By MICHAEL PERKINS
AT THIS WRITING (June 2018), reviews are rolling in for Julia Van Haaften’s new biography, Berenice Abbott: A Life In Photography, a celebration of the greatest visual chronicler of New York City’s perpetually parade of architectural extinctions. Abbott’s essential album of vanishing neighborhoods in the five boroughs, Changing New York, shot in stunning crispness with an 8×10 Century Universal view camera, has stood, since the 1930’s, as more than a stunning technical achievement: it has also been hailed, rightfully, as a priceless sociological record.
Abbott was an objectivist, the Joe Friday of photographers, believing that images could only be honest by providing just the facts, ma’am. As 20th century shooters sought to insert more of themselves….their feelings, their beliefs, their biases.. into increasingly personal work, Berenice and her camera became two halves of a single, emotionless machine, disdaining the sentiment or “viewpoints” of her contemporaries. In the final analysis, her conservative stance didn’t alter the fact that Changing New York is an invaluable document, a peerless record of a bygone era.
Photographers across the world would do well to carry on Abbott’s work, as the fragile infrastructures of the 20th century disintegrate before our eyes and entire cities fold over on their own histories for little more than the novelty of change. New York was one of the first towns to learn that progress amounts to more than a mere destroy-and-replace cycle, but many other urban centers lose their history out of a tragic brew of neglect and ignorance, much of that loss unchronicled or unmourned by today’s photographers. Ideally, every town should have its own Berenice Abbott.
Cities like my present home of Phoenix, Arizona are all about growth and not much for legacy. Old doesn’t mean venerable in the southwest: it means old and in the way. Structures like the 1930 Art Deco Phoenix Titles and Trust building, reborn in the 2000’s as Orpheum Loft Apartments and pictured here, are notable for their very survival as well as for their distinct architectural styles. Photographers can seldom prevent the coming of the bulldozers once people decide the past should be ground into dust. But they can bear witness, making images that serve alternatively as living history or cautionary tales.
As Berenice Abbott would say more than once, “photography should be a significant document, a penetrating statement.” Changes in New York, Phoenix, or Alabama are all similar in that they are waves in history. If there’s a more important assignment for the camera than tracking those waves, I’m damned if I know what it is.
PAUL DESMOND, LEGENDARY SAXOPHONIST for the Dave Brubeck Quartet, was famous for his wry replies to mundane questions from the press. Asked once “so, how are things going?”, he quipped, “Great. We’re playing music like it’s going out of style…..which, of course, it is.”
Beyond the cleverness of the statement, Desmond actually provided a corolary to the ongoing state of photography. It is an art which is never “settled” into any final form, either in its mechanics or its aesthetic. Glass plates give way to roll film, which give way to digital storage, which will give way to..what? Recent trends in the forward edge of shooting hint at, among other things, bold new experiments in the direct exposure of chemically treated paper, minus lenses or shutters, resulting, in effect, in a camera-less camera. So now, what? A method so old that it’s new? So complicated that it’s totally simple? And where in these new crafts lie the art they might enable?
As image makers, we are really running down two parallel rails en route to obsolescence, since the world, as it can presently be seen, is passing away at the same lighting rate as our current means of documenting it. This is a constant for our art. When Eugene Atget recorded the last days of the Paris of the late 19th century, his methods for making the shots was fading out of fashion almost as quickly the dark, twisting streets he recorded. And when his protege, Berenice Abbott, undertook the same “mapping” of New York’s boroughs in the 1930’s (on assignment from various New Deal agencies), she, too was laboring against constantly improving methods for completing the book Changing New York, starting her massive project with a 60-pound view camera, and ending it with a new, lighter Rolleiflex miniature. She was also, understandably, racing against the wrecking ball of progress.
Worse, many places, such as the American southwest (where I live), hold the view that “old” is not “venerable”, but “in the way”….creating, for the shooter, a constant conundrum; what to visually archive, and in what way, and in what order?
The quiet death of Kodachrome, several years ago, proved a challenge for imagists the world over. If you were burning your last roll of this fabulous film forever, what shots would make your photographic bucket list? And how about expanding this scenario to include not just diehard “filmies”, but everyone? If there were an absolute deadline for imaging, a date beyond which no more pictures could be taken, ever, ever, what new urgency would inform your choices?
It’s almost that dire already. Time hurtles forward and lays waste to everything in its path, including ourselves. Today, now, we are watching it erase neighborhoods, cities, forests, the shapes of nations, even the names of places. Even if we use our skills largely for cataloguing the general effect of these changes, we are nonetheless under the gun to fill our days with the grabbing of these fleeting glances. Even while we perpetually change how we capture, we must capture as much as we can, by any means available.
There is no mission statement stronger than the three words always be shooting. Because we are doing more than saving memories; we are, in fact, bearing witness. Whatever the subject, wherever we want to start chronicling the word around us, we need to be taking pictures.
Like they’re going out of style.