Excerpt from: To Record, To Interpret, To Comment
As it masks the face and distracts the body in the solitary act of taking a photograph, a camera can offer its photographer the position of removed observer. Occupying this position is not inherently an act of bearing witness. Abbott’s use of photography extends beyond her body’s relationship to her subject through her camera. Her agential witness can be found in all aspects of her art practice. Abbott turns her observation into action through her historicizing of Atget and other photographic precedents, her civic engagements through science and street photography, and her DIY technological innovations. By employing what was immediately within her reach, Abbott uncovered new ways of connecting, understanding, and translating what she saw. Like her Super Sight apparatus, Abbott’s witness was a negotiation between interior and exterior spaces. To be a witness is not to deny oneself rather it is to acknowledge the impact experienced on oneself. One cannot bear witness without using one’s own body or speaking with one’s own voice. Abbott has written, “The function of photography for Civic Documentary History is to record, to interpret, to comment.”[i] When one bears witness, one is able to see and hear oneself among and through others, as well as to acknowledge the impact that others may have. I recognize myself in the deferential position of witness that is characteristic of Abbott’s photography. This is the generosity of her work. It makes space for others to inhabit.
[i] Berenice Abbott. “Civic Documentary History,” Proceedings of the Conference on Photography: Profession, Adjunct, Recreation (New London, CT.: The Institute of Women’s Professional Relations 1940), p71.
This piece originally appeared in in Art Journal Online