It is a Rolleiflex Automat MX, the serial number reads 1210621. It was manufactured between 1951 and 1954 and it was Berenice Abbott’s last camera. It also happens to be sitting in my hands. It is a mouthful to say and may sound like wishful thinking, but to my complete astonishment, it is all true.
Berenice Abbott is my favorite photographer, I own numerous books of her images including the recently published, beautifully printed: Berenice Abbott. She was a photographer that embodied the type of photographs I love best, seemingly simple, technically magnificent and of historical value. She was a photographer without compromise:
“I took to photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else. Excitement about the subject is the voltage which pushes me over the mountain of drudgery necessary to produce the final photograph.” – Berenice Abbott from The Berenice Abbott Portfolio, 1976.
Looking at Berenice Abbott’s work gave me courage and helped me overcome my fears behind the camera. Photography did not come to me like a duck to water, I struggled for years with it conceptually, plagued by the thought that anyone can take the same photograph I am about to take. So why is the one I am about to take worth taking at all? Or the contrary dilemma that it was all too technical and lacking in spontaneity. I remember as a child I learning the basics of photography from my dad, doing things like bracketing exposure tests in Central Park in the rain and not really sure if this was for me.
I became interested in Abbott after getting my first 4×5 camera and stumbling onto her book The View Camera Made Simple which is still the best book on how to use a view camera I have ever seen. This led to a love and fascination in her work, a small collection her original prints and a preoccupation with vintage medium format camera gear. Her images displayed for me an exacting and technically magnificent manner. A manner that enabled me to understand that taking a picture is all about what you do, where you stand, how high you hold the camera, what kind of lens, etc. These were all the things I was taking for granted as a photographer and now they feel like all the things that give me confidence, that I make decisions all the time based on my gut feeling.
“What the human eye observes causally and incuriously, the eye of the camera notes with relentless fidelity.” – Berenice Abbott
That is why having Berenice Abbott’s last camera in my hands seems profound.
Coming home recently on date night with my wife, our new babysitter Caroline asked if I was a fan of Berenice Abbott’s work? I assumed she had seen the books on the shelf and I said why yes, she is my favorite photographer. Caroline proceeded to tell me in the most matter of fact way that her grandmother lived with Berenice Abbott for the last thirty years of Abbott’s life. That her “Grama” was the trustee of Abbott’s estate when she passed. I grabbed an Abbott book off the shelf almost in a fumbling panic and as I thumbed through the images so dear to me, Caroline was saying things like, “Oh that one was over my bed” or “we had that one hanging in the kitchen. Finally the bomb fell when Caroline interjected, Grama gave me Berenice Abbott’s last camera. “Oh, I’ll bring it over, you can hold onto to it if you like”.
As I looked over the camera that Caroline had loaned me I noted the name Susan B. Blatchford written in pen on the inside the camera case in. This was Caroline’s Grandmother. I googled Blatchford and the only reference I could find was her donating a vast amount of material from Abbott’s estate to the New York Public Library. What a gift to us all!
Today many of my older cameras sit dormant in the closet gathering dust and boy do I feel terrible about the decaying 4×5 sheet film in my fridge. I also love using Instagram and fully appreciate that stalwarts such as Annie Lebowitz declaring the iPhone as the “go to” camera of the day.
But isn’t it incredible that had my moment with Berenice Abbott’s camera? I shot one roll and when I got it back I found an image that I liked. Of course I had secretly expected a full roll of 12 masterful images, instead I am reminded of another aspect of photography my father helped me with. If I was happy with at least one image on a roll of film, I was way ahead of the game.
Abbott died at age 93 in 1991. She had no descendants.
Thanks Dad, thanks Caroline, thanks Berenice.
“I am so fascinated with this century it will help keep me alive. I’ll be there until the last minute, fighting.” – Berenice Abbot
By Henry Cline. Taken with Berenice Abbott’s last camera 2012