait. Moreover, for her a photo is a means to be free, to explore even those places not deemed appropriate for a respectable young woman. “I’m not a decent girl. I’m a photographer. I go anywhere,” she replied on hearing someone express concern for her roaming through such dangerous neighborhoods.
Like her admired Atget, Abbott was to become one of the most fascinating reporters of her time, the novelist of a whole era. “He will be remembered as a historian of urbanism, a genuine romantic, a lover of Paris, a Balzac of the camera, whose lens enables us to weave a magnificent carpet of French civilization,” Abbott said of Atget. She too will be remembered as the chronicler of a whole era.
* Estrella de Diego is professor of the History of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Complutense University of Madrid and an independent curator. In November 2016, she was inducted as a member of the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts.