The famed American documentarian Berenice Abbott (1898–1991) began her career in photography as Man Ray’s darkroom assistant in Paris in 1923. Working in his Montparnasse portrait studio, she took to printing immediately, and at Man Ray’s suggestion (but without any guidance, she remembered) soon began making her own portraits. Within three years she had opened a rival studio, also on the city’s Left Bank and similarly catering to its bohemian milieu. Unlike her former employer, she would not make her women sitters into the “pretty objects” she saw in his photographs.
Women whose views about representation aligned with her own sought Abbott out. Many lived openly as queer, to use today’s term: Margaret Anderson, Princess Eugène Murat, Betty Parsons, Solita Solano, and others whose portraits are on view here. Abbott preferred not to speak about her own sexuality, but she was explicit in her desire for independence and her disinterest in marrying—then typically the defining act of a woman’s life—and did not hide the primary romantic relationship of her life, her thirty-year partnership with the art critic Elizabeth McCausland.
This exhibition brings together a selection of Abbott’s portraits of women from the Johnson’s collection for the first time. It is being presented in conjunction with Radical Desire: Making On Our Backs Magazine, which is on view this semester in Kroch Library’s Hirshland Gallery. On Our Backs, the groundbreaking women-run magazine of lesbian sexuality and culture that debuted in 1984, relied heavily on photographs to represent the full spectrum of lesbian desire to its diverse community of readers. Honey Lee Cottrell and Tee Corinne, two of the magazine’s most prolific contributors, both cited Abbott as a critical influence. As Corinne wrote in 1982, in the “Lesbian Cultural Center” of 1920s Paris, “[m]any women who chose not to relate romantically to men and who could afford to commission portraits of themselves chose Abbott as their primary image maker. Her portraits of women in general and lesbians in particular offer us vivid material from which to develop a woman centered aesthetic.”
This exhibition was curated by Kate Addleman-Frankel, the Gary and Ellen Davis Curator of Photography, with assistance from Cecilia Lu ’22.