All posts filed under “history

Discovering surrealism in Berenice Abbott’s straight photography

1948 - Berenice Abbott - Self Portrait

1948 – Self-portrait

Berenice Abbot(1898 – 1991) was one of the most unsettling photographers of the 20th century. She approached cityscape, portraiture and scientific photography and she championed the aesthetic power of all these disparate genres.

1936 - Washington Street no. 37 Manhattan

1936 – Washington Street no. 37 Manhattan

Ιn the 20’s she moved to Paris where she worked as an assistant to the very famous artist Man Ray and she started working on photography in 1923. Later, she wrote: “I took to photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else.” Ray was impressed by her darkroom work and allowed her to use his studio to take her own photographs. She got the opportunity to photograph all the prominent personalities of the time such as James Joyce and Jean Cocteau. Sylvia Bleach, the woman behind the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, once said: “To be ‘done’ by Man Ray or Berenice Abbott meant you rated as somebody”.

1928 - James Joyce

1928 – James Joyce.

Amongst the people that she met in Paris was Eugène Atget, a photographer who captured the renovation of Paris in the late 19th century. It seems that Abbott admired Atget’s work so much that she acquired a part of his archive while he was still alive as well as some more of his work a few years after his death from his friend and executor André Calmettes. In 1930, she participated as a photo editor in the book Atget of Paris and in 1968 she gave her Atget’s archive to the Museum of Modern Art. All of these years she preserved his archive and tried to introduce him to a wider audience. Atget’s international recognition probably wouldn’t happen if she didn’t put all of this sustained effort.

1927 - Eugène Atget

1927 – Eugène Atget

It seems that Abbott discovered her own “Paris” when in 1930 she returned to New York, after the gold era of the roaring twenties. She found out then that the city was transitioning rapidly to a huge modern metropolis. Skyscrapers contrasted intensively the old remaining buildings of the 19th century while infrastructure for rapid transportation and communication were some of the elements that attracted Abbott to cross the Atlantic. During the difficult years of the Great Depression, she captured the dramatic social, financial and technological changes of New York.

1938 - Normandie, North River, Manhattan, from Pier 88

1938 – Normandie, North River, Manhattan, from Pier 88

From the very beginning she adopted the realistic aesthetics of Atget, but within her material we can find glimpses of surrealism that conceal within them some of the artistic genius that she was. While she seems to be impressed by technological progress and the continuously developing cityscape, in many of her shots realism is eradicated. For example we can observe some surrealist value in the look of that a girl behind a column on Blossom Restaurant or in the view of the Seventh Avenue at sunset where cars and traffic of the streets make it look like the vein of a living organism.

1935 - Blossom Restaurant 103 Bowery

1935 – Blossom Restaurant 103 Bowery

1935 - Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street in Manhattan

1935 – Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street in Manhattan

Also let’s not forget the symbolic contradictions of her photographs. For example, in the photograph ‘Tempo of the city’, the symbolism of time as a ruler of people is clear. She achieves this by placing the clock on her frame, in front of and over people, making them seem so ignorant and immodest in the sway of time.

1938 - Tempo of the City I. Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, Manhattan

1938 – Tempo of the City I. Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, Manhattan

In the photo ‘Central Park Plaza, from Fifth Avenue at 58th Street’, she places a tree in front of her frame, in such a way that it prevents the view of the building from behind while there is a strong contrast between the strict lines of the building and the almost random structure of the tree. Also, the fact that the tree looks dead, decayed as opposed to the thriving building from behind, is a strong message of the modern man’s departure from the bucolic life due to the comforts of the modern way of life.

1937 - Central Park Plaza, from Fifth Avenue at 58th Street

1937 – Central Park Plaza, from Fifth Avenue at 58th Street

Was it realism contained in surrealism or surrealism contained in realism? Τhe fact that she did not use the pictorialists’s soft focus techniques does not mean that her job was characterized by simple realism. We find surreal values in photographs that are not visible at first glance. In her book ‘A guide to Better Photography‘ she asserted that “man’s need for self-exrpession and his capacities for creative action were as vital to human existence as air and food”.

1948 - An Industrial Designer's Window, Bleecker Street

1948 – An Industrial Designer’s Window, Bleecker Street

1937 - Gunsmith And Police Station

1937 – Gunsmith And Police Station

Abbott used to say that she was an admirer of straight photography. This is why it is impressive that she compresses so much surrealistic values in her work in New York. As time passed, the contrast that characterized her work became much more intense as she worked with great success with the Physical Science Study Committee for a MIT project that helped to improve the development of the secondary school curriculum. Through the scientific pretext of the research, a surrealist ‘landscape’ unfolds, which clearly sources from the influence of the great master Man Ray.

1958 - Parabolic Mirror

1958 – Parabolic Mirror

Interference Pattern, 1958-61

Interference Pattern, 1958-61

Abbott came from a difficult background, she was born in Springfield Ohio and grew up with her divorced mother Lillian Alice Bunn while she lived with her friend, art critic Elizabeth McCausland, for 30 years. She managed, despite the odds, to have a brilliant career and to die at an old age in 1991 in Monson, Maine.Berenice Abbott wanted to be remembered as a person who took risks and won them all.

1979 - Berenice Abbott by Hank ONeal in NYC

1979 – Berenice Abbott by Hank ONeal in NYC

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sources:

Wikipedia page Photohistories Artnet MOMA Brittanica Guardian article Museum of the city of New York

Berenice Abbott’s obituary by NYT here

Books:

New York in the Thirties by Elizabeth McCausland and Berenice Abbott

A Guide to Better Photography by Berenice Abbott

Aperture Masters of Photography: Berenice Abbott – Introduction and commentary by Julia Van Haaften

 

©BabisGiannikakis2017

The search of indecisive moment. A sort retrospective on Robert Frank’s work

Robert Frank(1924) nowadays is more relevant than ever. Through out his book The Americans, he praised the diversity in human nature and provided the counterweight to the constant swagger of racial discrimination in the postwar America .

He was born in 1924 in Switzerland.  His father lost his citizenship and became stateless because he was Jewish during the rise of Nazis in Germany. Thus, he and his family were forced  to take refuge in Switzerland. Although Robert Frank grew up in Zurich’s safety, the atrocities of war made him understand the meaning of oppression.

robert-frank-funeral-st-helena-south-carolina-1955

©Robert Frank – Funeral – St. Helena, South Carolina

 

He turned to photography to escape family oriented business while in 1947, he moved to New York, where Alexey Brodovich hired him immediately in Harper’s Bazaar. In New York he also met Edward Steichen and he participated in the group show 51 American Photographers at MoMa.

Frank started his journey in the United States as an optimistic young man admiring the culture and society of the new world but soon he realised and confronted the pace of American life and what he considered to be a money-driven society. On top, he was dissatisfied on the fact that the editors had control over his work.

robert-frank-miami-beach-1955

Robert Frank – Miami Beach 1955

 

In 1955 after a trip to Paris he secured his first Guggenheim fellowship and embarked on a two-year trip around the US, during which he took 28,000 photos, out of which he finally chose only 83 in order to include on the pages of The Americans. During his US road-trip he ALSO became a subject of anti-Semitism in a small town of Arkansas, where he was thrown in jail for three days.

 

robert-frank-candy-store-new-york

©Robert Frank – Candy store – New York

 

Frank’s photos have a feeling of affinity to the Beat subculture: they seem to portray Beat Generation’s interest in documenting the tension between post-war optimism and the harsh reality of class inequality and racial prejudice.

robert-frank-charleston-south-carolina

©Robert Frank – Charleston – South Carolina

 

His photographs describe the ordinary man as an entity, they highlight and celebrate multi-diversity. They show us the human being with a disarming honesty, oppressed by social conventions, vulnerable before death, without any exaggeration, thus emphasising the greatness of man’s simplicity and his ability to ultimately survive harsh reality. Essentially, his book The Americans created a complicated portrait of the human nature and presented it in all its glory with an unusual way and that alone was a punch in the stomach for the conservative America that was not yet ready to accept such a work of art.

 

robert-frank-new-york

©Robert Frank – New York

 

That is why The Americans firstly got published in Paris by Robert Delpire in 1958 and next year in the US without any texts. Popular Photography described the book as “meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness” while also the book was considered as too un-American.

 

robart-frank-mens-room-railway-station-memphis-tennesee

©Robert Frank – Men’s room, railway station – Memphis, Tennessee

 

When he met Jack Kerouac on the sidewalk outside a party and showed him the photographs from his travels, Kerouac immediately told Frank “Sure I can write something about these pictures,” and he contributed to a state-of-the-art introduction of the U.S. edition of the book.

 

 

robert-frank-santa-fe-new-mexico

©Robert Frank – Santa Fe – New Mexico

 

Robert Frank dis-valued the elitism that exuded from Bresson’s Decisive Moment and praised the everyday moment. This was Frank’s huge success and from another point of view it was and still is, an inspiration for dozens of new photographers who want to go out there and express themselves in different forms than the usual.

 

robert-frank-political-rally-chicago

©Robert Frank – Political Rally – Chicago

 

After The Americans, Frank started working on films and made exceptional arthouse films like “Pull my Daisy” as well as the most controversial Rolling Stones documentary that was ever released,  which can be screened only with Frank’s presence and four times in a year.

Nov 2016

B. Giannikakis

 

 

You can watch here the Gerald Fox’s strongly recommended documentary on Robert Frank:

 

Gallery