Berenice Abbott and Eugène Atget

This post is the first in a series associated with my paper Sources and Models of Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York.

Berenice Abbott was an American documentary photographer, probably best known for her project Changing New York. The breadth and scope of Change New York is astounding. Abbott spent 11 years (roughly from 1928-1939) photographing every aspect of New York City during the height of the Great Depression. Orginally from Ohio, Abbott first came to New York in 1921 to pursue a career in journalism. For whatever reason, she became interested in sculpture and quickly dropped journalism for a career in the arts. She soon made her way to Paris where she ended up as a studio assistant to the photographer Man Ray. Paris is also where Abbott became familiar with the work of Eugène Atget.

Atget was an eccentric figure in modern photography. By the time Abbott came into contact with him, he had been photographing Paris for decades. Atget’s photographs of empty streets and decaying storefronts would go on to inspire a variety of artists. Avant-garde artists such as Man Ray, Picasso, and Andre Derain, were drawn to Atget’s work for it’s slightly off-kilter view of modern life.

Eugène Atget, Eclipse, 1912

Abbott had a different take on Atget though. She called his photographs images of “reality unadorned”. Atget claimed his photographs were purely documentary. He did not view them as works of art, though he did sell prints to museums and artists. I think Abbott shared a similar view of his work, and that the purpose of photography was to document. The phrase “reality unadorned” is an interesting one. For all we know, Atget didn’t alter his photographs in post production. That he carefully composed his photographs is evident, but I think part of the reality Abbott admired so much was in the completeness of subject matter. Atget photographed everything. No subject received preferential treatment, and in his own way Atget attempted to present each subject as honestly as he could.

When viewed on their own, without context, Atget photos can seem like some sort of strange surrealist dream. Deserted corners, odd doorways, and headless mannequins are frequent subjects. Often the perspective in Atget’s photos seems a bit off. As individual prints, Atget’s work can seem a bit divorced from real life. But when considered as part of larger body of work, it becomes apparent what Atget was aiming at, a complete view of a city in the grips of major change.

The totality of Atget’s project and the element of time (Atget’s attempt to freeze time), were huge influences in the future work of Abbott. Not only would her interactions with Atget provide the impetus for Changing New York, but Atget’s influence would inspire Abbott to pursue serial photography as an essential component of her “realism”. Atget’s collection instilled Abbott with a belief that truth could not be represented in a single photograph, but that multiple images taken at different times and from different angles could “capture city life in totality.”[1]

1. Wolfgang Brückle, “On Documentary Style: ‘anti-graphic photography’ between the Wars.” History Of Photography 30, no. 1 (2006), p. 78.


Diego Rivera and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)


Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Diego Rivera, 1914

I’ve got two projects in the works at the moment, a conference paper on Berenice Abbott and my MA thesis on the early years of American Muralism. I’ll be blogging about both subjects frequently, and unless other things come up (and I have time to think about them) Abbott and Murals will be my main contribution. It’s kind of a lot to deal with, and I hope breaking it down into smaller posts might help me manage the work load.

One of the things I’m interested in is Diego Rivera’s relationship with America and the part the Museum of Modern Art played in it.

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Footprints in the snow…


An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin. A bit of fiction to break up lots of reading non fiction. I thought the book was a fun read. I like art. The following bits of dialogue reminded me of the reading I should be working on for a project on Vik Muniz’s Verso series, a sculptural set of works that are recreations of the backs of famous paintings and photographs. I like how one of the characters here breaks down the elements of a painting.

Dialogue from page 81:

“Momentary objects of desire.” Lacey was cornering him, in a friendly way, and she could tell he was rethinking.

“It’s true,” he continued, “that both you and paintings are layered. You, in the complex onion-peel way, dark secrets and all that. Paintings operate in the same way.” He didn’t say anything more.

“Uh. Hello? Go on,” said Lacey.

“Well, first, ephemera and notations on the back of the canvas. Labels indicate gallery shows, museum shows, footprints in the snow, so to speak. Then pencil scribbles on the stretcher, usually by the artist, usually a title or date. Next the stretcher itself. Pine or something. Wooden triangles in the corners so the picture can be tapped tighter when the canvas becomes loose. Nails in the wood securing the picture to the stretcher. Next, a canvas: linen, muslin, sometimes a panel; then the gesso–a primary coat, always white. A layer of underpaint, usually a pastel color, then, the miracle, where the secrets are: the paint itself, swished around, roughly, gently, layer on layer, thick or thin, not more than a quarter of an inch ever – God can happen in that quarter of an inch – the occasional brush hair left embedded, colors mixed over each other, tones showing through, sometimes the weave of the linen revealing itself. The signature on top of the entire goulash. Then varnish is swabbed over the whole. Finally, the frame, translucent gilt or carved wood. The whole thing is done.”

Suspended Conversations by Martha Langford

The author of Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums, Martha Langford, began the book as part of her dissertation research at McGill University in Montreal. The book is based around a collection of photo albums held at the McCord Museum of Canadian History. Langford’s argument is that conversation is a key part to experiencing photo albums; without a person who can activate the album, the album has lost its original purpose and meaning. As Langford states in the first chapter:

Voices must be heard for memories to be preserved, for the album to fulfill its function. Ironically, the very act of preservation – the entrusting of an album to a public museum – suspends its sustaining conversation, stripping the album of its social function and meaning (5).

Also in the introduction Langford points out that photographs in an album are of worth to researchers not for their recording of place names, but for portraiture, which in turn leads to interest in relationships (7). Through studying an album the viewer begins to see relationships. Viewers are “lobbed back and forth by the album’s cross-references and connections. Links between pictures, whether by place, date, costume, pose, composition, physical resemblance, or placement on the page, demand to be checked” (15). This sounds familiar and is how I’ve experienced the photo album I’m currently digitizing at work. There are clusters of photos from one event spread throughout two photo albums. Similar people recur as well as dates and locations. This indicates that the photo album, like memories, is a jumble, and not arranged as orderly as it may first appear. There are multiple gaps. In some cases multiple duplicates of uninteresting moments, and a lack of representation for a multitude of more important moments (6).

I’m looking forward to reading more from this book about photo albums and approaches for interpretation. There seem to be a few chapters that cover the photo album more broadly and a few that look quite specifically at albums from the McCord Museum.

For further reading on the photo album in the archive and how scholars might use them see the blog post Memory and Absences: The Challenges of Interpreting Scrapbooks and Photo Albums from Educating Women: Blog of The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education at Bryn Mawr College

Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes


p. 82 “Always the Photograph astonishes me, with an astonishment which endures and renews itself, inexhaustibly.”

I recently read Camera Lucida by Barthes on a train ride from Philly to Washington DC. I’m researching the broad topic of photography for about three projects at the moment. For one project I’ve started looking at articles and books on vernacular photography and have found Barthes mentioned several times. In Camera Lucida, Barthes is inspired to write about photography by an image of his mother who recently passed. (His mother died in 1977, Camera Lucida was published in 1980.) Barthes never reveals the image to the reader. He states that the image would only interest the reader in that it was an image taken in the past (studium), it wouldn’t have the emotional impact (punctum) that it does for him.

I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound (73).

There are photographs reproduced in the book. The Stock from the author’s collection is of a boy and a girl standing on either side of a seated older man. Barthes informs the reader that the boy was his father. He uses this image to discuss the influence of lineage. “Lineage reveals an identity stronger, more interesting than legal status – more reassuring as well, for the thought of origins soothes us, whereas that of the future disturbs us, agonizes us…”


The book consists of a series of short meditations on what photographs are and how they affect viewers. Barthes uses personal photographs as examples, but also photographs of people that he does not have a personal tie to. If you are looking for reasons to study, exhibit, scan, promote etc. amateur photography, especially that which exists in non digital formats, Barthes isn’t a bad place to start. The following are some quotes that I found particularly interesting, engaging, and helpful to studying  vernacular photography.

…the age of Photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumed as such, publicly…(98)

Usually the amateur is defined as an immature state of the artist: someone who cannot – or will not – achieve the mastery of a profession. But in the field of photographic practice, it is the amateur, on the contrary, who is the assumption of the professional: for it is he who stands closer to the noeme of Photography (98-99).

noeme = essence of Photography “…in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past” (76).

“The Photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been” (85).

…the realists do not take the photograph for a ‘copy’ of reality, but for an emanation of past reality: a magic, not an art. To ask whether a photograph is analogical or coded is not a good means of analysis. The important thing is that the photograph possesses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time. From a phenomenological viewpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation (88-89).

Another important aspect of amateur photography that Barthes takes into account is the physical objectness of a photograph.

“The only way I can transform the Photograph is into refuse: either the drawer or the wastebasket” (93). Today one could digitize the object and then circulate it online. It then loses it’s objectness and becomes simply an image. Barnes continues, “…even if it is attached to more lasting supports, it is still mortal…Attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes; there is nothing left to do but throw it away” (93).

Barthes also discusses “the air (the expression, the look)” (107), that is apparent in portraits. He points out that the air of a person is not present in all images of a person. Indeed sometimes people barely look like themselves in photographs. Is it possible to see the air of a person in a photograph if you never knew the person? Barthes writes that it is, but is harder to find in amateur photographs.

I can be frustrated for life of the ‘true image.’ Since neither Nadar nor Avedon has photographed my mother, the survival of this image has depended on the luck of a picture made by a provincial photographer who, an indifferent mediator, himself long since dead, did not know that what he was making permanent was the truth – the truth for me (110).

Another issue Barthes discusses at length is that all photographs remind viewers of death – the person in the photo is dead or will one day be dead. This seems to add agency to the viewers experience. Hopefully they may do something and capture it on film before they die.

Pinterest and Museums


I’ve been involved in a lot of discussion about Pinterest and art recently. Mostly revolving around whether or not it can be used as a legitimate scholarly tool. Bookmarking, organizing data etc… I tend to come down on the side of no. For me Pinterest is purely an aesthetic time-waster. I rarely click through pins to the original source, and I see tons of mislabeled and dead end pins that go nowhere. For me personally, there are better bookmarking and organizational open source options out there to help me with academic work.

But the other day at my job*, I was asked to look into how museums are using Pinterest. We recently discovered that Pinterest is the 4th most popular social media platform driving traffic to our main website, without the museum actually running a Pinterest account. The popularity of sharing collection images on Pinterest has led the marketing department to think about how we could use it to generate more interest in the museum/our collections. While I follow a lot of museums on Pinterest I’ve never really thought about how institutions use the platform as a branding tool.

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