Issue #113  10/30/2006
Abbott Book and Balterman Exhibit Catalogue Reviewed

By Matt Damsker


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: http://www.clarionbooks.com .

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.


2006; catalogue published by Stephen Daiter Gallery; 60 pages, approximately 40 black-and-white plates. For information, contact the Stephen Daiter Gallery, 311 W. Superior, Suite 404, Chicago, IL 60610; phone 1-312-787-3350; email: info@stephendaitergallery.com ; Website: http://www.stephendaitergallery.com .

The City--in this case, the Second City, Chicago, or as Saul Bellow put it, "Chicago, that somber city,"--is also Lee Balterman's great theme as a photographer, and he follows in Abbott's wake on his own impressive terms (Balterman, now in his 80s, is still active). Balterman has emphasized "People--not buildings!" and so his studies of his beloved town are mainly studies of humanity defining itself against the urban grid, whether leaping in summery joy from Navy Pier into a placid Lake Michigan, or rallying around the Cubs at Wrigley Field, or in an array of nighthawk moments in bars, greasy-spoon restaurant or on the wintry streets.

Not surprisingly, Balterman was born in Chicago, studied at its Art Institute, served in the Army during World War II (as a war photographer in Europe), and returned home to a busy career in the 1950s and 60s, freelancing for the Black Star and other photo agencies. He landed photos on the covers of Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and in countless newspapers, developing a body of work marked by strong chiaroscuro tonalities and compassionate, naturalistic compositions that capture their human subjects in the act of unselfconscious expressiveness. His powerful series focusing on the survivors and families of the horrible 1958 fire at Our Lady of Angels School, which took the lives of 92 children and three nuns, is a study in pathos that keeps a respectful distance yet brings us inside the nature of shock and despair with remarkable clarity. More emblematic of Balterman, though, are the everyday (and everynight) moments he froze in bars, grills, or on the ball field--as tough Chicagoans connect with themselves and each other for better or for worse. This fine catalogue also contains informative and appreciative essays by Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Paul Berlanga and Robert Guinan.

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 in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)