Incidentally Urban

Berenice Abbott documented a city that seemed a monument to everything other than what and who had produced it.

Berenice Abbott Album Page 1: Financial District, Broadway and Wall Street Vicinity, Manhattan, 1929 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Emanuel Gerard, 1984 © Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd. Inc.

Berenice Abbott traveled from Paris to New York in 1929, looking to drum up business in the US for photographs taken by the deceased and still largely unknown Eugène Atget and, while she was at it, maybe sell a few of her own. It was a curious but fitting start for the project—that’s a really iffy word in this context—that became Berenice Abbott’s New York Album, 1929.

Like Atget, whose photographs of nondescript Paris seem almost ethnographic in their disinterested orderliness, Abbott was very comfortable with, or at least deeply captivated by, progress. Progress in the sense of the complete and continual reconstruction of the urban landscape, with special attention given to what’s about to be razed. (Though, really, everything is razed eventually. Abbott knew. You can’t document so much construction without evoking pretty strong feelings of destruction.) Her career and legacy have a kind of laboring quality about them. She was Man Ray’s darkroom assistant in Paris. Her first major works were portraits of Major Artists: Djuna Barnes, James Joyce, Jean Cocteau. (She convinced Joyce to pose without his eyepatch. He appears positively woeful.) She pops up briefly in On Photography, so that Sontag can quote her on the photograph’s power to document “the ceaseless replacement of the new.” She’s mentioned twice in Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment: first as a point of comparison with an anonymous British photographer named William Ormerod and then to note that she was the one who introduced Walker Evans to the world of Atget. A true servant of the world, Berenice.

Abbott’s Changing New York, first published in 1939, is a schematic for replacing the new. Created under the Federal Art Project, a subdivision of the Works Progress Administration in FDR’s New Deal, its images have a scientific, oceanic character, a world of mechanical erosion for the surging new present. Her eye for bridges, skyscrapers—for, in a word, newnesses—is so thorough as to be affectionate. Abbott never met a skyward view she didn’t love. Her biographer Julia Van Haaften quotes her as saying that she wanted to “rip to pieces” any of her work she found “arty.” In West Street, a skyscraper distantly lords its weight over a sun-slashed market street. The layer of immediate brightness in the foreground—the old—will never hold its own against the massive shoulder of steel/iron/granite/size behind it. (Tricky question: is the first word in the title an adjective or a transitive verb?) Or a view of Seventh Avenue, looking down from one of her beloved skyscrapers: another channel of light, this time the avenue itself, cuts through the shores of the risen city. “I’m not a nice girl. I am a photographer. I go anywhere.”

Like all good people, Abbott was born in Ohio and left for Paris the first chance she got. She palled around with the expat set; she changed the spelling of her forename, adding the second e at Djuna Barnes’s suggestion; and she became a crack portraitist. Then she returned to New York with Atget’s works. (Man Ray had turned her on to him.) Atget earned a living photographing Paris street scenes for painters who needed inspiration. He developed an archive of an unadorned, unalloyed city, wringing itself, sometimes willingly, sometimes not, through progress. Abbott was enraptured, both by the work (“the most beautiful photographs ever made”) and the man (“tired, sad, remote, appealing”). When he died in 1927, she bought his remaining prints and negatives. Of course, money is a real thing and hardly anyone in America knew who Atget was. So she returned. To sell.

“If I had never left America, I would have never wanted to photograph New York,” she wrote. “But when I saw it with fresh eyes I knew it was my country, something I had to set down in photographs.” An unexpected sequence of thoughts: Because New York had revealed itself as hers, she needed to photograph it. It’s a weird instance of possession; often the strong tendency to photograph things comes precisely when they aren’t ours. Photographs are a form of theft, of repossession (the temporal-expansionism and memory-fascism of nostalgia). This moment I had nothing to do with is captured by me, for me, forever. I exist permanently in this place I was only stopping through. The camera roll full of our loves, our regulars, doesn’t spark the same feeling. To shoot something that is ours is to risk being indulgent or, worse, familiar.

The museum calls it “a sketchbook.” Abbott, “tiny photographic notes.” We’re deep in the realm of the provisional here. If there’s any gravitational force, it’s tonal.

But let’s work with Abbott’s idea. The Ohioan-cum-Parisian has a Whitmanesque moment of realizing her America in New York City. She’s in town for a while on business, trying to flog all these Atget pictures she now owns, and she’s got a camera. She wanders. The city is molting the last of its nineteenth-century skin. Its horizontal skin. The only direction is up. Skyscrapers erected all over the place. Elevated tracks laid down above. Things look erratic and uneven. Abbott snaps with her handheld Curt-Bentzin. Storefronts, cars, bridges, train tracks, bridges, construction, train tracks. The churned place summons in a tight way.

Abbott didn’t have access to a darkroom while traveling; the pictures were developed in drugstores. The resulting images are tiny, and the black pages of the albums haphazard and messy, with photos arranged on them in groups of six or seven or nine. One of the first in the exhibit is labeled “Reliable Play Figure Company Shop Windows, Lower East Side, Manhattan.” The upper-left image is the most striking, mostly thanks to the wide-eyed child’s doll head occupying the lower part of the frame. Its expression suggests surprise at all existence, while above her, over her shoulder, a doll of an older woman (Maybe a mannequin? What kinds of “play figures” were these, exactly?) stares impassively into the distance. Torsos surround them. In the center of it all, Abbott’s reflection neatly punctuates the scene. Everyone is looking; the looking is what matters. The other six pictures on the page seem to be fighting for attention (play figure parts, another child/woman team, what appears to be a food vendor with no apparent connection to Reliable). A better way of putting it is that these are just the stray visual thoughts of an artist seeing what’s out there.

New York Album shouldn’t be looked at as a dry run for Changing New York. It really shouldn’t be seen as a coherent, cohesive body of work at all. The museum calls it “a sketchbook.” Abbott, “tiny photographic notes.” We’re deep in the realm of the provisional here. If there’s any gravitational force, it’s tonal. A document of an artist merging into her setting.

She’s most at home, most focused, when contemplating transportation. South Street Seaport feels nicely haunted by an Ishmaelian spirit, itching at the things and doodads that carry us to the edge of the planet. The pictures of the Second Avenue elevated train at Twenty-Third Street have a geometric repetition that’s as hypnotic as an index. The Ninth Avenue train pictures, while freer, flecked with more abstraction—the person walking up the staircase with Royal Baking Powder advertisements on each step is unquestionably going into the afterlife and not catching a train—are similarly, resolutely, enamored with line and angle. As much as these pictures hint at Changing New York, they also make it unsurprising to learn that, a few decades down the line, Abbott would be working on MIT-produced physics textbooks.

But what’s with the bodies in a sea of white space, caught from the edge of the Ninth Avenue train platform? Or the solitary figure (a boy?) watching Abbott watching him from the other side the Second Avenue tracks? Who are these lonely, menacing intruders?

Her eye for bridges, skyscrapers—for, in a word, newnesses—is so thorough as to be affectionate. Abbott never met a skyward view she didn’t love.

A sense of unease toward the living presences emerges. Plenty of attention is given to human subjects, some of it quite lovely, but much of it muddled or disorganized or alienated. The man passed out next to the Baby Ruth ad on the Bryant Park page is caught without much grace or charity, but instead with a look at that eye. There is a quaint dispassion to the Harlem pages. The notion grows that people are incidental, things with tonnage are not. Nothing in the exhibit is more jarring than the visual rhyme of a row of lifeless white houses in Astoria and soldiers marching in a Decoration Day parade. They are the most unfilled frames in the album. The only moments isolation shows itself.

It would only be a few months after Abbott took her wandering pictures before the illusion undergirding all progress snapped. On Black Tuesday, that October, men visited the edges of skyscrapers just like Abbott, only for different reasons. Abbott was a lifelong communist (even Molotov-Ribbentrop and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech didn’t seem to put a dent in her commitment), and it isn’t hard to imagine her, up to and beyond Changing New York, documenting a city that seemed a monument to everything other than what and who had produced it. “Not so much beauty and tradition as native fantasia emerging from accelerating greed,” Sontag has her saying. The city of Changing New York is the product of the unseen, the unknown. In New York Album, she bound the monuments and the unseen, brought them together into an unalloyed, intimate union that was manifestly hers.

On a Saturday afternoon in early May—a wretchedly lovely day, the sort where the clear air seems to make Manhattan somehow expand, the physical space broadened by the sunshine alone even as it teems with people, everyone eager as hell to get outside, with the Met packed and the rather small space given over to Abbott kind of packed, probably with folks waiting for their turn in the Karl Lagerfeld experience—an ancient security guard says to himself, “There’s too many people in here.” He’s right; the small rooms shouldn’t hold this many bodies, shouldn’t be housing this many uninterested people, many of them hot and tired and strewed this way or that. The guard tells the young people, this is a museum, you can’t be on the floor, and they rise and lurch on and someone else edges in, the new replacing the old replacing the new. Abbott probably would have loved it.

Pete Segall is a writer in Chicago. He is very reliable and an adequate play figure.