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Berenice Abbott

"What the human eye observes casually and incuriously, the eye of the camera notes with relentless fidelity."- Berenice Abbott

There are heads. The display window is teeming with heads; pretty heads. Heads adorned with feathers, fancy wigs, hats. Heads with egg-shaped faces. Faces that are painted with kohl eyes, twirled eyelashes, and rouge lips. Some of the faces are half-concealed with masks; masks that are borrowed from a Venetian masquerade, or an Italian opera. The heads and faces that are so peculiarly beautiful that they can only belong to the mannequins’. The mannequins whose torsos are truncated, who are without bodies. 

Berenice Abbott was reputed for her photographic documentation of New York city. In those photographs Abbott demonstrates her ingenuity in taming the immobile objects. Architecture and various urban constructions are unlike people; they are stubborn and hardened; their dogged immobility is a silent refusal to collaborate with whomever ill-advised enough to approach them like a hunter approaching his prey. But Abbott was a visionary. She detected the animal spirit stirring within the stony heart of every building, and provoked it to burst out of its fossilised shell. Buildings were stimulated into life like animals finally waken from their interminable hibernation. Abbott would approach each of them sometimes with caution, as she hid in the alleyway and only managed to capture a glimpse of its magnificent presence, or aim high her camera when she tackled the towering figure with more boldness. And once she finally conquered the formidable monster like Saint George triumphing over a dragon, she stood atop her conquest and proudly surveying the view beneath her; she would notice the mass of pedestrians that were once bustling her by as she ventured into the heart of the urban forest were now rendered tiny like ants. There is nothing more exhilarating than assuming superiority over those that were once our equivalents.

Abbott’s role as a photographer can be described as a fearless hunter on a mission to hunt down all the peculiar species. But the weapon she used- her camera- was not one designed to inspire fear in the objects she captured. Her intention never seemed to be that of imprisoning into her photographs the city of New York. She was documenting New York without asserting too much authority over her subject matters. Abbott exhibited through her photographs that a good street photographer should always be an unobtrusive observer, ceding lights to the urban vista that is the sole star of the show.

But when it comes to the mannequins, I suppose that even the most preeminent of photographers can be so easily baffled. There is no task more difficult than dealing with something that is constantly in a twilight zone: the mannequins are lifeless dolls with lifelike physiognomy, can appear to be either lifeless or lifelike depending on how one perceives them. Abbott opted for no particular angle in approaching the mannequins, but chose to give them a full-on shot. The moment she pressed her shutter was the moment the mannequins seemed to come alive. Those beautiful faces all decided to violate the demands of their instructor by defiantly turning their heads away from the lens, each of them looking at different directions, responding apathetically of having their pictures taken. Just as the photographer might be miffed at having such recalcitrant prima donnas as her sitters, she unexpectedly succeeded in producing a memorable photograph- eerie, unnerving, menacing.

And not just the line between life and lifelessness, photography unwittingly blurs many more: that between fact and fiction, past and present, subject and object. The disappearance of the line between the subject and the object was precisely the core of Abbott’s photography. Of anything on which we normally attach no more importance than merely a passing notice (an object), through Abbott’s camera it becomes something of a peculiar value (a subject). But once we cherish that photograph as an invaluable work of art, Abbott promptly reminds us that the subject matter can be the most banal of object, which invariably, yet not so astoundingly, fails to leave imprints in our memories. The photographer demonstrates that subject and object can be interchangeable, like mannequins, as well as everything else.


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