NEW YORK — There’s a threefold complementarity to “Berenice Abbott’s New York Album, 1929″
and “Richard Avedon: MURALS,” both of which are currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Abbott show runs through Sept. 4, the Avedon through Oct. 1.
The first way they complement each other is a given: Abbott and Avedon are two of the great American photographers. The second is an amusing, if also obvious, grace note: Both names begin with the same letter. That’s fitting, since each is, yes, an A-list photographer. The third is where things get unusual: the matter of scale.
As indicated by that word “MURALS” (and all caps is definitely justified), the most sizable works in the Avedon show are very sizable. They’re wall-size. The five panels of “The Mission Council, Saigon, South Vietnam, April 28,1971,” are more than 10 feet in height and slightly more than 32 feet in length. Almost as big are triptychs of Andy Warhol with members of his Factory crowd and of the defendants in the Chicago 7 trial. To call these pictures assertive would be an understatement.
For some years, Avedon had been seeking to escape the confinement of being considered “just” a fashion photographer and portraitist. Here we see him not just escaping the confining size of magazine covers and layouts but exploding it.
With the Abbott, things go to the opposite extreme. That word “album” in the title isn’t meant figuratively. The heart of the show consists of two dozen album pages. They’re the same kind of heavy black paper your parents or grandparents would affix family photos to. The number of images per page ranges from eight to 11; most have nine. The pictures are a little more than 2 inches by a little more than 3 inches. They’re snapshot size, but snapshots of an exceedingly high order.
Where Avedon was making murals, Abbott was compiling the photographic equivalent of a sketchbook. That sketchbook looked back to Paris and Eugène Atget earlier in the ‘20s — and ahead a few years to Abbott’s landmark book, “Changing New York” (1939).
Early on in the show, one encounters Walker Evans’s portrait of Abbott, from 1929-’30. Encounters is the right word. The woman caught within the frame is part gamine, part gun moll. Fierceness came in handy if a young woman was to make the leap from central Ohio in the 1910s to avant-garde Paris of the ‘20s. Well, great fierceness Abbott had, and even greater talent.
After a couple of semesters at Ohio State, she’d moved to New York, in 1918. A few years later she went to Paris and started to work as Man Ray’s assistant, becoming a photographer herself. The show includes several Abbott portraits from this period: of James Joyce, the novelist Djuna Barnes, and Atget. There are also nine of Atget’s own photographs.
As Joyce was to Dublin, so Atget was to Paris: a Modernist master making a city his own in his art. Atget spent decades documenting the streets and buildings of Paris. Abbott returned to America in ‘29. Might she do something similar for New York? She could and did, and the results offer a textbook lesson in the difference between inspiration and imitation. Without Atget’s example, neither these album pages nor “Changing New York” would have happened. Yet neither in any way look like Atget’s work.
(An aside is in order, though genuflection might be a more appropriate word. Abbott is perhaps unique in the history of the visual arts for playing a crucial role in not one but two great careers. Atget died in obscurity, in 1927. Abbott, who was far from wealthy, somehow got together the money to purchase the lion’s share of his archive, nearly 10,000 prints and negatives, and keep them intact. Fierceness can be another word for dedication.)
So Abbott set to work, as the album pages show: the West Village, Wall Street, Midtown, Harlem, the Lower East Side, Astoria, in Queens (a rare foray out of Manhattan). Lacking a darkroom, she had her negatives developed as your parents or grandparents would have, at drugstores and commercial photo labs. Fierceness is very different from fussiness. That absence of polish and finesse adds to the sense of excitement and energy and discovery evident on every one of the album pages. It’s the same sense of excitement and energy and discovery that would inform “Changing New York” (several photographs from which are in the show).
Those qualities owe even more to the sheer dynamism of New York and Abbott’s artistry. One of the 1929 pictures, “The El at Columbus and Broadway,” is displayed both on an album page and as a separate print, enlarged to 6 inches by 8 inches. It’s a marvel of perspective and composition, balancing object and void: incongruous enough in its elements to please a Surrealist like her old boss Man Ray and rigorous enough in its detailing of those elements to satisfy the exacting standards of her friend Evans.
Fast-forward 40 years, and Avedon presents not “Changing New York” but “Changing America.” The complementarity of scale between the shows is, of course, founded on opposition: small and big. Within the Avedon show, there’s a further complementarity, also founded on opposition. This one has nothing to do with size, which is formal, and everything to do with politics, which is content.
On one wall, hang Warhol and company along with the Chicago 7: the counter-culture. Facing them is the counter-counter-culture, the set of old and middle-aged white males running the war in Vietnam: various diplomats, administrators, and, at their center, one general, Creighton Abrams, who in his formidability looks not a little like his namesake tank. Here we find worlds not just clashing and colliding, but existing at right angles to each other. What could be more different? Yet Avedon’s distinctive and unmistakable style — the blanched background, the black frame lines — makes them visually coherent. It’s art as equalizer.
That confrontational hanging is the show’s coup de theatre, but another nice touch is the presence of what the curators refer to as “outtakes.” These are alternate images from the portrait sessions, printed much smaller. Outtakes is the right term, too, since the size of the three group portraits approaches movie-screen scale.
Each also has a cast of characters, which gives them a further cinematic element. Almost always when several people figure in a photograph, the point is their being part of a crowd or mob — a jumble — rather than individuals, let alone specifically identified individuals. It’s a further tribute to Avedon that each sitter registers so well, both individually and as part of the larger whole. Hollywood’s never cared much for ensemble, being far more interested in stardom. Here we see how good Avedon was at both.
BERENICE ABBOTT’S NEW YORK ALBUM, 1929
RICHARD AVEDON: MURALS
At Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York, through Sept. 4 and Oct. 1, respectively. 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.