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Arts & Culture

I first noticed Harry Roseman’s art while dropping off my shirts at the dry cleaner near my home. It is a photograph of the wall in the dry cleaner on which the photograph hangs. Roseman had taken the picture because the sun had thrown on the wall the shadow of the shop’s neon sign. The name is spelled in outline on the drab wallpaper: Gladmore Cleaners. The picture hangs in the same spot where the shadow had fallen.

Then I noticed another one. Shirts under plastic covers and suspended from white, metal hangers form a line behind the register. Each shirt has a yellow slip attached to it. My own shirts hang there, ready for pickup. When the owner moves a section of shirts aside, a large photograph comes into view: a tight composition of the scene that has just been disturbed—all the shirts in their neat row.

Gladmore Cleaners in Poughkeepsie, in upstate New York, is owned by a Korean couple, Jongwon and Insoon Chung. In the recent past, Roseman has added their portraits to the collection in the store. High up above the counter is a photograph of the Chungs. They are standing at the counter, Insoon in more formal attire and without her glasses, Jongwon beside her wearing his customary white cotton vest.

This picture appears in another photograph of the Chungs taken by Roseman. The second picture hangs on the wooden wall beneath the counter where Insoon has her register. The scene is repeated here—the photographer and his subjects both keep their places from the first photograph—except that in the later picture, the Chungs are smiling and wearing brighter colors.

Roseman teaches at the same college where I am employed; I recognized his name when Insoon mentioned it, but knew nothing about his work. Later, I discovered that a sculpture I had seen countless times at JFK Airport’s Terminal 4—heavy, white clouds made from modified gypsum, billowing on a wall painted a deep shade of blue—was Roseman’s work. When I ran into him at the grocery store and mentioned that I liked his images at the dry cleaner, he told me that those photographs had been the starting point of a larger project on local businesses. Last year, Roseman was awarded a Guggenheim and so has been on sabbatical, but on a bright day in May, when my classes were over, we went around to all the other places where his pictures are displayed.

Roseman and his wife, the artist Catherine Murphy, live at the edge of Poughkeepsie on a large, wooded property where they have also built studios. Around the corner from their house, on Salt Point Turnpike, is Al’s Garage. For the past twenty years, Al Houghtaling has been Roseman’s mechanic. The walls of Al’s office are crowded with pictures of racing cars, trophies, signs informing customers on rates and general etiquette (“If you are grouchy, irritable, or just mean, there will be a $10 charge for putting up with you”). Amid this busy profusion of images is a large photograph that Roseman installed there. It shows an adjacent section of the store, with Al’s desk and chair and the flat-screen TV on the wall. There are other Roseman photographs in the office, and also among the steel tools and greasy auto parts in the repair bays outside. Each photograph reflects, with a tiny and subtle dislocation, the space that surrounds it.

Al told me that the photographs “get a lot of questions.” His customers are startled by them and ask what had prompted Al to take a picture of his office’s interior and hang it up there. Roseman is satisfied with this response; he says that by examining his photographs, people are likely to closely observe the surroundings as well. In this way, his pictures encourage looking. Roseman also said that his photographs are not supposed to appear to their viewers as art; they are ordinary objects, and they portray the everyday places of which they are a part. The impulse is celebratory, paying tribute to the people he interacts with, but his effort is nearly quotidian. Roseman says that once the project had taken shape in his mind, he thought of it simply as a record of “going about my business.”

In the antiseptic, even forbidding, coldness of the hallway that leads to his doctor’s offices, Roseman has put up a picture of the hallway itself. And inside, a few inches below the reception window, is a photograph of the very scene before you. The receptionist’s head of dark curly hair, which was visible to me behind the glass panel while she was on the phone, was in the picture, too. In each of the examining rooms, Roseman’s large images reproduce the small spaces: the medical diagrams, charts, and examining tables.

The photographs at other businesses repeat this pattern but with idiosyncratic differences. The photo-printing shop, On Location, which Roseman has frequented for years, and the art-supply store, Catskill Art, are both packed with photographs and frames, so Roseman’s images there blend into their surroundings. During a visit to one of his favorite restaurants, called Another Fork in the Road, in the nearby town of Milan, Roseman stepped into the bathroom and saw that a small decorative picture—of a red house with two chimneys—had fallen off its nail. The picture was sitting on the floor, against the wall. Roseman photographed this scene, and now his image hangs on the wall; the original image now resides permanently on the floor below. The restaurant’s chef and owner, Jamie Parry, says of Roseman’s photograph, “I have my own Baldessari.”

Parry’s comment reveals a formal appreciation of Roseman’s photographs. They are part puzzle, part visual joke, and coach us about ways of seeing. I saw virtue in Roseman’s own description of his images as public art, “low-key and gentle.”

Toward the end of the tour, Roseman and I went to LaGrange Physical Therapy (“Quality Care, Close to Home”). Roseman’s wife had received therapy there for several months, and a year ago, he had put up two of his pictures in their offices. However, Roseman immediately saw that the first picture wasn’t there. The wall next to the door was empty. He took me to the bathroom to show me the second picture, but that one was gone, too. I could see that Roseman was surprised, maybe even a bit shocked. A tall man named Fred came along, and Roseman pointed to the wall and asked him about the picture. Fred said, “John wanted it down. Do you want them back?”

Fred retrieved the photographs while we waited. The first one was a picture of the room where patients wait. It had the same frame photoshopped around it as the painting it depicted. In Roseman’s photograph, the painting—a nature scene, hills with trees turning fall colors, and in the distance, a river—appeared above an empty chair and a magazine rack. The painting was still hanging in its place on an adjacent wall. The owners had wanted to keep it, but not Roseman’s photograph.

In the car, I asked Roseman about it. He said that the painting was “wildly innocuous, but that was the one thing they thought to cherish.” He added that his wife had been happy with the therapy she received at the facility and would probably return if the problem resurfaced. Roseman said that he himself wouldn’t. It struck me that his project was really about relationships, the endlessly renewed transactions we have with the places where we do business. In the case of the therapist, that relationship had languished. My feelings were confirmed when I saw how Insoon was eager to tell Roseman about the changes in her life that had occurred in the time between the two photographs he had taken of her and Jongwon. She had tried to compose herself, she said, in the first picture: “I was very upset. My child was going through a breakdown. That is why I wasn’t smiling.” By the time the second picture was taken, the situation had changed: Insoon’s daughter had been admitted to MIT.

Amitava Kumar is the author, most recently, of A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna. He is professor of English at Vassar College.