Maybe it was the late afternoon light. As I walked around the Village the other day with my camera in search of the past, I was drawn to surfaces. The shadow cast on red-orange brick by a black ladder, a white dog looking downbeat, leashed to the historic Beatrice Inn, and a haunting plaster face on a window frame on Charles Street, all inspired me to click the shutter. As I made the photographs, they made me think of Eugene Atget, and Berenice Abbott. They took me through the surfaces, and over eighty-five years into the past.
Eugene Atget—one of the great photographers of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, and one of the pioneer documentary photographers—about whom not many facts are known, was a former seaman and actor who photographed in and around Paris for three decades, beginning when he was around forty in the late-1890s. After focusing initially on making photographs for artists to use in their work (documents pour artistes), he soon shifted focus to the documentation of Old Paris, which was dying away.
Atget made thousands of photographs of the city and its environs—beautifully detailed, realistic images of doors, storefronts, ornaments, ironwork, signs, reflections and street life. He sold his work to museums, libraries and historical societies, as well as to painters and theater directors. He worked alone, in the patient manner of the nineteenth century photographer, using a large format camera. By the time of his death in 1927, he was relatively unknown in photography and art circles, except by a small group of admirers that included young Berenice Abbott, who would go on to spend a lifetime championing his work.
Abbott met Atget through Man Ray, the famous 1920s social photographer of Paris, who she worked for as a darkroom assistant beginning in 1923. Abbott had previously left Ohio at age twenty to live in Greenwich Village where she was involved with the Provincetown Playhouse, and tried her hand at sculpture, before following an exodus of artists to Paris in 1921. She excelled at photography and printing and left Man Ray to start her own studio in 1925, the same year she met Atget.
She got to know Atget over the next two years, buying prints from him, and taking his portrait. She became fascinated with his work and when he died she bought half of his prints and plates. She took these with her back to New York in 1929 and soon grew obsessed with doing for New York City what Atget had done for Paris—documenting a city in flux, and one that had changed radically in the years she was gone, particularly through the building of enormous skyscrapers.
Abbott eventually found an outlet and a source of funding for her vision and in 1935 began to work for the Federal Arts Project of the New Deal’s Works Projects Administration to document the changing face of the city with the same type of camera Atget used. This work culminated in a 1937 exhibit, a book, Changing New York, and a collection of 305 prints, which are housed at the Museum of the City of New York.
Abbott photographed across the city for the project but paid special attention to Greenwich Village, where she lived, at 50 Commerce Street. Her Village photographs for Changing New York, capture in a straightforward documentary style, the juxtaposition and layering of time and periods, the historical importance, mystery and plain charm of the neighborhood. Technically stunning and uniquely beautiful, they are essentially documentary in that they are concerned with time and place, with the passage of time and memory, and with the social landscape. They show the deep influence of Atget, perhaps more than the others, since Greenwich Village is much like Old Paris.
Aside from making new work, and teaching photography at the New School in the Village, Abbott continued to promote Atget and search for a home for his work. In 1954, the Limelight, a coffeehouse and photography gallery, opened at 91 Seventh Avenue South. The owner was a young photo retoucher and passionate fan named Helen Gee, and she made Limelight—the only commercial photography gallery in the country—into a central space for the world of serious photography.
One night in 1956 Abbott was at Limelight and told Gee there was something she wanted to talk to her about. She wanted to put on an exhibit of Atget’s work. Gee jumped at the opportunity, and soon went to look at prints in Abbott’s apartment a few blocks away. Gee was taken aback by the work, sixty Atget images printed by Abbott, “one more marvelous than the next.” Abbott was relieved, and told Gee, “I’ve been carrying Atget on my back for thirty years.”
The exhibit was a popular and critical success, and many of the prints sold—at twenty dollars a piece—an uncommon event at Limelight. It was the first time in twenty five years that an exhibit of the Abbott/Atget work had been shown. The Limelight closed in January 1961, after a seven year run, opening the door to many Downtown galleries, just as Eugene Atget opened the door for Berenice Abbott, and as Abbott opened the door for Eugene Atget, and as all of them opened my eyes.
Gee, Helen. Limelight: A Greenwich Village Photography Gallery And Coffeehouse in the Fifties. Albequerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.
Szarkowski, John. Atget. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2000.
Worswick, Clark and Berenice Abbott. Berenice Abbott & Eugene Atget. New Mexico: Arena Editions, 2002.
Yochelson, Bonnie. Berenice Abbott: Changing New York. New York: The New Press, 1997.