The Pick: Berenice Abbott’s unsurpassed visions of New York

The Pick: Berenice Abbott’s unsurpassed visions of New York

Photomontage, 1932 (Image: Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd) 

One big omission in Woody Allen’s cavalcade of American expats in Midnight In Paris: Berenice Abbott, who started her career as Man Ray’s assistant, but later became a renowned photographer in her own right. Though her name might not be familiar, Abbott was one of the first proponents of documentary realism in photography, and, from 1935 to 1939, she captured iconic images of New York City that have since become a visual shorthand for big city living. A new exhibit at the AGO—which originated at Paris’s Jeu de Paume—goes beyond the famous Manhattan shots, displaying over 120 photographs from Abbott’s varied 60-year career.

The exhibit plumbs Abbott’s catalogue, and is a testament to her range: striking portraits of Jean Cocteau, James Joyce and Djuna Barnes sit alongside otherworldly multiple-exposure shots of refracted water waves and electromagnetic signals (shot over a two-year period at MIT). Abbott’s crisp, frank images are so straightforward that they’re practically avant-garde, a rebuke to the pretensions of the pictorialist photographers, whose work sought to adopt painterly traditions.

The whole catalogue is fascinating, but Abbott’s New York shots alone are worth the price of admission. In shades of black, white and grey, she constructs geometric kaleidoscopes through gaps in scaffolding, creates sweeping streetscapes populated with bleary-eyed New Yorkers and, through a reverent lens, transforms the Chrysler and Flatiron buildings into urban cathedrals. It’s no coincidence that the elegiac New York of the popular imagination—the one that occupies much of the first four minutes of Allen’s Manhattan—is Abbott’s New York.

N.B.: This exhibit was originally meant to open the Ryerson Image Centre, but due to the centre’s delay in opening, the AGO is guest-hosting it instead.

The details: To Aug. 19. $19.50. Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St. W., 416-979-6648,