I sometimes feel that I’ve got into photography too late in my lifetime and other times I just feel that I was born in the wrong era. The latter is true when I look at the brilliant architectural work of Berenice Abbott.
Abbott originally set out to be a sculptor and her university years were aimed at achieving this. She was born in Springfield, Ohio, USA but moved to Paris, France during the 1920s. It was whilst in Paris that she was introduced to the medium of photography when she took a job as a darkroom assistant with the famous Man Ray who wanted someone with no previous experience within the industry.
After working for Ray for a time, Abbott left his employ and set up on her own as a rival portrait photographer. This move proved to be a good one for Abbott as she quickly started to earn a decent living from her work.
It was her previous employer, Ray, who introduced her to a documentary photographer called Eugene Atget who had made it his mission to document the Paris architecture of the time before it was lost to modernization. It was this meeting and the subsequent purchasing of his work following his death shortly after they were introduced that propelled Abbott into the world of architectural photography.
In 1929, Abbott returned to her native country of America but this time she set herself up in New York rather than Ohio. Upon her return, she decided to give up her career as a portrait photographer to concentrate on photographing her new home of New York. Her work photographing the city was undertaken throughout the 1930s which is an era that I find to be very pleasing on the eye with regards to many things such as fashion, architecture, billboards and signs as well as transport. It’ll be the combination of her ability and talent to document this golden age that I find myself drawn to her work. I have no doubt that the fact that I’ve been finding myself more and more attracted to black and white photography and how well it lends itself to the different tones of brickwork and fancy designs of buildings, even before I found out about Abbott, that this is another reason I like her work so much.
The gallery above shows just a few of my favourites images from Abbott’s portfolio. My current favourites are the Greyhound station with the buses parked up waiting to load/unload passengers, the light streaming in through the high windows of Grand Central Station and the street scene with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.
I think it’s the uniformity and patterns of the Greyhound bus station that I like, the striking effective use of the light in the Grand Central Station image and the angle of the street scene to capture the bridge and activity of where people lived out their daily routines in the shadows of such landmarks.
As I’m finding to be the case with many of the artistic photographers I’m researching, Berenice Abbott was of gay sexual orientation. But, unlike many of the gay artistic types, she didn’t like to have this known by every Tom, Dick or Sally. Again, unlike many other gay photographers and artists, Abbott wasn’t interested in incorporating her sexuality in her work. Instead, she prefered to simply take images of a documentary nature around the city in which she lived.
She was also quite straight to the point and wasn’t interested in all the pomp and ceremony that I’m finding can go with artsy types trying to justify their opinions and tell us why something is good and something else is bad. She wasn’t afraid to say what she thought about other famous photographers of the time such as Ansel Adams whose work she referred to as pictures merely of “sticks and rocks” and she described him as a “slick, self-satisfied Californian”…I like this girl even more! She also didn’t like the way her colleagues appeared to be using the poor people of the time to create ‘socially aware images’ and she described them simply as “crying pictures”.
Abbott was a great believer in photography created at the moment the shutter of her large 5×4 format camera was pressed. She didn’t like the abstract and pictorialist styles of photography legends such as Edward Steichen and Alfred Steiglitz. She didn’t mince her words during her criticism of their work either.
When asked if she had any words of wisdom for the photographer of the day she replied with:
“None. They should just go out and photograph and stop talking about it. That’s the only way they are going to find themselves. They can’t do it in their heads – they have to go out and do it in the camera and get it on film”.
This statement is one I need to memorise and learn to live my photography life by. I’d class myself as a procrastinator, which is bad to be as a photographer, and I need to snap out of it, pick my camera up nearly every time I go out and start snapping in the hope that I can “find myself” and improve and discover a style I like and want to progress with.
Finding the brilliance of Berenice Abbott may well be a first step to doing just that!