James Joyce, eyepatched and bespectacled, seems to be chewing on something dire; so does Andre Beauclair, poised precariously at his writing table. And Samuel Putnam, hands shoved in suitpockets, must surely be having a grim day.
Judging from photographs by Berenice Abbott, Paris in the Twenties was not so gay after all. And New York in the Thirties, the other subject of her show opening Friday at the National Museum of American Art, just passed for a nice place to visit.
Abbott was born 84 years ago in Springfield, Ohio, flirted with journalism at Ohio State, moved to Greenwich Village in 1918 and then to Paris three years after that. The great Man Ray hired her as an assistant, and by 1925, Abbott, working out of a studio on the Left Bank, was on her own.
The resulting photographs -- of Joyce, writers Janet Flanner and Edna St. Vincent Millay, of actress Eva le Gallienne, of Jean Cocteau, and a host of hangers-on you probably never heard of -- present their subjects as almost intolerably self-involved, solemn about their arts and serious about themselves, even when they're trying to be whimsical.
Cocteau, affecting a wicked smile and pointing a pistol at the camera lens, looks less puckish than precious. Lucia Joyce, caught in various odd raiment, doing various strange dances, seems more a study in bohemianism than the thing itself. One of the few real portraits in this show is of a certain Mme. Guerin and her bulldog, wherein she lovingly presses the fat ugly beast to her cheek without a care for how it might look.
In her Paris portraits and her New York City landscapes, Abbott demonstrates both cleverness and technical facility, plus an eye for delicacy -- some of these pictures could fit in a wallet -- that goes well with her subjects.
Of the New York photos, shot under the auspices of the Federal Arts Project, one titled "Tempo of the City" is particularly striking. It shows a knot of people on the sidewalk at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue, a corner graced at the time (1938) by a large outdoor clock. Captured by Abbott's camera, the moment is gray and frozen -- like the Great Depression itself.
BERENICE ABBOTT: THE TWENTIES AND THE THIRTIES -- At the National Museum of American Art through August 29.