Van Haaften...chronicles Abbott’s demanding life and extraordinary accomplishments with scrupulous detail ... Van Haaften’s expert foundational biography brings Abbott into sharp focus as a photographer able to 'express deep feeling through technical mastery.'
Julia Van Haaften...attempts to grapple with Abbott’s life and legacy in a comprehensive new biography that is absorbing and exhausting ... Van Haaften marshaled a tremendous amount of research to produce this 487-page volume, and you sometimes feel she didn’t want to leave a single moment of Abbott’s long life — she died in 1991 — unaccounted for. Even so, Abbott’s integrity and sense of honor, her restless and fearless nature, and her absolute devotion to telling the truth of her experience, come through loud and clear.
Van Haaften was the founding curator of the New York Public Library’s photography collection, and it is good to finally have a full account of Abbott’s iconoclastic and underreported existence ... As historically important as all of this is, Van Haaften’s biography could have benefited from more analysis and insight. She has a tendency to pile up facts without putting them in perspective. In a typically careless passage, she reports that Lynn Davis became Abbott’s assistant in 1974, but the author fails to identity Davis as a photographer. Instead, she tells us that Davis was a married woman who arrived for the summer 'with her painter-teacher husband and their young son.' Surely there is far more to be said on the subject. Davis, one of our leading contemporary photographers is known for black-and-white images that lend the natural world (icebergs, gushing water) the monumentality that Abbott brought to her scenes of the city.
The last quarter of this book is primarily made up of the honors Abbott received, and is a slog that even Jackie Onassis flying up to see her on a private plane cannot redeem. Van Haaften can’t help but type up every detail...so much so that you lose a bit of your goodwill toward the earlier portions of the book. This is a less than perfect biography in other ways. The author is better on the trees than the forest, and as a writer she is sometimes flat-footed. The narrative has a tendency to skip around in time. But Van Haaften has done her research, the real work, and the pages turn themselves.
Van Haaften explores in detail Abbott’s lifelong pursuit of the money and recognition she deserved, but which proved particularly elusive due to her gender and sexuality. The result is a full and nuanced portrait of a complicated, hardworking, and creatively brilliant artist.
Certainly, the book is comprehensive, and the author populates the narrative with a who’s who of 20th-century cultural heroes, from James Joyce to Jackie Onassis. Still, if Van Haaften dutifully cataloges the particulars of her subject’s experience, she is unable to explore the artist at the level of her soul. The Abbott who emerges here is made up of data points ... Despite the useful information she has gathered, Van Haaften never brings Abbott fully to life.