It is about time the world got to see Reverend Al Sharpton’s houseplants, and, thanks to the color photographs in Dominique Nabokov’s New York Living Rooms, there is his philodendron. We also get a look at Nan Goldin’s wood floors, Philip Glass’s chair throw, Lypsinka’s red futon, and Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne’s yellow chintz chairs— a step up from the sparse furnishings she describes in her ’60s essay on New York, “Goodbye to All That.”
Nabokov’s shots offer page after page of behind-the-scenes voyeuristic thrills, but the real titillations of these pictures come from the mysteries they present. So many questions come to mind: Why does Suzanne Farrell have so many places to sit? Is it because she is a ballerina and twirls in the air so much of the time? And why does Alexandra and Arthur Schlesinger’s living room look like Jean Harlow lives there?
All is not what it seems. Every one of the photographs looks and feels like a mysterious story that you can never quite finish.
First, it is because the people who live in the rooms are missing. They have vanished. Most likely they are at the corner café, or maybe at some important meeting or rehearsal or benefit. The majority of these living rooms belong to affluent grown-ups— excluding Taylor Mead, who seems to have laundry instead of furniture.
Absent of people, each room has the feeling of evidence, as if yellow crime-scene tape should be stretched across the front. Like conceptual artist Sophie Calle’s work L’Hôtel, photographs of rooms in a Venetian hotel that she secretly took while posing as a chambermaid, Nabokov’s images give the sense that something secret has gone on— and likely, something has. A lover has left, one never arrived, the phone call was received about “the money.” In the case of these particular living rooms, the people are famous, so the rooms become a glimpse of how people act famous in private.
The images have an uneasy, shivery feel— the way a space does in a movie when the camera enters a room, though in the photos we are eternally fixed in that room— even if we can see through the passage leading out of theater critic John Heilpern’s living area, we can never go through it.
Some rooms, especially the Upper West Side ones with the towerlike bookshelves of Elizabeth Hardwick and Barbara Epstein— both of whom have long raspberry couches, by the way— look a bit like the rooms in a daydream, filled with a soft and shimmering white light. There are the rooms all cool with bluish light— political strategist David Garth’s, lawyer Alain Coblence’s, composer Lucas Foss’s— ideal set pieces for the greatest shadowy noirs.
Every one of the rooms is perfectly still. This is a quiet book without the noise of inhabitants. There is the edge, the feeling that maybe one should not be there. You have to hurry, look fast, before the Schnabels come home.
But these are all rooms in the same movie. Or rather, the same book. Not a one is about decoration: “. . . no rearranging, no adding of bouquets,” Nabokov writes in the preface. Nabokov has rejected taking the classic house portrait, the grinning couple sitting arm in arm on the sofa, darn proud of their dog and their end table, though maybe ambivalent about the floor lamp. In choosing to snap the rooms alone, by themselves, she quickly anthropomorphizes the room, makes it the protagonist, gives it a heightened sense of poetry, transforms it into a place seemingly more significant, more special, than just where someone lives and dozes, worries, has a petty thought, sneezes, and all the ensuing biology.
Unlike so many “interior” books, artificially
lit, with big, bright images of the African sculptures, Biedermeier chairs popping off the page in perfect roundness and detail, Nabokov has put together a collection of what almost look like miniature rooms in a jar, each one 4 1/4 by 5 1/2 inches, excerpts from a very real yet almost otherworldly urban museum.
These effects come deliberately from Nabokov’s choice of camera, film, and light source— specific technical decisions that give her “the wonderful feeling of being a sleuth-voyeur.” A proponent of mobility, she avoids the use of strobes, flashes, and all the paraphernalia that can make photographers, by the time they get up the stairs, wonder if the hundreds of pounds of equipment are outweighing the experience of immortalizing some stockbroker’s room.
The photos appear to be illuminated only by the light that is in the room. She uses a
Polaroid camera 600 SE, and a high-contrast film, which she loves for its “accidental, eccentric colors” and its quick results: it “provides a full color positive transparency in 4 minutes
(exactly the time it takes to boil my eggs).”
The book is heartbreaking in one respect. Nabokov tells us, “I could easily go on and on, opening the doors of New York City for years— what fun! Unfortunately it seems impossible.” And in some ways it is. Her favorite film “has been discontinued.” But there are other film stocks. In the final photograph, of her own apartment, a stack of contact sheets sits on a table. One can only hope that she’s planning her next book. New York Bedrooms?