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Berenice Abbott, Newsstand, 32nd Street and Third Avenue, New York (1935)





It is all about peopling the void. Crowdedness dispels the paranoia when one is puzzling over a blank canvas. Regardless of how the result will be it is often an accomplishment if every corner of the picture is filled. I can also hear music drifting out of the cluttered image I just finished: the music that is not too uproarious, but loud enough to warrant me a restful night of sleep. An open, empty space and a gaping chasm are enough to introduce disquietude into my otherwise orderly life. My orderly life mainly consists carrying out my role as a paltry nonentity, namely, “filling up the corner.” Every one of us is like a grain of sand who is always at the mercy of the ebbs and flows of sea. Crowdedness is peace, is stateliness, is life.

Architecture fuels Berenice Abbott’s passion for photography. Every building is a man-made monster- a monster that is impregnably armoured, a monster that is impossible to tame. At least, we can imagine Abbott thinking, I can pierce the skin of that monster, or chop off one of its limbs with my camera. Nothing better to face the invasion of Industrialism than arming yourself with the right weapons. In Abbott’s case it is to expose the magnificence and most of the times extreme ugliness of a bourgeoning city with her camera. This accounts for the reason why she favoured New York as her main prey.

Unlike Paul Strand’s photographs of the city, Abbott’s retain the unrelenting chaos New York is often associated with. People are rendered ant-like and running pell-mell. Ungainly but forbidding buildings, like swords in a tumultuous fight, sticking out here and there. I can now imagine Abbott as a paltry nonentity, trundling through the city like an innocuous animal in a hazardous forest, and every time when confronted by a fabulous beast, she defends it with her camera as if it is her white flag. A camera can be everything- it can be a dangerous weapon, it can be a desperate call of help.

But camera can never be an effective remedy. At least in the case of a crowd, the camera can only observe it from a distance but never possesses the power to scotch it from expanding. The anxiety is common with every inexperienced photographer whenever tackling the subject of a restive crowd. To try to encompass the entirety of the crowd with a panoramic view from afar is nothing but an example of unavowed cowardice. A seasoned photographer will approach the crowd audaciously, kill off as many objects as possible. The rest of the crowd he will let it flow away like the irrevocable departure of the migrating birds, because he knows there will be more entering from the other aside of the lens. The entering and the departing- this is the moment when the photographer makes time visible.

Today the void might be filled. Tomorrow, the collective intelligence drives the crowd to form its own void. What eventually emerges is a crying abyss, shrieking hideous curses and expletives that threaten away the sweet dreams. Still quite peacefully I sleep, when my dreams are no more than a continuous series of voids. How wonderful is the notion when you are something that is like everything else.

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