Like Marcel Sternberger, the master of the early-20th-century psychological portrait, Berenice Abbott liked to talk with her sitters, make them feel comfortable, relax. In fact, she insisted on it. It might take all day for the sitter’s personality to break though the hesitations of being in front of the camera, for the alien space of the studio to become familiar. Some acclimated more quickly than others. The short-haired and powerfully built Princess Eugene Murat stares out from the page with a confident, cocked eyebrow and a cigarette, and it is easy to believe Abbott when she says Murat was a “good subject…with a mean streak.”
There is a unity in Abbott’s portraiture—finely presented in Steidl’s indispensible Paris Portraits: 1925-1930—from her first attempts on Man Ray’s balcony to this later shot of the princess, one of the few taken in New York. Murat, against a white background, shorn of context, is allowed to present herself as an aristocratic authoritarian, both feminine and masculine, a creature of interwar modernism—the ambiguity a product of the interaction between Abbott and her sitter. Her great achievement was to capture this fleeting milieu, on neither her nor her subjects’ terms exclusively, but on the fertile middle ground.
Abbott came to Paris in 1923 with an offer from Man Ray to work as his darkroom assistant. She toiled for two years in a role she quickly outgrew (by her own admission: “Man Ray did not teach me photographing techniques”). Besides the meager pay, Abbott rebelled against Ray’s desire to impose his vision on his sitters. She wanted to make vital photography, and Ray’s surrealism, while an obvious secondary influence, seemed to her to sacrifice too much of the relationship between sitter and photographer.
Consequently, she noted, Man Ray made “fantastic portraits of men,” but “his women were mostly just pretty objects.” Abbott did more than her share to correct this imbalance. Her profile and full-face portraits of the novelist Djuana Barnes are by turns beautiful and stern (Barnes and Abbott became lifelong friends in New York, as well as lovers of Thelma Wood, who also appears in a touching photo). Another American, Sylvia Beach, owner of the Parisian bookshop Shakespeare & Co., appeared at Abbott’s studio in a reflective raincoat, marking an electric contrast to the faded white background of which Abbott was so fond.
The book is populated with figures famous and obscure, and sometimes the collocation is striking. In one image, James Joyce sits handsome and eye-patched, looking like a great crowned bird. But no less engaging is what follows: his daughter Lucida, an aspiring dancer (later to be diagnosed with schizophrenia), in four sharp, staccato poses. This commitment to capturing motion recurs throughout. In a posed photograph, the American Jazz drummer Buddy Gilmore looks unguardedly gleeful as his sticks descend towards his drum. In the longest series of the collection, Abbott captures Jean Cocteau intertwined in white sheets, performing a simultaneously campy and touching totentanz with a white mask.
Most memorably, there is a diptych of Eugéne Atget, whose posthumous canonization is primarily thanks to Abbott’s purchase and promotion of his work. Abbott’s photography expands on the French tradition of interplay between naturalist reportage and modernist illusion—a tradition that includes not only Atget but Baudelaire and the luminous pre-Haussmann street photographer Charles Marville, who, much like Abbott in New York, was commissioned by the city of Paris to document what modernity was in the process of destroying. In these portraits of Atget, Abbott captures his simultaneously vatic and foggy quality—the visionary of Paris, near the end. Of all the stunning portraits in this collection, these possess that undeniable quality of love—placing them beyond the rest.