An artist’s quixotic attempt to convince The New Yorker to embrace photography.
Nina Howell Starr’s “The New Yorker Project,” currently on view at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky, is a collection of photos and archival material never intended for publication—it began as a sort of letter to the editor, intended to convince her favorite magazine of the power of photography.
Starr, born in 1903, was a fan of The New Yorker from the beginning: she subscribed from the magazine’s inception in 1925 until her death in 2000. She came to photography much later, earning her M.F.A. from University of Florida in Gainesville, in 1963, at the age of sixty. Her husband was an English professor, which meant that the couple lived an itinerant academic life; when he retired, they relocated to New York City, where Nina’s career began in earnest.
In 1979, she embarked on a curious project: she took the July 16 issue of The New Yorker and systematically replaced every illustration, no matter how tiny, with one of her photographs. It was audacious, sure, and blatant in its message, but the final result is more striking than you might expect. The images are unassuming, subtly sweet, and a little off. Legs clad in mismatched socks poke out of trousers; gloves hang in pairs beside a bald mannequin; a sinuous painting of a nude advertises a peep show. There’s a quiet humor in the discrepancy between Starr’s images and the tony contents of the magazine. In some cases, her photos have more fidelity to the text on the page than the original illustrations do, as on page eleven, the “Goings On About Town” museum page, where she replaces an illustration of a merry-go-round with an image of a gold Mesoamerican mask. As you flip through the pages, Starr’s project begins to read more like a love letter to New York—a foil to the New York depicted in the magazine at the time. Her editorial decisions, such as they are, seem more like flirtatious teasing than a lambasting of The New Yorker’s sensibility.
When Starr, who was in the habit of writing argumentative letters to editors, sent her doctored issue to the magazine, she wasn’t dreaming of foisting herself into its revered pages: she was advocating for photography in general. Of course, her tacit suggestion—that The New Yorker do away with drawn illustrations altogether, incorporating photography basically as an exact substitute—was at once too radical and too narrow. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the magazine’s answer was swift and succinct. On a form rejection letter dated October 5, 1979, someone scrawled, in rough, uneven pencil, “We do not use photography”—an emphatic, coolly authoritative response, but also, in its way, a strangely defensive one.
Starr’s project actually came eight years after The New Yorker had printed its first photograph. The inaugural image, a piglet in a bonnet, ran in a piece by William Whitworth on the cuteness of swine. It was a notable exception to the rule: by and large, photographs were considered anathema to The New Yorker’s image. The magazine’s fixation on illustration was, and still is, one of its distinguishing qualities. While the New York Times had been printing photographs alongside the news since 1896, and Life was known for publishing photography from its start in 1936, The New Yorker’s character could be summed up in the elegant, if sometimes baffling, hand-drawn pictures that dotted its pages.
The New Yorker did eventually acquiesce to the medium, but only in 1992, thirteen years after Starr’s entreaty, when Richard Avedon came on as the magazine’s first staff photographer. As Adam Gopnik writes in his tribute to Avedon, “his photographs, in their epigrammatic compression of a whole subject into a single black-and-white image, were New Yorker profiles in miniature, and within weeks it was if they had always graced these pages.”
As for Starr, one imagines she was thrilled to find the magazine embrace her medium. Or perhaps not: though she was, by then, a member of New York Professional Women Photographers, 20/20 New York Women Photographers, and the Photographic Historical Society, she had stopped taking photographs in 1985.
“The New Yorker Project” is at Institute 193 through December 12.
Lilly Lampe is a writer and art critic based in Atlanta, Georgia, and New York City. Her writing has appeared in Art in America, ArtAsiaPacific, Art Papers, Artforum.com, Modern Painters, and the Village Voice, among others. She currently teaches art history at Georgia State University.