Before diving into The Realist, photography critic Sarah Coleman’s incisive, elegantly written debut novel about pioneer photographer Berenice Abbott, I spent a few hours with Abbott’s work, with which I had only a glancing familiarity. I wanted to see the work in my mind’s eye before reading descriptions.
When I turned to The Realist, I saw that I would have done as well, if not better, to read the book as preparation to view Abbott’s pictures. Coleman’s book is rich with well-researched historical ambiance—the Montparnasse art scene circa 1920; Wall Street’s glory moment before the 1929 crash; Hoovervilles in Central Park as the Depression set in; the backstabbing art world personalities. But Coleman’s ability to transform the cerebral process of artistic development into drama made me understand Abbott’s extraordinary images as part of a long series of epiphanies.
Photographically speaking, Coleman knows her stuff. She has degrees in art and writing, writes about photography and literature on her blog, “The Literate Lens,” and has published in ARTnews, Salon, Photo District News and elsewhere. It helps that Abbott feuded with and befriended famous personalities, including Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, Djuna Barnes, and Margaret Bourke-White. Yet it’s no small achievement to write scenes with historical figures that are believable, advance the story, and don’t fall into Hollywood archaic diction, the great pitfall of the historical novel.
The Museum of the City of New York posts some 250 images from Abbott’s seminal “Changing New York” series online. The pictures, from 1935-38, taken under a Federal Art Project grant, capture a city becoming “modern”– sleek, glossy, mechanized, aggressive—at break-neck speed. Aluminum skyscrapers dwarf 19th century brick warehouses with iron hardware. Smooth art deco façades stare down a Belle-Epoque turret encrusted with dragons, crowns, and other medieval regalia. Other images could have been taken during the Civil War. Horse-drawn produce wagons and masted schooners. All marry time and place with the play of plane geometry and light that makes New York’s ever-mutating ugly beauty.
Coleman’s book—albeit a fictionalized biography—is both a healthy corrective to the prevailing delusion that we’re all great photographers, courtesy of the phone camera, and timely as sexual abuse, gender discrimination, and homophobia make headlines. Abbott, a lesbian, butted up against all of the above in the course of her life, which spanned most of the twentieth century (1899-1991).
The Realist opens with Abbott’s famous “It Has to Walk Alone” speech, in which she took on the entire photography establishment as keynote speaker at the field’s first national conference in 1951, when Abbott was 51. Inveighing against both pictorialism—“the making of pleasant, artificial photographs, in the superficial spirit of some minor painters”—and abstract modernism, she declared the photography is at heart a documentary medium, that “… can never grow up if it imitates other media. It has to walk alone.” An artistic manifesto, the speech also took revenge on her (by then-dead) nemesis, Stieglitz, ridiculing his photograph of a castrated horse’s rear entitled “Spiritual America,” and his acolytes.
“Cultural America has been represented by the back end of a horse to people who didn’t even know they were being insulted.” [She said]
Now there are surprised coughs and some laughs, as if she’s twirled a dirty garment in their faces. Symbolically, perhaps she has. She has dared declare that the emperor had no clothes—that Stieglitz was a phony.
When it’s over, “…[Margaret Bourke-White] squeezes her hand, nods at the cameras. Then she leans in again. ‘My dear, that was staggering,’ she says, ‘But what on earth made you do it?’”
Coleman’s novel depicts Abbott’s courage as more than intellectual. Elsewhere in the book, we see her accepting an apparently friendly invitation to shoot from a crane hanging one hundred feet above the city. The crane operator makes the crane swing terrifyingly, to teach an uppity female her place. She descends, trembling. “ ‘Sorry,’ says Dwyer, ‘Windy up there.’
‘Like hell,” she says…. ‘Like hell, you piece of shit.’”
Coleman traces Abbott’s sang-froid to her harsh, working-class childhood in Ohio. Abbott’s father leaves her mother, then returns to abduct her older sister. The mother’s remarriage ends after she comes home to find Bernice (She acquired the second “e” later) standing over her unconscious stepfather after fending him off with a bottle. Their escape doesn’t presage mother-daughter tenderness. After smacking her, Ma asks if she could be pregnant. No. “Then there’s nothing else to say. We won’t speak of it again. As of this moment, we start a new life.” Her mother’s coldness is another theme that weaves through the novel, though Abbott eventually makes a long and loving relationship.
A scholarship to Ohio State is the first step in her liberation. Abbott comes to New York, hoping to become a sculptor, moves to Paris, where she falls into photography working as an assistant to Man Ray, the surrealist, and becomes a sought-after portrait photographer there. (The book includes a number of Abbott’s photos, including a dreamy 1926 shot of the exquisite Tylia Perlmutter, her first lover.) While there, she also discovers the Parisian photographer, Eugène Atget, and becomes his champion and admirer. At the end of the 19th century, as whole swathes of Paris were razed under Baron Haussman’s redevelopment plan, Atget documented the condemned neighborhoods and the old-fashioned businesses that were becoming obsolete with the advent of department stores. Not only did she buy his collection, she sought to emulate his documentation of Paris in her own work on New York.
On returning to New York as the Depression hit, she approaches Stieglitz, hoping to interest the doyen of photographic taste in a show of Atget’s work, only to collide with him over artistic vision. Every novel needs a good villain, and Stieglitz fills the bill. Coleman portrays him as almost deranged by this nobody from Ohio, a woman, who dares to challenge his primacy. He takes her successes as personal affronts to be avenged. Was Stieglitz as odious to Abbott as he comes across in the book? I’m not a photography historian. Abbot’s and Stieglitz’s professional enmity is amply documented. And a powerful man employing scorched-earth tactics to defeat a rising female rings a lot of bells.
In the most dramatic moment of the book, Stieglitz corners Abbott at the opening of her “Changing New York” show at the Museum of the City of New York and calls her images derivative of his.
“Are you crazy?” she cries out. “Light and shadows? Do you think you own the sky?” She pauses, wondering whether to use the word delusional— then settles for something else, perhaps worse. “I think you’re jealous. I have a museum show, whereas you have to show your second-rate work in your own gallery.”
Stieglitz’s skin has turned ashen… “You are a rude, untalented, inconsequential woman,” he spits out. “Just wait. I’m going to bury you…” He takes a step forward, almost as if to make good on the threat—then stops suddenly, clutching at his chest.
Abbott, however tempted—to quote Liza Doolittle’s song “Just You Wait” in My Fair Lady—“to be off a second later/and go straight to the the-atre”—feels morally obligated to administer CPR.
The ups and downs of Abbott’s career are fortunately leavened by love interest. Elizabeth McCausland, an art critic who seeks her out after a show in which her work was upstaged by the surprise inclusion of paintings by Salvador Dalí (orchestrated by Stieglitz, of course), becomes the love of her life—but not without a serious hitch. At the time, she’s engaged to a man—albeit a wealthy, kind, supportive one. As her friendship with McCausland heats up, Abbott is unable to reveal her commitment. When McCausland finds out, she flees. However, she does show up for the “Changing New York” opening, turning the evening—very nearly derailed by the villainous Stieglitz—into an emotional as well as artistic triumph.
Abbott’s work moved into science photography, taking on the challenge of bringing science photography up to the sophistication of the research. The 1946 image of soap bubbles reproduced in the book, which looks like obsidian or black pebbles, seems like a celebration of the abstract beauty of form divorced from context. And here we see once again the photography establishment pulling the rug out from under Abbott. Edward Steichen, the head of photography at the Museum of Modern Art offers her a show, then changing his mind before it’s formalized.
Coleman shows Abbott falling into despair. What gets her out of bed in the end is her friend Beaumont Newhall, first head of photography at MOMA and now director of the George Eastman Museum invitation to speak at the 1951 photography conference at Aspen which opens the book.
“It’s not just a pity prize?”
“Oh please, give me credit. Have I ever said I pity you?”
Berenice doesn’t answer. She thinks, again, of the scene at Aspen. An audience made up of executives and curators. The top practitioners of her field. And Steichen, sitting where she can disembowel him with a glance.
Beaumont leans down, pats her hand. “I can see you’re thinking about it. Think some more. I’m going to a meeting now. I’ll stop in to see you later.” He gives her a quick peck on the cheek, then straightens up. “Not to be picky, but it would be nice if you bathed by then.”
Abbott was dogmatic that photography’s nature is inherently documentary. Yet what gives her images their transcendent beauty is their form much as scene. Reading The Realist, I suspect Abbott wouldn’t have thanked me for the compliment. But, as Coleman’s novel dramatizes, Abbott was not after compliments. She worked doggedly to capture the essence of a place and moment. Whether one calls it documentary or art is perhaps only important to critics and scholars. Abbott wanted her work to be accessible. With this lively, knowledgeable, and engaging novel, Coleman makes it more so.