Berenice Abbott, Photographer: An Independent Vision

by Matt Damsker


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By George Sullivan. 2006; Clarion Books; 128 pages, $20. ISBN No. 0-618-44026-7. A Houghton Mifflin Co. imprint, 215 Park Ave. South, New York, NY 10003; phone: 1-800-225-3362; Website: .

This straightforward biography of one of modern photography's masters is slanted toward young readers, but it is hardly a "children's" book. Author George Sullivan is a prolific force in youth nonfiction, and he delivers a clear, thorough account of Berenice Abbott's rise and her achievements; as such, this is a perfect volume for anyone interested in a concise portrait of the artist, with excellent reproductions of many of her signature works.

Indeed, any neophyte who is serious about considering or collecting photography would do as well to first study Abbott as to study any of the medium's greats, since she was such a rare influence. As an archivist, she played a major role in bringing the immortal work of France's Eugene Atget to worldwide notice; and as a pure modernist, she spanned the Bohemian world, from Paris to Greenwich Village, interacting with the likes of Joyce, Duchamp and Man Ray, and creating indelible portraits of many of them. Her great realist theme, of course, became The City--New York--as it grew skywards during the 1930s, and so she trained her lens on the staggering visual information it afforded. She created such classic bird's-eye images as "Night View" from atop the Empire State Building, as well as of skyscrapers seen from ground level, crowd scenes, the intersecting planes and busy latticework of steel structures and bridges, and the graphic crazy-quilt of newsstands and shop windows. To look at Abbott's work now is to strongly sense her ongoing influence--on everyone from Lee Friedlander to Andreas Gursky and countless others.

Sullivan carefully provides a lot of context for looking at Abbott, and doesn't skimp on her life journey--from the Midwestern beginnings in the U.S. to the European years, her eventual focus on teaching, her wonderful science photographs (soap bubbles, magnetic fields) and her productive semi-retirement in Maine. Throughout his book, he emphasizes that Abbott's independence of vision was hard-earned, rigorous, and marked by energy and devotion more so than by any narcissistic quest for fame. One can only hope that her example and her permanence may mean something to the young readers who turn to Sullivan's account in today's celebrity-obsessed world of fleeting images.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.