Don’t be afraid to cry from behind the camera, but don’t allow your tears to dampen the context, the photographer Nan Baldwin said to her in a room in a poor neighbourhood of Manhattan in 1979.
In 1965, on a day just like any other, her mother started to call her Aunt. This went on for two years.
Contrary to what one might think, it wasn’t a sad time: they played, entertaining each other like little girls and there was no point in imagining how things might have been different. The old woman was happy in her final days: like a child who thought that she always in kindergarten. She woke up ready to play and went to sleep with a smile etched on her face, free of guilt, memories and especially opinions or cynicism, i.e.: immune to fruitlessness or defeat.
Elisa Abenza was twenty-three years old when her mother finally died in November 1967. In October that year, she had decided to take photographs, especially profiles of people and blurry self-portraits with the small Kodak camera they had at home.
A week after the funeral, she went to a place in the centre to develop the film.
Due to a processing error, all the photographs were blanked out. She decided to learn photography, beginning with the developing process. She taught herself, reading books, asking questions and, more than anything, clicking the shutter.
Different versions of the world appeared before her eyes and she was ready to capture them.
She had a natural eye, or so it seemed. But that wasn’t quite true. In fact she had that strange knack that some good artists possess: her work was riddled with technical and stylistic errors.
Most of the best photographs from her early years are, in fact, the fruit of impotence, clumsiness, desperation, and a lack of experience. Some, trying to conceal their envy, would also call them lucky. But let’s be honest, that’s not true: it was more like fate; fitful, paradoxical destiny.
For example, poorly chosen light and unexpected shadows would offer a challenging vision of her time, an intelligent structuring of space, a perceptive twist that would inevitably end up exposing the viewer, presenting them with the full glare of reality, swamped by questions that have been demanding answers for centuries. These descriptions and more arose from a specific line of cultural criticism that, today, it would be best not to try to pin down too specifically.
Inevitably, perhaps not surprisingly, Elisa was the first to laugh at such commentaries.
In fact, in several interviews she said so quite clearly:
“My photos are driven by mistakes”; “My photos are full of mistakes”; “My photos are founded in mistakes”; “My photos are mistakes” or, in one of her final interviews: “Don’t kid yourselves: my photos are shit.”
She left the country. “I ran away from Chile,” she said.
An inventory of a lifetime is generally reduced to a few key details.
In 1973, Elisa had spent some time in France and split her work into two categories: the photography of lies and the photography of survival.
The first referred to artistic photography and the second to photographs of married couples. The theme of the former were the immigrants who lived in the suburbs of Paris and the latter the weddings held by said immigrants in those very same Parisian suburbs.
She rented a room in one of these immigrant neighborhoods where lives of serene poverty were being perfected every day.
When the first exiles from the Chilean dictatorship began to arrive, she tried to contribute without mystique or discourse (but certainly honesty) to the activities organized in support of them and her images from that time can be considered a photography of protest, although she, of course, refused to countenance any suggestion of a photography of protest. By the end of 1978 she already felt overwhelmed by the testimonies of Chileans, or by what it meant to be Chilean, so she left Europe for the United States.
To some extent, she was fleeing from Chile again.
She met Nan Baldwin in 1979, i.e.: the year when she took the majority of the images that would make her a leading documentary photographer in the late seventies and early eighties. Although it might be considered false praise or praise taken to absurd extremes, some people said that Nan Baldwin had in fact, created a theme. It didn’t just sound ridiculous, but also irresponsible and disrespectful:
That shit in the background has been there for a long time – she said in a letter to Elisa – I didn’t invent it, just as I didn’t invent the horrible onset of AIDS, the neglect and first victims, the transvestites in my neighbourhood with their conversations, tears, laughter and silences, the couples burdened with the full weight of their addictions, the cradles of the poor where sobbing, fleas and urine flourished, the howl of class struggle echoing out of sirens, the dank cinemas where you trod on semen, cigarette butts, drunks and needles, and I didn’t invent the people who wanted to treat me as an artist when I was just someone from the streets and rooms in my photographs, i.e.: someone who didn’t feature in the great pimp’s hegemony. I didn’t invent a theme, Nan said, and I certainly didn’t invent the abhorrent academy which expected despatches from the apocalypse; or hell, even though that apocalypse or hell was just a thirty minute taxi drive from their offices.
It would be going too far to say that Nan was her friend, but Elisa saw her often during the period when she lived in the Bowery in New York. In mid-morning, they’d go to dives in Loisada in search of rolls of film, fixer, rinses, photographic paper, cigarettes and marijuana. Elisa always had technical questions to ask and Nan was a gringa who didn’t mind answering them, even if she seemed distant or reluctant and kept on repeating that technique wasn’t the most important thing; that life and a good flash could take care of the rest. She never explained what she meant by ‘the rest’, but it wouldn’t be too much of a leap to suggest that maybe she was just omitting a single word: reality.
Those were days during which Nan had discovered the flash and colour, making her practice into a direct, tireless hunt through shadows in all their incarnations.
In the middle of a dark room it was possible to see a great pool of light with an instant of misery squeezed inside it: rags, stained furniture, spat-upon walls, sticky body hair, inky eyes, needle-pricked or bruised arms, a slobbering breast, a fragment of a penis, a portion of a vagina, half-open doors and legs, smells, and even the sounds of smells, especially moans and then all the colours of the moans, colours that in several photographs could be seen as being slightly rusty, a little like the portrait of the fortieth president of the United States on the floor, like a tea or coffee stain or a trail of a salivating scream, occasional yellowed fingers, unwashed or recently washed hair, a lot of human skin and even more human beings: the desire not to freeze to death, the desire not to die of grief, the desire not to die coughing, the desire not to die alone, the desire not to die of hunger, the desire not to die without friends, the desire not to die as an object of mockery, the desire, the desire, the desire, everything that could be found in Baldwin’s photographs, from which Elisa extracted readings, not so much about the practice as an attitude to the practice: you are the one who chooses the moment to click or otherwise so when it comes to poverty there are no innocent photographs.
The day that she left New York for the state of Michigan she did so with a few dollars in her pocket and little hope for the world, i.e.: in exactly the right state of mind to take the photos she wanted to take, and the sensation that she’d never see Nan again.
As you know, Atenuación (Mitigation) is Elisa Abenza’s most iconic photo. We also know, because it’s mentioned in an interview, that it was something she was looking for. Although she couldn’t determine the exact form, or even the moment when it would appear, she knew that it was something that she wanted to find.
And it appeared one afternoon, during a sweltering trip to Detroit.
Although she hadn’t yet taken it, the photograph travelled with her. She thought it might be the day, she sensed it, she had the feeling that the photo was with her, a hand on her shoulder, trying to escape from the prison of mere possibility, striving to take its place in the photographic art. However, this is just an invention of photography teachers. A photo like Atenuación doesn’t just turn up like that, or at least doesn’t announce itself like that. It’s not about being romantic or friendly, it doesn’t accompany anyone, especially not the photographer. Some would say that it doesn’t exist until it exists and that’s it. Others that it’s down to chance. Or not. No doubt the candid and the idiotic will just dismiss it by reciting the chestnut of trial and error, but who cares what they think? Elisa didn’t know, she just felt, in her words that it was the day and there’s no doubt that it was.
Atenuación has been described as a photograph that ‘defined its time’. These words may ensure success and posterity, but they also inspire a question: what do we mean by vagueness?
Today, Elisa is in a delicate state of health, says an article that appeared a few days ago in the press. According to her husband, she says that she won’t die as a photographer but an ex-photographer and asks that, when her time comes, this detail be respected.
In 1985 she gave up photography, left the United States and moved back to Europe to live with her husband. As far as we know, she has no children. As far as we know, she never returned to Chile. It is public knowledge that she sold all the negatives of her photographs to collectors and gave away her cameras. A close friend has said that the reason for her retirement was, as well as being simple, impossible to argue with: she got bored.
I imagine her saying I got bored and I imagine her taking her photo Atenuación.
She describes the moment in several interviews: she was walking along one of the run down streets in the old neighbourhood of Brush Park in Detroit in the last light of the evening, flanked by abandoned warehouses and Victorian-style houses in ruins. In one corner of the scene, something blurry passed by a window, or through her thoughts, and she saw herself walking alone, thousands of miles from Chile, unsure whether this time she was fleeing, or arriving, or getting lost, although she was certain that even up close it was only possible to see how distant she was. She arrived at an intersection, looked, didn’t see anything and when she saw nothing, she knew that the photo was there. She realized that this was it, more than anything she realized that that was all there was. Although she was skilled enough to know that it was a good photo, it didn’t cross her mind that it would become such a famous image.
As you know, it is an incredibly simple, austere photo. Obvious, even, if you don’t mind my saying so. So what is it about Atenuación that makes it so special? Apparently nothing, and yet there it is. It has been claimed that Elisa was crying when she took it, but I don’t believe it. I’ve always thought that she was laughing.
*Featured image Samantha Keely via colossal