Not one but three exhibits of Berenice Abbott's photographs are now on view in Washington. Three is not too many. She is so many artists there might well be more.
There is, first of all, the Berenice Abbott of the '20s, the portraitist of Paris, the beautiful young woman whose extraordinary pictures of actresses and authors, princesses and painters--Chanel, James Joyce and Jean Cocteau, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, Janet Flanner, Djuna Barnes and Eva le Gallienne--look less like studio shots by a relative beginner than they do like icons of that golden time.
Then there is Berenice Abbott the patient art historian, the dedicated scholar who recognized and catalogued and rescued from obscurity the lifework of a master, the revered Euge ne Atget.
There is also Berenice Abbott, chronicler of cities, whose immense and detailed study of the New York of the '30s, of its skyscrapers and statues, night lights and pedestrians, is a document almost as rich as Atget's of France. There is the Abbott, too, who photographed the poor, and the Berenice Abbott who made flashy shots for Fortune, and the Abbott who once traveled between Florida and Maine composing, as she journeyed, a portrait of U.S. Rte. 1. Another Berenice Abbott used soap bubbles and strobe lights, tuning forks and magnets, to capture in her pictures from the 1950s the poetry of science. She also has portrayed Maine, where she lives today.
This is Abbott week in Washington, and many, but not all, of the facets of her art are here on view.
"Berenice Abbott: The '20s and the '30s," a touring exhibition of vintage prints produced in Paris and Manhattan, is at the National Museum of American Art. A few blocks away, at 406 Seventh St. NW, two commercial Abbott shows go on view today. The Lunn Gallery is offering a survey of her vintage prints that is broader, and as rich, as the show at the museum. Meanwhile, downstairs, the Barbara Kornblatt Gallery is showing two portfolios, "Faces of the '20s" and "The Science Pictures," both made up of new prints from old negatives.
For Abbott, who is now 83, her art is never soft. For more than half a century she has been, as Atget was, a lover of the real. Whether looking at a pendulum or at sunlight on a storefront, at Cocteau playing gangster or the droop of Joyce's hand, the poetry she sees is the poetry of fact.
"There is no such thing," she's said, "as being too objective. Goethe said it--'Few people have the imagination for reality.' People say they have to express their emotions. I'm sick of that. Photography doesn't teach you to express your emotions. It teaches you to see."
But Abbott's objectivity is not self-denial. Her photographs are drenched in her steely will, her charm. James Joyce looking languorous, Cocteau playing tough guy, and Flanner in her top hat, half-serious and half-playful, are not seen as if they were entirely alone. It is lovely young Berenice, with her fine hands and her bee-stung lips, who has charmed them into posing, into putting on their airs, into playing and relaxing, into showing us their souls.
She is present in her streetscapes, too. There are girders in the foreground. Someone lugged the camera high into the steel webs of that unfinished skyscraper. The morning sun casts brightness on mist above Manhattan piers. Someone got up early. In "Murray Hill Hotel, 112 Park Avenue, Manhattan, Nov. 19, 1935," a picture whose two flags predict the works of Robert Frank, one sees not just an instant but the long hours of waiting for the lighting to be right. In every Abbott photograph, her great patience may be felt.
It was her willingness to work slowly, in the dark, that brought her to photography in 1923 when the photographer Man Ray told her he was seeking a darkroom assistant, preferably someone who knew nothing about photographs. "I think I qualify," said Abbott, and she took the job. She was as patient later when she slowly catalogued the 10,000 negatives and prints discovered, at his death, in the studio of Atget. Photography, of course, seems an instantaneous art--the artist aims and clicks--but all of Abbott's art combines the speedy with the slow.
A new New York was rising and an old was being knocked down when she photographed the city. She said she loved to see "the present jostling the past." We see that same conjunction in the pictures of her master, for though Atget loved the old, he had a wholly modern eye. That balance that Abbott strikes between the fleeting and the permanent is nowhere seen more clearly than in her science pictures. Things that happen quickly--waves moving on water, the bouncing of a ball, the rolling of a cylinder--take on in these pictures marble truths as timeless and as stately as Newton's laws of motion.
Because its images are new, and big and sharp and glossy, and because they are not dated, the Abbott show at Kornblatt's raises an old question. Abbott's many vintage prints are sometimes brown and sometimes gray, and for the most part small. But they are soaked in history. The portfolios at the gallery--number of signed images: 12; edition: 60; price per portfolio: $12,000--may look better on the wall. But they've been torn from their time. Which ones are more valuable, which prints should one buy?
Abbott, and no wonder, is regarded nowadays as an art world heroine. She links in her life and art the atom smasher and Atget, 19th-century Paris and 20th-century New York, science and surrealism, history and now. She will be in town this week for Wednesday evening receptions at the galleries, and for two appearances at the Carmichael Auditorium of the National Museum of American History, both of which, already, are nearly sold out. Her Lunn show runs through June, her Kornblatt show through July 15, and her museum exhibition, which was organized by International Center for Photography, closes Aug. 29.