Nationality: American | Born: 1898 - Died: 1991
Berenice Abbott was one of the tiny horde of Midwestern Yankee Americans who in the 1920's temporarily reversed the Course of Empire, and transferred the center of American cultural life to Paris. She arrived there in 1921 as a sculptor, and continued her studies with Emile Bourdelle. In 1923 she became an assistant in the photography studio of Man Ray, and two years later she first saw the photographs of Eugene Atget. She was irrevocably marked by the pure photographic authority of his work, and any remaining question as to her own life's work was settled.
In 1926 she opened her own portrait studio, and for the next three years photographed with honesty and grace the great and the famous of that city's intellectual world. In Paris the supply of artists, artistic celebrities, and salonistes seemed inexhaustible, and Abbott photographed many of them.
One of most moving of her portraits is one reproduced here of James Joyce. The grey, strangely lifeless, enveloping light finds its way everywhere, describing without emphasis or favor the writer's stickpin, his hands, his right ear, his fine beaver hat, the deep tiredness of his elegant slouch. He seems the survivor of too difficult a battle, shell-shocked by the terrible labor of putting so many words in the precisely proper order.
He was burdened at the time not only by exhaustion but by the pirating of his work, by his wife's serious illness, by deadlines, and by his degenerating eyesight. He wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver: "There are moments when I feel 20 but also half-hours when I feel 965." Possibly he meant 969, Methuselah's final age, but considering the precision of Joyce's mind it is more likely that he meant he felt four years younger than that.
Source "Looking at Photographs " by John Szarkowski
Photos © Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division