CONFESSION: I knew a handful of Berenice Abbott’s photographs before I read Sarah Coleman’s deft debut novel, The Realist. Perhaps you do, too: iconic Grand Central Terminal, light streaming through its upper slats and anointing the tiny humans below; the Flatiron Building in 1934, viewed pointy-head-on, formidably modern amid trolleys and carriage-like cars; that black-and-white bird’s-eye view of New York City at night (snapped from atop the Empire State Building, a moment dramatized in the novel). As a New Yorker, I’ve seen these images on postcard stands in midtown Manhattan, and framed in office waiting rooms. Or maybe I noticed them because I was an art student once upon a time, an amateur practitioner, and am attuned to the visual arts. But here’s another confession, one I regret: I knew Berenice Abbott’s photographs, but I didn’t know a thing about the artist. Not even her name.
I would have been in good company in 1951, where The Realist begins, among dismissive avant-gardists. Readers meet Abbott at the Aspen Institute Conference on Photography, where she delivers the keynote address. “‘I don’t know about you,’” she tells a crowd of distinguished artists and curators, “‘but to me it often seems as if mediocre self-promoters thrive, while quieter talents are overlooked. Particularly,’ she pauses, ‘if those quieter talents are women, or otherwise disadvantaged.’”
The largely male audience simmers and tsks. Abbott will go on to snub the “mundane” and elitist styles of her contemporaries, including modernist godfather, Alfred Stieglitz. Photography shouldn’t try to imitate painting, she insists, or strain comprehension (like Stieglitz’s close-cropped image of a horse’s ass, entitled Spiritual America, which Abbott considers “poppycock”). Photography is a representative medium, she says. “It has to be itself; it has to walk alone.”
The stance explicates her documentary approach, one that critics and historians only seemed to properly appreciate after she passed in 1991. But “walking alone” also speaks to Abbott’s singular and precipitous path, one that ultimately emboldened her.
Berenice Abbott, born 1898, grew up “awkward, plain Bernice” in Springfield, Ohio; she didn’t adopt the French spelling of her name until years later in Paris. Her working-class family struggled, especially after Ma and Pa divorced. Some of the novel’s richest, most haunting moments reside in Coleman’s depiction of these early years. Like when six-year-old Abbott returns home to find that Pa has absconded with her older sister, Hazel, leaving her to be raised alone by icy Ma. Or when Ma remarries Gus, a foul gambler who sexually attacks Berenice. Ma knows they have to cut and run, but she’s furious — at Berenice for supposedly enticing Gus with a “bosom half out of [her] shirt,” at the prospect of sudden spinsterhood, at starting “a new life.” In place of a hug, Berenice receives a slap across the face.
Liberation from her wretched home life comes in the form of a scholarship to Ohio State. In Columbus, Abbott seems equal parts forthright and unsure. This duality manifests itself in the “mannish” bob she gets on a whim. In the barbershop mirror, she observes how, with a new do, she’s “at once herself and someone she hasn’t yet met.” It will take time for her to become poised and certain, and it will be years before she acts on her attraction to women.
The novel naturally interlaces Abbott’s artistic and romantic lives. In a bohemian Greenwich Village, Abbott tries her hand at sculpture and suppresses a “clandestine hunger” for her best friend, Lillian. In roaring 1920s Paris, she sleeps with an artist’s model and chances into a job as the assistant of renowned surrealist Man Ray. That’s how she learns photography’s mechanics — lights, clocks, and chemicals — as well as how she discovers her knack for the craft. Though a resentful Man Ray tries to prevent it, Abbott becomes a portraitist in her own right, recording the mugs of James Joyce, Coco Chanel, and then-unsung French photographer Eugène Atget, whose images of French streetscapes make a deep impression. When she returns to a nearly unrecognizable and rapidly developing New York in 1929, she fantasizes about doing for New York what Atget did for Paris.
Her stateside arrival coincides with the stock market crash and leaves Abbott once again on the cusp of poverty, a situation she might improve were she willing to kiss the ass of Stieglitz, the pompous puppet master of the New York art scene. But she’s not. At the eventual opening of her hard-earned show at the Museum of the City of New York, Stieglitz dares to accuse Abbott of producing work derivative of his, and she, in turn, charges him with jealousy. Stieglitz’s put-down, as dramatized by Coleman, says all we need to know: Abbott is an “untalented, inconsequential woman.”
Despite being nearly flattened under a misogynistic thumb, Abbott is no man-hater. For a spell, she entertains marriage to a kind and affluent man, tempted by the thought of playing “the lead role in an ongoing story that everyone understands, one that will cause no discomfort, ruffle no feathers.” But she’s grown into her bob. Abbott cannot deny the truer love she feels for art critic Elizabeth McCausland, who becomes her life partner. It is McCausland who writes the captions to Abbott’s photographs in the 1939 book, Changing New York.
The Realist’s point of view hews closely to Abbott’s, which necessitates imaginative observations, and Coleman supplies them. When a lover’s lipstick smudges, Berenice describes the mouth’s “out-of-focus look.” When Abbott sets foot in a modernized Manhattan, she relates buildings “festooned with decorations: crescents and fans, chevrons and sunbursts.” Abbott strolls Fifty-Seventh Street to “a syncopated rhythm” of light patterns and construction sounds, “a jazz poem in stone and steel.” Readers even get the satisfaction of seeing a few of Abbott’s prints, which serve as section breaks in the novel, such as Springfield, Ohio, 1935, taken when our heroine returns to visit a doddering Ma, and Soap bubbles, 1946, when she moves into the field of science photography.
Remember that zinger Abbott delivered at the Aspen Institute in the novel’s opening scene? The one about how “quieter talents” are often overlooked, especially if they’re somehow “disadvantaged”? Readers of The Realist see how the claim held true for a too-female, too-realistic Abbott. But the words also apply to author Sarah Coleman. Like Berenice, Sarah faced disadvantages. For starters, her fictional biography of a strong gay woman in a male-dominated field wasn’t salable — at least according to the numerous editors who read it between 2014 and 2016 (though they all extolled Sarah’s talents). Then, in 2015, the author encountered the ultimate disadvantage: terminal lung cancer, stage IV. It turned out that Coleman, a lifelong nonsmoker, had a genetic mutation.
The author was confident in the narrative and her literary abilities, and refused to change course. A critic who published in ARTNews, Salon, and The San Francisco Chronicle, Sarah earned an MFA in fiction from Columbia University; won several competitive residency fellowships, including to Yaddo and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts; and maintained a popular photography blog, The Literate Lens. She hunkered down to tighten the plot and strengthen the prose, amid drug trials, chemotherapy, fundraising, and mothering her two kids. She was pleased with the final draft, which wrapped in summer 2017, just as a wave of female empowerment began to swell; #MeToo would go viral in October. Her literary agent, Susanna Einstein, was ready to resubmit the book to publishers, she said, “given the issues in the air.” But Sarah was exhausted, psychologically and physically. And she knew that publishing via traditional channels was a notoriously protracted process. Even in a best-case scenario — an editor straightaway purchasing a manuscript — the combination of negotiations, edits, design, marketing, printing, and distribution could take a year and a half, or more. Doctors didn’t think Sarah would live to see 2018.
So she did the unthinkable, at least for a credentialed writer with a meticulously researched historical novel eight years in the making. She enlisted a self-publisher.
Self-publishing has a bad rap among capital-W Writers, in part because the industry has “zero gatekeepers,” as memoirist Laurie Gough notes in the Huffington Post. Anyone of modest means can compile and bind a professional-looking work and sell it on Amazon alongside Pulitzer Prize winners. Author Sue Grafton takes offense at this in HuffPo; such casualness, she suggests, undermines a laborious literary tradition. “To me, it seems disrespectful … that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy and s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research,” she said. “Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts.”
It’s true: most self-published works are of questionable quality. But what about the handful of writers who go this route for other, perhaps tragic, personal reasons? Or because the publishing industry is finicky and inflexible? When the unknown SilverWood Books released The Realist on December 5, 2017, the day of Sarah Coleman’s funeral, a PR team didn’t broadcast it on social media or funnel it through a distributer. Bookstore owners don’t know the novel exists. Gough claimed she’d “rather share a cabin on a Disney cruise with Donald Trump than self-publish,” but such broad brush strokes unfairly doom worthy work like The Realist.
Sarah was 52 when she died, the age Berenice Abbott was when she decried artistic injustice, when she admonished tastemakers for favoring the mainstream at the expense of talent on the fringe. I believe Abbott would have championed a work of literature that suffered a similar fate. I believe she would’ve appreciated Coleman’s commitment and grit, would’ve applauded her determination to tell the story she wanted to tell. To make the art she needed to make. To refuse the universe’s attempt to snuff out her flame. It is a story Abbott would’ve understood.