Books in the Background 3: Photography

Ron Berman


            While editing hundreds of images for Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway wrote to Max Perkins:  "I have not described certain things in detail because photography has been brought to the point where it can represent some things better than a man can write of them."  He and those he knew—Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gerald and Sara Murphy, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein—became part of the history of documentary photography through portraits and snapshots. There are selections of such photos in Ruth Prigozy's F. Scott Fitzgerald (2001); Deborah Rothschild's Making It New (2007); and in Michael Reynolds' biography from The Young Hemingway  (1986) through Hemingway: the Final Years  (1999). But there is always that subterranean meaning implied by Hemingway:  Photos do more than represent observed detail. 

            Vanessa Bell visited Picasso's studio and saw him working from a photograph (as he had already done in portraits of Renoir and of his wife, Olga).  In one of the great takes on art history, he had Brassaï photograph him painting a spectacular maja desnuda. But the model in the shot is his friend Jean Marais, trying desperately to look glamorous while horizontal and clothed to his wingtips. The magnificent nude is nowhere in the frame although she is on the canvas, a figment of art-history imagination. Berenice Abbott's 1928 portrait of Joyce was on his mind a decade later when he recalled posing for it in Finnegan's Wake. Man Ray took the iconic Gertrude Stein and Picasso's Portrait (1922) at 27 rue de Fleurus and in Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas (1922) showed the "big studio" that A Moveable Feast says is "like one of the best rooms in the finest museum." He also took a number of shots (1922-1923) of Hemingway on his way to fame. Man Ray's portraits changed documentation—the 1925 pose of Nancy Cunard vamping really does show some things better than a man can write of them. 


Van Haaften, Julia, ed.  Aperture Masters of Photography:  Berenice Abbott.  New York: Aperture Foundation, 2015.  96 pp.  $18.95.

Aubenas, Sylvie and Quentin Bajac, eds.  BRASSAï  Paris Nocturne. London: Thames and Hudson, 2013.  304 pp.  $59.92.

            The series of Aperture books on Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Paul Strand, and Dorothea Lange began in the late seventies and is slowly being revised. Berenice Abbott's volume has been edited by Julia Van Haaften, who was curator of photography at the New York Public Library. Images are technically excellent and are accompanied by scholarly text. Berenice Abbott combined Eugène Atget's plain solidity with her own sense of design, especially in images of New York. Beaumont Newhall's The History of Photography cites her own doctrine: "everything in the city is properly part of its story—its physical body of brick, stone, steel, glass, wood, its life-blood of living, breathing men and women . . . the noble and the shameful, high life and low life."  That city of the twenties and thirties is gone but visible in Abbott's work—and in Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson, and André Kertész.  Abbott's picture of the "EL" at Bowery and Division streets visualizes those "spidery girders of the elevated" that Nick sees on the way to the Plaza; and the same Third Avenue line described in Gerald Murphy's notebook.

            Abbott worked in Paris while Hemingway lived there, taking her definitive shot of Joyce; and also Cocteau, and Janet Flanner. Although a notable interpreter of documentary art, she was committed to the example of Eugène Atget, the most unadorned of documentary artists. To get from the Sorbonne to other parts of Paris you had to walk through streets crowded with shops overflowing their sidewalks, selling second-hand clothes and furniture. There were open ateliers, and quite a lot of places under demolition. Something is happening there, and images of Atget and of Cartier-Bresson are not meant to remember things past. We might think again about Picasso's dismissal of a century of nudes who look like crème fraiche. Clément Chéroux, curator at the Pompidou, writes that one of the most important (and humblest) elements of Cartier-Bresson's Quai Saint-Bernard is "a heap of merchandise . . . packed under thick tarps."  They are seen; they are going somewhere; they are becoming something. In Street Photography, Clive Scott states that shop windows became important subjects in the twenties because they silently recorded social change. It wasn't entirely a matter of rising prices and new styles: retail displays of small inventories at low prices were indicators of decline in the age of department stores. Paris never stayed the same as in our sentimental imagination but was always deconstructing.  A.J. Liebling, who often walked a route like Hemingway's, wrote that going from the Sorbonne to the Boulevard Saint-German in 1926 "was a half mile that made as much difference as the border between France and Switzerland."  It was a journey towards affluence, passing antiquarian shops and famous restaurants, with radically different kinds of people in the scene.  The scene was never static.

            BRASSAÏ  Paris  (2008) has indispensable images and deserves a very long look even though it is a Taschen publication providing the usual three lines of text in English, French and German explaining nothing at all.  But, the book is a miraculously cheap hardcover and its plates are very good.  The Paris Nocturne text edited by Sylvie Aubenas and Quentin Bajac (2013) has received first-rate reviews and is a source for both photography and literature. An important section of the book by Aubenas lists photographers of Paris before the thirties. Brassaï was a friend of writers and artists, and himself wrote about the connection of writing and images.  As did Henry Miller, who admired his work: "if you should ever get to read my Tropic of Cancer . . . you would perhaps better understand my sentiments.  In that book I conveyed an impression of the streets of Paris of which the photographs of Paris seem like the perfect illustration. . . . I was profoundly impressed by the extent and variety of his work."

            Brassaï's work like "14 July, Place de la Contrescarpe" intersects with Hemingway's. Brassaï especially imaged the kind of night life described in SAR—"Two Prostitutes Soliciting" (1931-1932) contains its subjects within a long view of "lighted bars and late open shops" like those seen on the taxi ride to the rue Mouffetard.   His many bar and café panoramic shots contain subjects isolated by Hemingway.  The scene of the bal musette in The Sun Also Rises should be interpreted through Brassaï's Jeune couple au bal de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève (1931-1932). This is a remarkable photograph of the "Secret Paris" sequence whose subjects are street thugs, madams, working girls waiting for customers, gay bars, and street-corner transactions. They are in Brassaï, as in Hemingway, because the city is their habitat. But subjects are not the whole picture. Both artists do the difficult work of capturing movement and light, and implying meaning. There are other subjects common to Hemingway and Brassai:  For example, men "working on the car-tracks" at night in SAR are also in "Polisseurs de rails" (1930). The "Secret Paris" images are part of a long look at the components of the city—introductions by Aubenas and Bajac are especially good at placing him within the history of writing as well as visualizing.  Bajac cites Diane Arbus, who said of Brassaï that he made her tired of her own clarity because he understood the need to balance photos between light and darkness.

            The European setting of Hemingway's life—France, Italy, Spain—can be seen in Abbott, Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson, Kertész, and Man Ray. Useful editions of their work are sporadically available from the bookstores of MOMA and the Getty Center.  Other sources are necessarily archives and catalogs of exhibitions from the Jeu de Paume, Pompidou, Carnavelet, and Maison Européenne de la Photographie. André Kertész   (2007) in the Photofile series contains shots of Paris in the early twenties.  The plates are very good although the text is pedantic. Many Kertész images make silent connections:  Le Café du Dôme, Paris, 1925 shows a fashionable scene, recording dress, gesture, and style.  Possibly some at the crowded tables are expatriates. Patrons express a certain ease while sitting, listening, or expressively talking. Here, as Berenice Abbott said, is definitely the high life, or at least the life of being well dressed and funded in Montparnasse. Outside a café, Paris, 1928 shows a different kind of life, a man, solitary, dressed in imitation of the middle class, silent and unforthcoming.  There isn't much chance of his being an expat. The setting is shabby, a world without the confident expressiveness of middle-class gestures or the spiritual security of a bank account.  André Kertész: Paris, Autumn 1963 (Flammarion 2013) is an act of recovery very much like A Moveable Feast. Although taken a considerable time after the twenties it is worth research. The reason for that is its concentration on public spaces—Kertész was determined to record things that had not changed since he first saw them in the twenties.  His book is probably the best-known attempt to capture daily visual life in Paris.  It is drastically unsentimental, with many shots severely limited to architectural details, building fronts, the geometry of paths in parks. 

            To some extent then, it can be done. Richard Holmes wrote in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985) that text can be understood through exploring and recording place. His subjects are the Paris lives of Wordsworth, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and Shelley in Italy.  In this book as in others, Holmes describes how he tries to repeat the routes of journals, make maps of neighborhoods in Paris, use photographs of places and objects.  In Italy, he finds that although Shelley's house is gone "I could still photograph the view from the house that Shelley would have seen every morning, as he stepped out with his books to go walking in the woods. . . . This reversal of perspective, looking outwards from within Shelley's life rather than the more usual attempt to look inwards from the outside—the view from the window, rather than the view of the window . . . became for me one of the important techniques of biography." Holmes emphasizes one big point about method: "my bible was Hemingway's A Moveable Feast."  He too read the city through its big cafés and bookstores and walks along the Seine.  He went to the great galleries and the exhibitions. He especially went over the history of photography in Paris because so many journals, letters, and novels from Wordsworth to Henry Miller connect actual places to "interior journeys" of the mind.   

Ron Berman 03/10/2016

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