Twenty-eight years before the great female photographer Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio on July 17, 1898, a pioneering documentary photographer named Jessie Tarbox Beals was born on December 23, 1870 in Hamilton, Ontario. While Abbott has long been a favorite of mine along with the wonderful female photographers Helen Levitt (1913-2009) and Ruth Orkin (1921-1985), Beals was not on my list until recently. I readily admit this oversight with remorse and humility and she is now the subject of my devotion and fascination. While the aforementioned photographers may have possessed greater cache in the art world during their lifetime and post-death, and perhaps more bravura technique, Beals overcame more insurmountable odds due to her place in time. All three of these photographers are synonymous with capturing New York City life … and all of them surely had to encounter the challenges and prejudice of working in a male-dominated field. Abbott was influenced greatly by the French photographer Eugene Atget, whose artistic goal was to document all of the architecture and street scenes of Paris before these cityscapes succumbed to modernization. She moved to NYC in 1918, but left for Europe in 1921 to study sculpture and painting in Berlin and Paris. It wasn’t until 1923, when Man Ray hired her as a darkroom assistant at his Parisian portrait studio that she realized photography was her calling. She returned to NYC in 1929, reportedly to find an American publisher for Atget’s photographs, and it dawned on her that she had to capture the city’s ephemeral landscape much as Atget had done in his beloved Paris. I cannot find any mention of this, but surely Abbott had to be aware of Beals’ work.
The announcement on Thursday, May 30 from the Chicago Sun-Times that they fired/laid off all full-time photographers immediately evoked a torrent of responses from media outlets all over the country. I cannot help but wonder what the late Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert would say about this – I think I hear him grumbling from movie heaven. Among those fired was John H. White, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who blazed a trail for black photographers in the 1970s. I had the honor of meeting him at a Prevent Blindness America charity luncheon at Neiman Marcus in 2002, where he shot a few photos for the Sun-Times. For me, this announcement evoked a torrent of personal memories that started with an appreciation of documentary photography at the tender age of 11 – nurtured by a passionate interest in history and appreciation of visually powerful moments in time. When I was 12, my dad taught me how to develop black and white photos in a makeshift darkroom in our basement. I was immediately taken with the magic of pictures developing before my eyes in the chemical trays lined up on the rickety plywood shelving my dad had rigged up.
As an impressionable young woman, I journeyed to fabled Manhattan from my relatively sheltered life as an art student at RISD in Providence, R.I. Upon alighting at Penn Station for the very first time, there was a bit of a glitch. My older, worldlier sister who had already been living in the Big Apple for 3 years had not given me clear instructions on where we were to meet. Those were the days before cell phones – there was no way to get in touch with her. I was an innocent 18-year-old in New York City wondering what the hell had happened to my sister – after about 40 minutes or so I decided to go search upstairs and there she was … my street-smart sister nearly as frantic as I. For a good part of this visit I was on my own – marveling at the gritty, wonderful streets of NYC. Camera in hand, I attempted to summon the spirits of dead immigrants on the Lower East Side, admired the Art Deco lines of the Empire State Building – imagining King Kong and Fay Wray at the top, and prowled Canal Street for Vintage. A longtime admirer of the photography of Bernice Abbott, Jacob Riis, Walker Evans, and Helen Levitt, I too desired to capture a moment in time in “The City that Never Sleeps.”