Ann Carlson decided to make the past visible, and that’s a simple matter of choreographing the ghosts.
In her ambitious new Night Light project, Carlson uses live performers to restage seven photographs taken in Chelsea between 1895 and 1955—on the exact spots where they were snapped, when possible. The resulting tableaux vivants show us a quotidian past: everyday life, not historical moments. Still, Carlson took pains to cast dancers who look like the people in the photos, had each scene lit like the original, and re-created clothing, makeup, signage, and clutter to match the pictures’ blacks, whites, and grays. Tour guides who either live or work in Chelsea will lead spectators to each tableau, while telling their own tales of the nabe.
Carlson’s ambition, on top of all this, was “to recover a historic past that is absent from the record.” And on that count, she isn’t sure she’s succeeded. “You’re getting me on a day of a few regrets,” she admits. “I realize that I was extremely naive to think that in a year’s time I’d unearth photos that tell a story absent from the record. Because the archives, not surprisingly, hold a certain class and a certain color.” But Carlson is being a bit hard on herself.
She accomplishes in Night Light what she so often has, redirecting our attention to some ordinary thing in order toreveal its extraordinariness. Carlson is well-known for incorporating “real people” into her work. And real animals. She’s choreographed pieces for lawyers, nuns, a farmer and her cow. To name just a few. She says she wants to reframe who dances, and what dance is. She uses the focused attention people direct at a performer to get us to see others differently. The work has a conceptual edge. In part of the acclaimed White, for example, she appeared in full bridal regalia to auction off the ballerinas dancing around her. (She had studied with a real auctioneer to get the patter right.) In another piece, she danced naked, miming Koko the ape, accompanied by a kitten she sometimes carried in her mouth.
In Night Light, the oldest picture Carlson re-creates was taken by Alice Austen in 1895 on the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street. A newsgirl stands on the sidewalk with her sheaf of papers. A long-gone elevated train runs up the avenue behind her. On the corner stands a shoe store with a striped awning. The girl in her big flowered bonnet is unremarkable to those who pass her, posing in a moment meaningless to those who lived it. But the photographer saw something there. And now, more than 100 years gone, all the mundane details look exotic.
Carlson thinks of this as the archaeology of a neighborhood. Whose backs are we walking on? What is the photograph’s relationship to reality? What gets preserved—in our memories and in the historical record?
One of her intentions is to get people thinking about all the layers. The 23rd Street Y agreed to host one of the pictures until they realized that it conflicted with karate. But Carlson told them, “No problem for me. Let’s just put the photo in the karate class. Because one of the whole issues is the way the contemporary world hits up against this image and, on some kind of Einsteinian level, all of time exists in the present. It’s all still there.” (The Y’s answer was still no.)
She has an anonymous photo taken in 1929 called 10th Avenue Cowboys. Two men on horseback are advancing up the avenue at the corner of 24th Street. She was having trouble finding some horses, but really wanted to do this picture because all the buildings but one are exactly as they were. She points to a car parked at the edge of the frame. “We actually found this,” says Carlson, who’s been working with teams of designers and fabricators. It’s a car that was only made for three years, a Ford Double A. But the owner wanted $4500.” They might have to use a cutout. As Carlson explains it, “We’rere-presenting the photograph, not the real.” In other words, she isn’t creating period movie sets. Just evoking some ghosts.
Carlson’s inspiration for Night Light was indirect. It all began during a residency at a Pittsburgh hospital for women. “A belly of the beast experience,” she calls it. She spent months there shadowing a couple of doctors—one who specialized in maternal/fetal risk, one who ran a health clinic in a poor neighborhood. Carlson never created any piece related to the hospital, but, she says, “I kept thinking ‘portraits.’ I wanted to stop the moment. That age-old thing of freeze-framing this sort of traumatic instant.” Somehow her wish to two-dimensionalize the experience also made her want to see an actual photo in 3-D. That led to turning photos into tableaux.
Of course, if she were starting now, she says on her day of regrets, she would do things differently. Maybe skip the archives and go to families. Still, she accepts what is. Apart from the Austen photo and the Tenth Avenue shot, she has two by the Byron Company taken around the turn of the old century, one NYPD crime scene, and a Weegee photo titled Thief Dressed as a Woman in which said crook emerges grinning from a Black Maria. Carlson thinks he really is a thief, not a transvestite, but “I felt like I didn’t have anything that reflected the queer culture in Chelsea and this sort of does tangentially.”
Then there’s the contribution from the General Theological Seminary that officials there found for her. Four priests leave church with their bags and briefcases in 1955. The seminary discovered after giving Carlson the picture that it was all staged, a setup for a fundraising brochure. “Which I adore,” says Carlson. “Because the other layer here is about fact/fiction. What we know. What we assume. What gets captured and held onto as historical truth. The notion that on some level every photograph is staged. On some level, every historical accuracy is potentially an inaccuracy.”
One night, Carlson and crew went out to test the Austen photograph. They’d lost their site, because suddenly, after some 20 years as a vacant lot, construction began on the southeast corner. A wall now sat over the spot where Austen once stood. So they moved everything across the street. They were testing it: the work of this rather obscure photographer who’d photographed a completely obscure newsgirl.
“It was one of those great New York moments,” Carlson recalls. A man who was walking by suddenly stopped and said, “Oh, my God! An Alice Austen photograph!” He got right on his cell phone and called someone: “Come to Sixth and 23rd. There’s an Alice Austen!”
Someone had recognized the ghost. “He spieled off all this stuff I didn’t know about Alice Austen,” says Carlson. “He goes, ‘Well, you knew she was a lesbian, right?’ I didn’t even know this guy. Those are those moments where I go, ‘Oh, my God, how fabulous.’ ”
Night Light runs through May 27. Call the Kitchen for reservations and location: 212-255-5793, ext. 11. No reservations after 6 p.m. on day of show.