Thursday, November 6, 2008

Berenice Abbott two-volume slipcase set from Steidl

I find it interesting when a book makes you sit up and reassess an artist that you may have not been interested in before. For me, Berenice Abbott was important because of her recognition of Eugene Atget as one of the greatest artists of his time and her work to preserve his archive. Her photography, mostly of old New York, always took a backseat. Turns out Steidl and Commerce Graphics have just published a two-volume, slipcased retrospective that is so well done I can't believe I could have so easily averted me eyes before.

Volume I is dedicated to Abbott's early work, portraits and scientific photographs while Volume II covers the 27 years of work that made up her monumental Changing New York project.

In 1924, Abbott, who had left the United States for Paris three years earlier, met Man Ray who was looking for a photo assistant for his successful commercial studio -- someone with as little photo experience as possible so he could train them to his specific process without resistance. This was her entre into a seventy year career as a photographer. She worked under Man Ray for a few years until breaking off on her own as a portrait photographer and it was during these years as an assistant that she discovered the photographs of Eugene Atget. Turned out that Atget's studio was very close to Man Ray's and Abbott would rapidly become fascinated with the older photographer's studies of Paris at the turn of that century. Later, it would be Abbott that would find a publisher for the first book of Atget published three years after his death, Photographe de Paris.

In 1929, Abbott returned to New York and under the influence of the scope of Atget's Paris work, she embarked on her now famous project documenting New York City's energy and evolution. For me, it is the second volume of this slipcased set, concentrating on the New York work, that is most interesting.

Using a Century Universal 8x10 with a 9.5 inch Goertz Dagor lens she described the storefronts, streets, signage, residential neighborhoods and in some cases, the people of NYC. Working out the technical concerns on the ground while working, she later found funding through the Federal Arts Project for a few years. To Abbott, she was not just photographing buildings but analyzing each element of an urban environ, including its history. "The tempo of the metropolis is not of an eternity, or even time, but of the vanishing instant."

It is this quote that for me takes on such significance, for if it were not for artists like Abbott, or Atget before her, who describe these cities with such eloquence and exhaustiveness, then we wouldn't have the same understandings of transformation and history as we do now. The spirit of the ages reflected in their photographs is part of what defines those images -- part of why it is so important that they exist. Modern urban photographers, even those working in the stylistic footsteps of others, are, in the least, providing visual statements that work in similar ways.

As a set, this is the definitive collection of 268 tritone reproductions. Richly printed, everything from the paper stock to the tip-on reproductions on the book covers is elegant and seductive. The images sit on the right-hand side of the page spreads and are often accompanied by short texts from Abbott regarding the making of the individual images. Hank O'Neal provides a fine essay on Abbott life and practice in Volume I.

Abbott lived to 93 and pursued several projects until around the 1980's, still, it is the New York work that stands out as her finest achievement. One of the the most sobering lessons to be learned from Atget is one of ambition. Perhaps his dismissal of traditional concerns of creating "art" or of being an "artist" ("these are documents I make for artists"), the most liberating. Fueled by both, Abbott shifted Atget's lament of the past towards the optimism of a progressive, post-depression future filled with modernist marvels. Both were intoxicated with cities and, after great effort, left behind their documents for artists and historians alike.

PS: This is my Atget print that hangs at the front door of my apartment. It is the first thing I see when coming in from the world and last thing before venturing out into it. In that location, it seems to pose more of a challenge than inspiration. Maybe I should move it.