Berenice Abbott

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Berenice Abbott: No Frills

Born in 1898 in Springfield Ohio, Berenice Abbott posed nude for her compatriot Man Ray when she was johjhis assistant in Paris. It was Man Ray who taught her the arts of portraiture and of the dark room, and through him she met Eugène Atget, one of her neighbours on the rue Campagne-Première in the 14th arrondissement. "The shock of realism unadorned" she would later say of his prints. At his death, she purchased a number of his works, later selling them to the MoMA in New York in 1968 after having paid homage to them throughout her life, a life that ended in 1991 in Monson, Maine at the age of ninety-three.

If it is impossible to talk about Abbott without mentioning Atget it is because the young American had a particular attachment to the elder Frenchman, a genuine investment. It was as if Atget, who she said was able to see "the real world with wonderment and surprise", had opened her eyes. Honoring his memory also meant choosing one aesthetic – documentary photography – rather than the pictorialism in fashion, which she found stunted, limited.

Her style was already effective from the very first portraits she made of the American exiles and the bohemians of the Left Bank. The models are seated, gesturing vividly, with striking profiles. There are no starchy effects, no flights of fantasy, only seriousness.She captures more than the whole of her subjects, she captures their super-ego. That fullness lies at the heart of Changing New York, a vast project that she undertook from 1935 to 1939, when she had left France to return to the United States.

It was a difficult return after the crash of 1929, but New York was in full vertical swing, bursting with enthusiasm. Skyscrapers, bridges, shop fronts, this "fantastic" city fit with her human scale. Her representation of New York is free of nostalgia; for her it was about showing "the past bumping into the present". Her photographs are surprising, sometimes invented, like the great hall of Pennsylvania Station whose utter solemnity she manages to evoke, as if the station were a film set waiting for movie stars rather than ordinary passengers. She found success with Changing New York.

Later on, she travelled up and down the East Coast from Maine to Florida on Route 1, and from 1958 to 1961 she worked for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, indulging in the scientific passion she had discovered in 1939. Out of context, her hypnotic views reveal invisible experiences, magnetic fields for example, and unknown planets being born, a bullet ricocheting. They form a dialogue between imperceptible matter and a technician enamored of physics.

"The truth is hard to find. It takes a lot of work", Abbot, an avid ping-pong player, confided to the New York Times on February 17, 1983. She had once imagined herself becoming a journalist. Through photography, Berenice Abbott imposed her critical vision, paradoxically rich with a certain austerity. No, there are no frills. She goes toe to toe with reality, without losing her footing.

Brigitte Ollier, 2016