Wall Street Journal Review of Berenice Abbott’s Eye for the 20th Century by Hank O'Neal & Ron Kurtz
Djuna Barnes, James Joyce, Isamu Noguchi and Peggy Guggenheim all sat for Abbott in the 1920s. Robert L. Pincus reviews “Paris Portraits 1925-1930” edited by Ron Kurtz and Hank O’Neal.
By ROBERT L. PINCUS
Dec. 22, 2016 4:03 p.m. ET
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Berenice Abbott moved from New York to Paris in 1921 to further the evolution of her sculpture, lured by the artistic freedom that Europe represented during that widely chronicled decade. When she returned to New York in 1929, Abbott had changed mediums entirely, producing images in France that had begun to establish her as one of the greats among 20th century photographers. She would subsequently become best known for her strikingly precise and moving black and white images of New York—its edifices and its everyday citizens. But it was in Paris, as Abbott would recall in 1976, that she “took to photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else.”
These early pictures were portraits, a selective who’s who of French intellectuals, writers, artists and other cultural celebrities, as well as a panoply of notable expatriates. Abbott had hoped to assemble these photographs in a book, but couldn’t find a publisher for them during her lifetime.
Now, happily, they have been collected into an elegant volume, edited by Hank O’Neal, her longtime friend and fellow photographer, and Ron Kurtz, who acquired Abbott’s archive in 1985 from the artist, who died in 1991. This elegantly designed volume, “Paris Portraits 1925-1930,” is the fourth of eight planned projects from Messrs. O’Neal and Kurtz that will be published by Steidl, which has a deserved reputation for its high-quality photography books. Mr. O’Neal has provided brief, informative texts alongside most portraits and with some of them has also included Abbott’s memories of the particular session.
Sylvia Beach, owner of the famed Shakespeare and Company bookstore that first published James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” wrote that to be photographed by Abbott in Paris of the late 1920s was to be “rated as somebody.” But nearly a century later, these pictures are something of a revelation, since only a few were exhibited in Paris during the 1920s and a handful of others were published in the European edition of Vogue.
The sculptor Isamu Noguchi, more frequently pictured in later decades, is startlingly boyish in 1929. Peggy Guggenheim, who was on her way to becoming a leading arts patron, looks more vulnerable and less theatrical than in better known portraits of her. The innovative French novelist André Gide, who had recently published “The Counterfeiters” (1925) and went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947, seems to emerge from shadows in his likeness, his expression pensive. The most iconic pictures are Abbott’s portraits of a coolly distant James Joyce, in brimmed hat, striped tie and small glasses and of a stooped and aged Eugène Atget, the great Parisian photographer whose work was rescued from obscurity by Abbott.
If not for her friend Man Ray, a major presence in Dada and then Surrealist circles, Abbott may not have ever become a photographer. In 1923, Ray was prospering as a photographer: He needed someone to staff his darkroom and she needed a job. Abbott was so adept at printing that he suggested she try her hand at portraits during her lunch break. Those who posed for her early, such as Guggenheim and Jean Cocteau, were so pleased that sitters increased. Man Ray and her were soon at odds; she had become his competition.
With financial help from friends like Guggenheim and the avant-garde publisher Robert McAlmon, Abbott set up her own studio by 1926, and the majority of portraits in this book were made thereafter.
Given how well Abbott had acclimated to Paris, she was surprised to find how much she enjoyed being in New York when she took a short trip there in early 1929. Abbott “fell in love with the city she had abandoned a decade earlier,” Mr. O’Neal writes. So much so, it seems, that she decided to return to the U.S. later that year. A few portraits made in New York extend the book’s chronology to 1930, but the stock market crash ended her hopes of setting up a prosperous portrait studio in Manhattan.
There are 83 subjects in “Paris Portrait 1925-1930” and every image has been newly scanned at full size from Abbott’s original glass plates. They are presented uncropped and as Abbott cropped some for exhibition. The difference between the two versions is often slight, but in other cases the environmental nature of the uncropped portrait strengthens it noticeably.
What unites these photographs, though, is a palpable sense of Abbott’s openness and receptivity to the character of her subjects. Of her session with the important modernist novelist Djuna Barnes, Abbott would recall, “I did her with the light in back of her head because she had such a lovely profile.” That profile is indeed striking, though in a second image, in which Barnes looks directly at the camera, her face is also quite beautiful. Abbott competed with artist Thelma Wood for Barnes’s romantic affections, but it was Barnes’s relationship with Wood that became the source material for her breakthrough novel “Nightwood’ (1936).
Mr. O’Neal, who wrote a notable work on Abbott in the 1980s, pulled from his many conversations with her in his excellent introductory essay for this book. One comment from 1979 reveals a lot about what she calls her system of making portraits: “I relied on my intuition about people a great deal, and the feeling of the moment, timing of the moment . . . I tried to get them unposed. Who wants a posed photograph?”
True to her words, “Paris Portraits 1925-1930” is without pretensions. Take Princess Eugène Murat, better known as Violette, who has a world-be-damned look to her pose. A granddaughter of Napoleon III, she was known for her gatherings featuring cultural luminaries from Cocteau to Stravinsky. There is a touch of haughtiness in her stern expression and in the way she grips her cigarette. A dreamy looking Tylia Perlmutter—often employed as an artist’s model and who would go on to translate “The Diary of Anne Frank” into French under the name Tylia Caren—here appears very relaxed, leaning against a table. She, too, was one of Abbott’s lovers.
“Paris Portraits 1925-1930” is visual autobiography, populated as it is by many of Abbott’s friends and lovers. Others, like Princess Murat, were part of the larger cultural circles in which she thrived. One of the French writers that Abbott photographed, the genial looking André Siegfried, played a role in her decision to return to the U.S. with his book “America Comes of Age: A French Analysis” (1927), which made the case that the United States was becoming a mature society and would usher in the technological and scientific future that he foresaw. So, too, did Abbott’s ambition to do for New York what Atget had done for Paris: create an extended documentary portrait of a metropolis.
The portraits Abbott made in Paris marked the emergence of a photographer who went on to become one of the century’s major ones. It is a welcome event for these pictures to have a book of their own.
—Mr. Pincus is the author of “On a Scale That Competes With the World: The Art of Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz.”