MADRID — Berenice Abbott aimed her lens at so many 20th-century subjects that her photographs challenge us to rethink modernity itself. With this in mind, Berenice Abbott: Portraits of Modernity at Fundación MAPFRE presents close to 200 of her photographs, organized into three chapters. It starts with portraits of fellow artists in Paris, then shifts to her New York City streetscapes, and concludes with her scientific photography. By changing focus as abruptly as Abbott herself, the exhibition adheres to her credo that photography uncovers objective truths. “Photography doesn’t teach you how to express your emotions,” she famously decreed, “it teaches you how to see.” As a result, it is left to the visitor to deduce a unifying thread from her long take on modernity. To that end, the exhibition helpfully includes hourly screenings of the documentary Berenice Abbott: A View of the 20th Century (1992), featuring many frank autobiographical reflections by Abbott.
Born in 1889, Abbott felt so in tune with the improvisational rhythms of the new century that she hoped to “see out” the whole of it — and by the time she died in 1991, she almost had. Her principal legacy is her positioning of photography as an autonomous art form, breaking ranks with photographers like Frank Eugene and Alfred Stieglitz, who adopted painterly techniques in an effort to bolster its cultural prestige. Such embellishments were heresy to Abbott. She contended that photography ought to rely on its unadulterated technical means, even if its art is permanently “a prisoner to its time.”
But Abbott was never prisoner to her time or place. In 1918, she left her native Ohio and lived among writers and artists in New York’s Greenwich Village, befriending figures like Djuna Barnes and Eugene O’Neill. Aspiring at first to be a journalist and, later, a sculptor, Abbott learned that Paris was more hospitable to free thinkers and artists and moved there after World War I. She took a job developing photographs for fellow expatriate Man Ray who soon suggested she try taking pictures herself. He paid her so poorly that she did, and she was soon in regular demand as a photographer, opening her own studio and becoming a leading documentarian of bohemian Paris.
Portraits of Modernity begins at this juncture. In these early photographs, Abbott’s training in journalism and sculptural art is apparent. She investigates surface and shadow and imposes a monumentalizing stillness, even on some of her most animated subjects. The prominent brow and long face of French novelist André Gide materialize as if brightness itself has been carved from the enveloping darkness. Ever the documentarian, Abbott transforms lighthearted or playful scenes into neutral or impassive atmospheres. As French writer and artist Jean Cocteau is bathed in morning light and hugging a mannequin in bed, the scene’s bracing intimacy becomes a subdued, epicene languor.
Abbott’s solemnity relaxes in her portraits of musicians and women artists. The American writer Janet Flanner gazes nonchalantly, wearing a top hat festooned with two colombina masks; the image perfectly captures the writer’s attentive, sanguine wit. A photograph of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of Abbott’s most frequent subjects, and her close friend, brings together youthful spontaneity and dreamlike saintliness. In another nuanced portrait, the intimidating art patron Peggy Guggenheim smiles shyly as her pet dog lolls, seemingly overjoyed, in her lap.
Her photographs of the aged French photographer Eugene Atget are the most moving. Recently widowed, Atget seems to be staring into his own mortality. His bright eyes form a vivacious contrast to his withered frame and weary posture. In fact, he died soon after the shoot and never lived to see Abbott’s developed prints. But Atget would remain Abbott’s muse, as she reclaimed his style and maintained his work. Atget’s wraithlike pictures of late-19th-century Paris motivated Abbott to turn from portraiture to urban photography. Before leaving Paris for good in the late 1920s, she bought his neglected estate and preserved his legacy, archiving the works and creating prints — many of which are included in Portraits of Modernity to underscore her commitment to Atget’s vision.
Following Atget’s lead, she trained her lens on New York’s rapidly modernizing topography. Like her predecessor, she documented the hidden relation between constructed spaces and human presence, as well as its absence, within a city that runs according to a mysterious internal logic. Funded in part by the Federal Art Project, these photographs literally put her on the map, resulting in an archival commission for the Museum of the City of New York and an accompanying book called Changing New York (1939).
She frames New York City as an evolving marvel of engineering. Her pictures concentrate on how old and new architectural features compete with changing light and shifting shadows to create order within the arbitrary. Her subjects range from Greenwich Village shop windows to sleek midtown Automats and the warm facades of uptown brownstones.
Abbott’s camera exhaustively documents the revival of American capitalism and the resulting civic and state-sponsored developments in New York during the New Deal, symbolized by the construction of the RCA Building and, more dramatically, Rockefeller Center. The latter subject yields some of her most memorable cityscapes: she portrays iron girders being driven into unearthed bedrock while cranes overhead cast crisscrossing shadows on the earthbound equipment and laborers below.
She also documents commercial districts, from bustling warehouses and outer borough gas stations to the confined corridors of Wall Street and sprawling waterfront dockyards. She attends to expanding roadways and urban arteries, as she captures soaring views from underneath trestles and across onramps of newly constructed bridges.
Occasionally, the uncanny intrudes. An enormous handgun suspended from a gunsmith shop seems aimed at the street below. Another bizarre scene shows a looming statue about to be unveiled in Times Square; it towers over the city like a bloated mummy. Economic injustice darkens city life, too, in photographs of makeshift huts along Houston Street, in decrepit back alleys behind “Old Law” tenement apartment buildings, as well as in portraits of homeless men collapsed on sun-drenched downtown sidewalks. When an editor saw these latter photos he chastised her, saying that “nice girls” don’t go to the Bowery. She retorted, “I’m not a nice girl. I’m a photographer. I go anywhere.”
Among her favorite places were skyscrapers and rooftops. One of Abbott’s most famous images, taken at the end of winter and using long exposure, portrays the city’s office buildings as a sort of Bauhaus-engineered apiary electrified by glowing streams of incandescent light.
Her interest in capturing the flow of energy through physical forms likely fueled her turn to scientific and technological photography, which began in the late 1930s and continued into the early 1960s, with early cooperation from RCA Laboratories and, later, more sustained support from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
By this time, Abbott had long shared a home and studio with her partner Elizabeth McCausland and had gained a public profile as a photo editor for Science Illustrated and as an influential teacher of photography at the New School for Social Research. Interdisciplinary work had become her forte. Representing physics, thermodynamics, and hydraulics, her late-period photography frequently illustrated college textbooks. This might be the most fascinating work she ever made.
In one close-up image, soap bubbles divulge an architectural grandeur formed from molecular exchanges occurring between air and water; in another, curves and hollows created from molding cheese resemble the beveled patterns in a coral reef. A magnified photograph of penicillin makes the compound look like a cleaved grapefruit, while a photograph from a series of experiments in physical science shows an iridescent skeleton key bathed in a magnetic field sprinkled with iron filings. The radiating lines and cursive waves are so precise and harmonious that the picture verifies a transcendent order that guides energy as it courses imperceptibly through the physical world.
Taken together, Abbott’s wide-ranging subjects are unified by an underlying conviction that modernity — our impulse to replace tired traditions with original methods — aims for progress across human endeavors in the arts, urban engineering, and science. An accomplished inventor, with several patents to her name, Abbott retreated to a home in Maine for her final years. From there she could watch the sun begin to set on a restless century that, despite well-documented atrocities and nightmares, somehow constantly replenished its optimism about modernity. From our censorious, reactionary era, we might look back on that spirit and find much more in it than just another nostalgia trip.
Berenice Abbott: Portraits of Modernity continues at Fundación MAPFRE (Paseo de Recoletos 23, Madrid, Spain) through August 25.