It’s not uncommon these days to see images of celebrities, artists and other famous people posing for their friends on social media. Whether they are showing off their latest lipstick, snuggling with a puppy or announcing their pregnancy, Snapchat and Instagram are brimming with images of the cultural elite of our time. While the technology may be new, the phenomenon is not. Decades before the invention of the smartphone, if you were a socialite in Paris in the late 1920s, the person to pose for was Berenice Abbott.
Abbott, an American photographer who was a member of the generation of master photographers that included Man Ray, Andre Kertesz and Ansel Adams, was sometimes called the “semiofficial portraitist of the intelligentsia” in the 1920s. While she is most known for her 10-year photographic effort of New York City’s evolving landscape in the 1930s — a work that critics have called the greatest collection of photographs of New York City ever made — she actually got her start in Paris as an assistant to Man Ray, the well-known American photographer, painter and surrealist. And it was there that she started taking portraits on his balcony. “Everybody was a dandy then. You see all this careless dressing is only in recent years. In Paris men wore white gloves and they dressed up,” Abbott told her biographer Hank O’Neal in the late 1970s.
“Paris Portraits 1925–30,” a new book co-published by Steidl Books and Commerce Graphics, features this earliest work of Abbott as she was just starting her career. The book, which was conceived in 1977 but finally published in late 2016, was edited by Ron Kurtz and Hank O’Neal. It features 115 portraits of 83 subjects that have been scanned from the original glass negatives and printed in full, as well as the final crops as Abbott intended. The juxtaposing result, as O’Neal told In Sight, allows you to “see her process. You see what she is doing. You see an artist at work.”
The book also includes descriptions of her subjects in her own words, something that Abbott was very reluctant to include. It wasn’t until O’Neal, with the help of Jacqueline Onassis, who was on the board of the International Center of Photography at the time, persuaded her to include more than just the name of the individual, did Abbott oblige in writing up the descriptions.
According to O’Neal, these people were Abbott’s friends, and the extra context is significant in understanding that connection. But as Abbott told O’Neal in one of their many interviews, “As I see it, the serious photographer is interested in the subject. . . . It’s the subject. It isn’t just picture taking and picture making.”
“This was taken at Man Ray’s studio. I did her with the light in back of her head because she had such a lovely profile. I never took two people same way and often took the same person different ways. This is why it was so hard, why I didn’t take twenty people in one day and make more money. I treated every session as though I had never taken a photograph before in my life, relying on the moment, on my reaction to the sitters, working together with them and thinking what to do with them and how to see them. It all came spontaneously with each person.”
“Pierre De Massot was a dear person, trying to look tough here, but he wasn’t. A delicate little French writer, he wrote one book entitled Portrait of a Bulldog, in which my photograph appeared. I tried to locate him when I went back to Paris in 1966 but no one had even heard of him.”
“Solita was a good friend of Flanner’s. This portrait also indicates the sparseness of my studio; she was sitting on a box, a modest prop. I only made two exposures of Solano, with greatly contrasting moods.”
“A noted businessman who founded both RCA and NBC.”
“She was a wonderful woman and I’m certain a large amount of [James] Joyce’s success would be attributed to her. She must have been a marvelous wife; she didn’t know much about his writing, and perhaps didn’t care, but loved him as a person. The music in her beautiful voice must have constantly pleased him; his style was so dependent on the sound of words and sentences. The sitting was at my studio and separate from her husband.”
“I had a lot of friends who just took me at face value; a crazy kid, a crazy American kid. I had little money and I didn’t care. These people who became my friends and clients saw something in me and the word-of-mouth got around pretty fast. When I found out I could take good photographs I was really amazed and Man Ray was actually a little worried because neither of us expected me to catch on so quickly. He took some fantastic portraits of men, but his women are mostly pretty objects. I didn’t think about the male-female thing at the time, but it just turned out the photographs I took were different from his, particularly the women. I didn’t see it at the time; then it was a bit confusing, but looking back on it now it was much easier to see objectively and it make sense.”