Friday, June 10, 2011

Speak Truth to Fiction

A smattering of art galleries hide out on the very edges of Chelsea, near 10th, 11th, and even 12th Avenues, almost as if to lure in only the most dedicated viewers and appreciators. White-walled with glass doors, their walls are populated by both the littlest and biggest names in the art world. I had only been out to the galleries once before, during Fashion Week to view art of a different kind, and this evening was my first trip back since February. The snow had melted but reemerged as moisture in the air, a strange spring/summer amalgam that held New York in its grasp while city dwellers trolled the streets, sweating and confused as to what season it was.
With my workday nearing its end and no plans for the evening, I was happy to stumble upon The New Yorker’s Photo Booth blog, which details “The view from The New Yorker’s photo department.” The most recent headline read, “Tonight: New Yorker Fiction Show Opens.” What on earth was this? A fiction show? Being mentioned by the photo department? I read on to find that the Steven Kasher Gallery would be presenting an exhibition entitled “New Yorker Fiction/Real Photography,” in which photographs from published New Yorker short stories would be displayed. A combination of photography and writing? From The New Yorker? I was already calculating my route there before I left the office.

I moved inside the gallery just as the sky opened up and let rain loose in the street. “Well, I guess we’re going to be in here for a while,” said an older woman with dyed brown hair standing next to me. Umbrella-less, I was happy that I had just arrived and was not just leaving.

"Standing Bather" by Sally Gall, 1990

I felt at home with the photographs instantly, recognizing a black and white photograph of a swimmer that had once accompanied a story called “East Wind” by Julian Barnes, about a man taking up with a Ukrainian woman who refuses to discuss her past with him. The swimmer stands on a pier, white bathing suit wrapped tightly around her torso, a matching white bathing cap atop her head. I learned the photograph, entitled “Standing Bather,” was taken in 1990 by Sally Gall. I remember when I read the story in the magazine, the photograph resonated with me because it directly but subtly related to the Ukrainian woman’s secret (you’ll have to read “East Wind” to find out). Because of this, my interpretation of the photograph was a sorrowful one, which it may not have been had I seen the photograph alone. The exhibition itself was about this interplay between the visual and the verbal, of how seeing one art form can directly influence the way you experience another.

The exhibition, beginning just in time for The New Yorker's Summer Fiction Issue to hit newsstands, includes the photographs that have accompanied short stories from The New Yorker for the past 13 years, along with snippets of the stories themselves. For each short story published, The New Yorker’s Visuals Editor, Elisabeth Biondi, and her staff search for photos to accompany the pieces from modern photography, photography books, galleries, and many more arenas, choosing beautiful works that will accompany beautiful work. As the gallery describes the process, “Images from the to-be-published story are evoked in haiku-like lines. Man waiting alone at bar on Halloween, everyone in costume except him. A shiny green John Deere diesel tractor, tires as tall as a man. The question is: do you have any pictures like that? You will find answers in this exhibition.” Photos for the exhibition in the gallery were selected from the thousands published with short stories by Biondi and Steven Kasher himself.

In the gallery, I wrote down my favorite lines from the passages offered with their photographs. One photograph of four girls looking off into the distance at a jetstream accompanies the phrase “She had lived not only for herself but for their unconsumed lives,” from the story “Alone” by Yiyun Li, in which a young girl’s companions drown in an accident. A photograph of a scruffy man alone in a French coffee shop surrounded by billboards of the specials du jour accompanies the following passage from William Trevor’s story “Folie รก Deux”:

“He reads another page, orders more wine, finishes the pommes frites but not the fish. He likes quiet places, and doesn’t hurry. He orders coffee and –though not intending to—a Calvados. He drinks too much, he tells himself, and restrains the inclination to have another when the coffee comes. He reads again, indulging the pleasure of being in Paris, in a brasserie where Muzak isn’t playing, at a small corner table, engrossed in a story that’s familiar yet has receded sufficiently to be blurred in places, like something good remembered.”

Photograph "Randy, High Heels, 1980"
by Peter Hujar, Story "Peep Show"
by Nathan Englander
More photographs inspire and amuse, like Peter Hujar’s black and white photograph “Randy, High Heels, Halloween 1980,” where Randy’s hairy legs are smoothed down by ripped pantyhose, wild, frilly heels upon his feet. We see naughtily up his dress, black lace underwear in place of what might normally boxers or briefs. The photograph was cleverly attached to the short story “Peep Show” by Nathan Englander, published in The New Yorker in 1999.

As cold white wine from a plastic airplane cup chills my throat, I am relearning what a good photograph is, what kinds of words are the most powerful. While producing work keeps your skills at your fingertips, viewing work offers possibilities for growth and seeing beyond yourself. I love that New York is practically busting with opportunities like these, where people can expose themselves to art in even the most distant or hidden corners of the city.

After I finish viewing the exhibition, I notice my notes have become smudged with impatient, wine-laden fingers and realize it is time to leave. People will continue to mill about as the opening continues on, taking in the bright colors and teasing blurs the photographs and their stories share. I exit and the sky is grey, the air cool with remnants of fallen rain.

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