As Arthur Rimbaud said, shortly after spending a season in hell: “Il faut être absolument moderne”.

It was vital to be modern then and it is today, because any ancien régime has the means to conserve its power and thus enjoy exclusive privileges, to the detriment of everyone else, obstructing the desirable goal of universal freedom.

Berenice Abbott, West Street, 1932. International Center of Photography, Purchase, with funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lois and Bruce Zenkel Purchase Fund, 1983 (388.1983) © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott.

The title of the retrospective exhibition Berenice Abbott. Portraits of modernity captures a fundamental aspect of the work of an American photographer who was also something of a Francophile (she adopted the French spelling of her name, swapping Bernice for Berenice). Modernity is probably the word that best defines her personality and her work, together with others such as freedom and creativity, which can be considered integral and indispensable notions in the program of modernity.

Because the system whereby privileges are conserved – and in recent years, increased – has worked hard to reduce the notion and program of modernity to that of merely technological and formal progress, we often forget that there can be no true modernity without full, responsible freedom, without equality of rights and duties, and without the promotion of creativity and the dissemination of knowledge. This exhibition, presented by the Fundación Mapfre at its Barcelona gallery and curated by Estrella de Diego, brings together almost two hundred photographs that focus on the three main fronts on which Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) set out her defence of freedom and modernity.

In its first phase, her work centred on portraits of the individuals who were creating artistic and literary modernity, especially in Paris between 1921 and 1929. She opened the second front in New York between 1929 and 1939. This time her goal, in which she was successful, was to create a portrait of the great modern metropolis of the twentieth century, New York in the 1930s, with its skyscrapers, newly-built or in construction, rising alongside the much smaller buildings that pre-dated them, whose days appeared to be numbered. And later, from as early as 1939, but especially from 1958 to 1961, she took scientific photographs, principally for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). These were photographic documents of materials (soap bubbles, mould, etc) and physical phenomena (waves in motion, magnetized iron filings, etc) that also had an expressive and artistic value.

In other words, first progress and liberation in the spheres of art, literature and life, then the construction of the modern city, and finally, scientific discoveries and their divulgation in photographic images.

Berenice Abbott, A Bouncing Ball in Diminshing Arcs, 1958-1961. Berenice Abbott Collection, MIT Museum. Gift of Ronald and Carol Kurtz © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott.

Although Abbott had studied sculpture, her medium of expression was photography, which in the first half of the twentieth century was, like cinema, a medium that permitted new modes of perception, expression and communication. Thus she was also modern in her choice of medium and in the way she used it, with a specifically photographic vision, free of hang-ups about traditional fine arts – especially painting, which the Pictorialist photographers had striven so hard to imitate. Abbott turned thirty in 1928, so from a historical and generational point of view she was born at just the right time to be a pioneering modern photographer.

Berenice Abbott, Self Portrait – Distortion, c. 1930. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott.

The people whose portraits Berenice Abbott took in the twenties all have something in common: they are liberated and liberating figures; artists, writers and other members of her circle, which at that time meant the avant-garde in art, literature, thought, or life. Some are famous today, among them James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Jean Cocteau, Peggy Guggenheim, André Gide, Sylvia Beach, Edward Hopper and Lewis Hine. In some of these portraits her intention is evidently to bring out qualities in each sex that were traditionally attributed to the other, and therefore repressed. For example, she portrayed – and thus championed – delicateness in men, and courage in women. She defended the freedoms of both.

Her portraits clearly advocate freedom in a general sense.

Beyond from her vindication of sexual freedom, now a mainstream position, under labels such as LGTB, her portraits clearly advocate freedom in a general sense. In 2019 this vision is still necessary, as an antidote to the emergence of hatreds and fear-driven fascisms, new because their masks – perhaps “constitutional” or even “democratic” ones – are new, but ideologically very old. At that time, too, during the années folles, the “Roaring” Twenties – for some – it was essential to express, in art and life, a break with the unjust, destructive and ideologically bankrupt ancien régime that had led to the horrific carnage of the First World War. However, as we know, during the thirties, depression and demagogic propaganda sufficed to return reactionary and totalitarian ideologies to power, especially in Nazi Germany, which would soon instigate the Second World War.

Berenice Abbott, Canyon: Broadway and Exchange Place, 1936. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Photography Collection. The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott.

Another aspect of Berenice Abbott’s work that seems fundamental to me is the lucidity and clarity with which she was able to use photography simultaneously as a visual testimony and document, and as artistic expression. Like many other dilemmas, the obligation to choose between two mutually exclusive options called “documentary photography” and “artistic photography” was a false one, and thus harmful. This error persisted into the beginning of the twenty-first century, but I have the impression that, as a dilemma, it now seems obsolete. To resolve it, all that is required is to change the exclusive “or” for the good old copulative conjunction “and”. Photography can be art and document. A single photographic image can be both things at the same time. This is the case with many of Berenice Abbott’s photographs, such as Seventh Avenue, Looking South from 35th Street, December 5, 1935, with its diminutive silhouettes and shadows cast by passers-by shot contre-jour, contrasting with the sunlit asphalt, and others including Union Square, 14th Street and Broadway, Manhattan, 1936, Aerial View of New York at Night, March 20, 1936, or the close-ups of mineral structures in The Realities of Nature, 1958-1961. This last, with its luminosity and diagonal rhythms, could have been placed in an interesting dialogue with the aerial view of Manhattan mentioned above, with lights ablaze in hundreds of windows, which strikes me as the most sublime vision – in photography or in reality – that one could find in New York, from the top of the Empire State Building, for example.

Berenice Abbott, Aerial view of New York at Night, 1936. International Center of Photography, Gift of Daniel, Richard, and Jonathan Logan, 1984 (786.1984) © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott.

Abbott served her technical apprenticeship as an assistant to Man Ray, but soon found her own path, closer to the documentary compositions of Eugène Atget – promoted internationally by Abbot – than to the poetic, constructed images of Man Ray. One could say that she was often in the right place at the right time, but this was due more to her acuity and courage than to luck. Leaving her birthplace in Ohio, she ended up in New York’s Greenwich Village, meeting Marcel Duchamp, the Dadaist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven – possibly the inspiration behind Duchamp’s urinal – and the Futurist and feminist poet Mina Loy, who – incidentally – stopped sitting for portraits when she ceased to be a young and beautiful woman. Abbott did not hesitate to travel to Paris with little money to survive on. And, eight years later, she returned to New York equally decisively, although her professional life was going well in Paris, because she intuited that this was the moment to capture the great American city under construction and undergoing transformation.

Thanks to her US citizenship, and the fact that she worked in a country that was, at that time, modern and meritocratic, she was able to turn some of her personal photographic projects into commissions supported by public or private institutions, as in the case of her New York cityscapes (funded by the Federal Art Project) and her scientific photographs for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Berenice Abbott. Portraits of Modernity is at the Casa Garriga-Nogués, the Fundación Mapfre’s gallery in Barcelona, until 19 May.