Excerpt: 'The Realisms of Berenice Abbott' by Terri Weissman
Bread Store, 259 Bleecker Street, Berenice Abbott, 1937
“If you knew anything about photography, you’d know I was the least arty photographer [in America],” Berenice Abbott stated in 1991 during an interview for a film about her life and career. This moment from the interview didn’t make the film’s final cut, and in fact Abbott herself never saw the movie in its final form, having, sadly, passed away shortly before its release. The statement reveals much about Abbott’s personality, though-about her attitude toward “art” and her approach to photography. It also ultimately gets to the heart of her understanding of photographic realism, which, simply put, might be stated: Abbott believed that photography should provide the general public with realistic images of a changing world, images designed to foster the kind of historical knowledge indispensable to democratic citizenship.
Simply put, maybe, but the story of Abbott’s realism is not that clear-cut. Her insistence on a “straight” approach to the photographic image, one that minimizes individual expression, has, for instance, come to overshadow most other aspects of her photographic theory and led historians to position her primarily as a proponent of what is now considered a naive understanding of photography’s ability to capture an objective world. The instinct or desire to characterize Abbott’s approach as purely about objectivity, clarity, and straightforwardness is understandable, though. Indeed, her own rhetoric, her repeated assertion of the photograph’s ability to represent the facts of life with a kind of fidelity lacking in all other media, sensibly leads one to this conclusion, as does her oft-cited quotation in which she recalls seeing Eugène Atget’s photographs for the first time: “Their impact was immediate and tremendous,” she writes; “there was a sudden flash of recognition-the shock of realism unadorned.” As mentioned in the introduction, Abbott’s emphasis on Atget’s realism set her interest in him apart from that of figures such as Man Ray and the surrealists. Where the surrealists were attracted to Atget’s work for its weird sense of emptiness and ability to redouble the world as a sign, Abbott was drawn to what she perceived as its pure realist essence.
Abbott continued to embrace this type of realist vision in her well-known and influential how-to book on photographic processes, A Guide to Better Photography, which at times reads like an exegesis on the advantages and ultimate correctness of a realist, or straight, approach to the medium. Consider chapter 10’s opening words: “Photography is a new vision of life, a profoundly realistic and objective view of the external world…. What the human eye observes casually and incuriously, the eye of the camera (the lens) notes with relentless fidelity.” In chapter 15 she declares, “Photography, by its very realistic and factual nature, permits the artist to lie less than many other mediums. To be sure, the photographic processes may be manipulated in ways that seem to deny photography’s realistic character. But these diversions do not continue to hold attention.” And in chapter 24, which is dedicated to straight photography, she claims: “We can see that straight photography today exercises a corrective influence in two directions, against the kind … of picture-making extolled by the pictorialists … and against the frivolousness of those who manipulate the medium purely for selfish ends, as in the surrealist nightmares…. Contrasted with the horrors of sentimentality [pictorialism] and of pseudo-sophistication [surrealism], straight photography is a clean breath of good, fresh air. It … calls for the use of the medium without perversion of its true character.”