Photography Beyond Portraiture

New exhibit of Berenice Abbott prints at MITcaptures the faces of 1920s Paris

The online description of the Berenice Abbott photography exhibit, currently on display at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) List Visual Arts Center, is misleading. The description states that the exhibit features 18 black and white portraits by the American photographer, whose work celebrates Parisian life in the 1920s. However, one of Abbott’s most famous prints, an image of French writer Jean Cocteau’s hands, does not feature a face, and is not a portrait in the traditional sense of the word. In this image, and others like it, Abbott instead engages in a broader form of portraiture, capturing the various idiosyncrasies of her subjects while preserving her own distinctive artistic style.

Of the 18 prints on display, one of the most striking is “René Crevel,” a portrait of the surrealist writer and famous Parisian bohemian.  A rebel in many senses, Crevel was known both for his communist political beliefs and his bisexuality. In the photo, he is seated and turned in partial profile, wearing an expression of utter confidence and relaxation. Handsome and smartly dressed in a jacket, bowtie, and checkered pants, a closer look at the photo reveals that Crevel is actually somewhat disheveled. His hair has a cowlick in the back that sticks up like a tail feather, his collar is untucked, his jacket is off-center, and his handkerchief is askew. Though sophisticated in his attire, Crevel remains completely absorbed in his thoughts; in these moments, his physical appearance suggests an indifference toward the accepted social standards of self-presentation. In this way, Abbott portrays her subject candidly, capturing both the pensive and the rough-hewn elements of his personality.

Masks and hats appear frequently in Abbott’s photos, as does dark, shadowy lighting. One image depicts a sleeping Jean Cocteau lying in bed next to a white plaster mask, starkly juxtaposing the quiet, almost troubled expression of the resting man with the bright inanimate smile of the mask. Obscuring or hiding one’s face is another commonality in many of the shots. In one memorable image, Jean Cocteau’s right eye is completely hidden behind a gun he is holding. In another less dramatic shot, an aging woman’s lips seem distorted inadvertently, haphazardly covered by a wisp of smoke escaping from her cigarette.

Abbott’s unique artistic style is evident in every picture, whether articulated through her choice of lighting and coloring, or the position of her subjects. The photographs are all silver gelatin prints, but the black and white images manage to  convey a rich array of tones. With lighting, Abbott consistently makes her subjects stand apart from their surroundings in creative and eye-catching ways. In images like “John V. Lacey, Birdsmith,” for instance, Lacey remains visually striking even against the backdrop of a densely cluttered room.

Considered as a whole, the collection presents an intriguing assemblage of images, the subjects of which vary in emotion and appearance, but remain unified in their attitude toward the camera. With Abbott’s help, the sitters each attempt to make a statement about themselves, and offer a glimpse into their true personalities. A beautiful, touching shot of Cocteau’s hands gently folded over his hat and an image of jazz musician Buddy Gilmore exuberantly tapping on a wall like a drum set look nothing alike, yet both photographs capture a particularly essential characteristic of their subject.

The photographs, recently donated by MIT alumnus Ronald Kurtz, will not disappear to a museum after the exhibit is over. Part of the MIT List Visual Arts Center’s Student Loan Art Collection, the prints will be available to any student who wishes to decorate his or her dorm room for the year. So if you find yourself at an MIT party with a black and white portrait on the wall, it may well be worth a second look.

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