Berenice Abbott’s (1898 – 1991) career and artistic identity is distinguished by two different eras and places that the artist called home: Paris and New York. Both periods and locations embody disparate productions and subjects, and some consider Abbott’s early work from Paris in the 1920s to reveal her lesbian identity. David C. Ward and Jonathan D. Katz, who curated the insightful exhibition HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, recently on view at the Brooklyn Museum, state in the exhibition catalogue that Abbott’s earlier practice in Europe was committed to chronicling “the dominant butch/femme social organization in Paris.” Abbott’s major shift in style and subject later in her life begs questions: was the goal of her Paris work to evoke lesbian life? Can we read Abbott’s art as lesbian?
An early account from Abbott’s youth reveals her rebellious nature from the get go. She grew up in Springfield, Ohio, and upon her arrival at Ohio State University, Abbott cut her hair very short. Her bobbed hair not only changed her appearance and perhaps manifested a transition in her identity, but it also gained her acquaintances with many students from New York, who considered her eccentric, just like they were. Along with this group of friends, Abbott moved to New York in 1918, landing in the bohemian capital of Greenwich Village, where she was in the company of artists such as Baroness Else von Freitag-Loringhoven, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray as well as the actor Eugene O’Neil.
In 1921, Abbott decided to leave for Paris, where she assisted the Dada and Surreal artist Man Ray in his portrait studio in Montparnasse. Shortly after Man Ray’s mentorship, Abbott opened her own studio in 1926. As a portrait photographer, Abbott’s studio was visited by a wide circle of lesbian intellectuals and artists including Jane Heap, Sylvia Beach, Princess Eugene Murat, Janet Flanner, Djuna Barnes and Betty Parsons. Some of Abbott’s portraits from this era overtly express lesbian desire, depicting women wearing mannish clothing and openly expressing their sexual identity. Whether these portraits could be read as lesbian art or as artworks done by a lesbian artist is difficult to determine, due to Abbott’s refusal to identify as one. In an attempt to find a relation between Abbott’s imagery from Paris and her sexual orientation, the artist Kaucyila Brooke wrote to Abbott in 1985, asking her this very question, only to learn that Abbott was an extremely closeted person. Refusing this kind of analysis and suppressing her identity, Abbott furiously answered: “I am a photographer, not a lesbian.”
When Abbott returned to New York in 1929, the city was not the same as it was when she left a decade earlier. In addition to the vast development of skyscrapers, changing the city’s skyline, New York gay culture was not as open and tolerant as it was when Abbott first lived there. In his book Gay New York, historian George Chauncey argues that by 1920s, close to the time when Abbott moved from Ohio to New York, Greenwich Village was a gay center, linking lesbian and homosexuals to the bohemian community living there. However, from the 1930s onward, tolerance toward the gay community deteriorated, forcing many people back into the closet. Back in New York, Abbott revisited her past and returned to Greenwich Village, which she documented more than any other part of the city. One can interpret her documentations of Greenwich Village as a eulogy to her earlier bohemian life. For example, addressing her experience as a young adult in New York, Abbott captures the Provincetown Playhouse – a theater in the Village she lived across from in 1918 and occasionally performed in.
Why was Abbott suppressing her sexual identity? And why was her work from Paris so different from her New York imagery?
As an independent woman working in New York, she often struggled with men in her field, trying to prove that she was their equal. Therefore, she may have preferred to be recognized for her work as a photographer and not singled out for her sex or her sexual orientation.
– Shlomit Dror, Research Associate, American Art.
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