At a time of travel restrictions imposed by the global pandemic crisis, Teju Cole’s Blind Spot (2017)—a collection of 150 richly colored photographs from five continents—offers immeasurable pleasures. Conceived after he suffered an attack of papillophlebitis, or “big blind spot syndrome,” the book tests the limits of vision. Each picture is paired with a short, evocative text. While the texts lack a direct relation to the pictures, the space in between elicits endless associations. An image of sheer white curtains in a Nuremberg hotel is linked to a consideration of Albrecht Dürer’s drapery studies; a picture of Beirut balconies accompanies a discussion of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Cole’s literary eye has produced a new genre—the experimental multimedia travelogue novel. An imaginative cultural journey!
—Roxana Marcoci, Senior Curator
Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is my favorite novel; I recommend it any and every chance I get. It’s an impeccable and deeply moving story about four college classmates who start their careers in NYC. The love, cruelty, and trauma that they face throughout their enduring, decades-long friendship will have you fully immersed. In a Vulture article, “How I Wrote My Novel: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life,” the author explains how photographs influence her fiction: “I began collecting photography when I was 26...and when I actually began writing, it was these images I returned to, again and again: They provided a sort of tonal sound check, as it were—was I conveying in words and scenes what I felt when I saw these photographs and paintings?” This relationship explains how Yanagihara selected a cover image that captures the emotional essence of the book. Though her editor vehemently disagreed with her choice, Yanagihara fought, and won, to use a portrait by photographer Peter Hujar. It is a mesmerizing image that ambiguously depicts either great pain or pleasure, an intense dichotomy that readers come to understand as central to Yanagihara’s sweeping narrative.
—Jane Pierce, Carl Jacobs Foundation Research Assistant
Carmen Winant. My Birth. 2018
“Is it possible to leave everything behind?” So begins Carmen Winant’s text in her 2019 book Notes on Fundamental Joy; seeking the elimination of oppression through the social and political transformation of the patriarchy that otherwise threatens to bury us. “Is it possible to begin again, outside of and beyond every system of living that you’ve ever known, reinventing what it means (and looks like) to exist, as a body and its soul, on the land?” Winant—whose immersive installation My Birth is in MoMA’s collection—here brings together photographs by JEB, Tee Corinne, Clytia Fuller, Ruth Mountaingrove, and others who participated in lesbian and feminist back-to-the-land movements of the 1980s. Their separation came out of very different circumstances than our current ones as we abandon our “normal” routines and isolate ourselves at home. Yet the strength and imagination of the women whose images and stories are chronicled in these pages, as they found new meaning and possibility in a life outside mainstream patriarchal society, is heartening.
—Lucy Gallun, Associate Curator
Lisette Model. Fashion Show, Hotel Pierre. 1943
Helen Gee’s memoir Limelight: A Greenwich Village Photography Gallery and Coffeehouse in the Fifties is an entertaining take on the history of photography. A true champion of the medium, Gee ran Limelight, the first commercial gallery dedicated exclusively to photography, from 1954 tp 1961. Her tales of struggle and success reveal a tenacious woman with incredible foresight for the value of photographs in the art market. Set against the unique landscape of 1950s Greenwich Village in New York City, Gee’s stories don’t hold back on gossip about the notable artist circles of the time. Her discussion of tensions with Lisette Model, and an unforgettable scene with Edward Steichen in a Kimono, are two highlights. Given its humorous and accessible tone, if I were to compare this memoir to TV, I’d say it’s more Bravo than Criterion Collection—and I’d argue that sometimes that’s the perfect thing.
—Tasha Lutek, Collection Specialist
W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants takes readers on a transatlantic journey—from the schoolhouses of Germany to the markets of Jerusalem—engaging memory, trauma, and generational encounters across four tales. The photographs printed within—either originals or rephotographed from newspapers, family albums, and archives, although Sebald refused any easy interpretations of his sources—punctuate The Emigrants with a dual sense of mystery and authenticity, recalling many concerns of contemporary photographers and theorists such as Sophie Calle and Susan Sontag. Sebald’s singular voice winds throughout, eluding absolutes and carefully layering narratives until a grand picture of a postwar era comes into focus. If anything, read this while stuck at home. It will serve as a worthwhile reminder that there is a wider world out there.
—Eli Cohen, Intern