Maira Kalman—much-beloved artist, illustrator, writer, designer, and New Yorker—has been collecting vintage photographs for 30 years, seeking them out at antique shops, flea markets, and countless other places in the city and during her travels. A disciplined gatherer, she collects and organizes her holdings not in standard categories, such as portraits or landscapes, but by subject. Her taste runs toward the idiosyncratic. “Girls with gigantic bows on their heads, people with their beloved dogs, rooms of no particular interest, broken chairs: these things interest me,” she states.
Girls Standing on Lawns, one of her favorite categories of vintage photographs to collect, is now also the first book in a new series of collaborations between Kalman, her good friend Daniel Handler (better known worldwide as Lemony Snicket, author of the best-selling A Series of Unfortunate Events), and The Museum of Modern Art, which houses a significant collection of exactly the type of photographs Maira likes to collect. Categorized as “vernacular photography” at MoMA, these include snapshots and photographs that were never meant to be works of art, made by amateurs, journalists, scientists, commercial studios, and the like.
Girls Standing on Lawns features 40 vintage snapshots of girls, women, siblings, families, and even pets standing on lawns (or fences or driveways), all taken by unknown photographers from a bygone era. Some of the girls are smiling, apparently quite happy to have their picture taken; others frown and sulk, embarrassed to have to stand there and be photographed. They stand stiffly, pose coyly, make funny faces, and one even attempts a handstand. Many are dressed in their Sunday best. Interspersed throughout the book are 11 new paintings by Kalman based on some of her favorite photos: a girl in a dance costume flanked by two terriers, a woman perched precariously on a gate. Handler’s accompanying prose riffs on the vintage scenes and entices readers to imagine the lives of the people in the photos, and where they may have gone.
The idea for the book grew out of a breakfast I had with Kalman in 2012, where we were trying to brainstorm ideas for projects we could work on together. She pulled out of a manila envelope a set of black-and-white photocopies of vintage photos, with short pieces of text placed alongside some of them. “Daniel and I don’t quite know what to do with these, but we think there is something remarkable there,” she said.
I took the photocopies home, and as I was starting to look them over, my daughter, Charlotte, six at the time, came over and sat next to me. She asked who the people were, and I told her I didn’t know. I explained to her that in the “old days,” people used to get dressed up and stand on their lawns to get their picture taken.
We looked at the pictures and read the passages out loud to each other. Charlotte asked me a lot of questions, and I asked many back. Intrigued, she pulled out photo albums from my childhood, and we looked at her baby photos, too. We talked about my growing up in Seoul and her growing up in New York. We talked about childhood, family, home, and what we see when we look at photos of ourselves, and how that might change as we go from six to 16 to 26 to 86. We only had about 15 photocopied pages, but when we’d finished looking at the pictures, I realized two hours had passed—two wonderful hours spent listening and talking with my daughter about important things.
Now that Girls Standing on Lawns is available as a beautiful little book, I hope that others will get to spend time with these pictures and paintings, and be transported to other lives and other times, whether alone or with a loved one.
Take a picture with Maira Kalman! On Saturday, April 5, from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., purchase a signed copy of the book and take a snapshot with the author, standing on a special lawn created from one of her paintings in the book. This event takes place in the main Museum lobby and is open to the public.