Van Haaften (From Talbot to Stieglitz: Masterpieces of Early Photography from the New York Public Library, 1982, etc.) seeks to evoke the genius of visionary photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991).
Born in Springfield, Ohio, Abbott left college at 19 to move to Greenwich Village, where she embarked on an exemplary life in the avant-garde. Originally a sculptor, she turned to photography in Paris in the early 1920s, after becoming an assistant to her friend Man Ray. In 1925, she experienced an epiphany when she discovered the work of photography pioneer Eugène Atget. Atget’s images “sparked in her ‘a sudden flash of recognition‚ the shock of realism unadorned.’ ” Not only did Abbott negotiate the purchase of Atget’s archive—a mixed blessing, it turned out, for a variety of reasons—she found her place behind the lens. Within a decade, she had made the magnificent Night View, New York, an extended-exposure nightscape of midtown Manhattan taken from an aerie in the Empire State Building. “I’m sort of sensitive to cities,” she is quoted as saying, more than once, in this biography. “They have a personality.” If only the same were true of Van Haaften’s writing, which is too often pedestrian, a recitation of facts without enough of the interpretive urgency an artist of Abbott’s caliber deserves. Certainly, the book is comprehensive, and the author populates the narrative with a who’s who of 20th-century cultural heroes, from James Joyce to Jackie Onassis. Still, if Van Haaften dutifully cataloges the particulars of her subject’s experience, she is unable to explore the artist at the level of her soul. The Abbott who emerges here is made up of data points: a lesbian, targeted by the House Un-American Activities Commission for her left-wing politics, scared of heights, disdainful of the trickery of art. What’s missing is excitement and a sense of discovery.
Despite the useful information she has gathered, Van Haaften never brings Abbott fully to life.