Staff Picks: Cameras, Colonnades, and Countesses


This Week’s Reading

John Chiara, “Pike Slip to Sugar Hill,” 2018. Installation view.

Photography is an exercise in disappointment. How many times has my sight been arrested—by a mountain, a vista, a strange street juxtaposition—only for the resulting photo to be flat, featureless, uncommunicative? I sometimes scroll through old photos I’ve taken and can’t remember what I wanted to capture. Yet it seems the most effortless, natural art. Little manual strength or dexterity is required—you look, you click, and light impresses itself everywhere simultaneously on the film. Camera pressed to face, the lens ceases to be an object, becomes a perceived appendage of the eye. The “eye” of a photographer is often praised in the same manner as a pitcher’s arm, a singer’s voice, a painter’s hand. Yet in those cases the body part celebrated is actually performing the action, while the photographer’s eye does nothing but select—the camera does the work, and the camera is not an eye. An eye is connected to a brain, and vision is inseparable from thinking, from the gestalt of perception, the interplay of the senses. Photographs we take are so often disappointing because they have been denuded of ourselves, floating free from the pressure of our senses and cognition. The great pictures are those that feel made. They induce synesthesia—we can feel them, smell them, hear them. This ethic is embraced by the photographer John Chiara, currently showing his collection of large color-negative New York photos “Pike Slip to Sugar Hill” at the Yossi Milo Gallery. Chiara imposes himself on the processes cloistered in the camera by building his own, so large that he mounted it on the back of a flatbed. As a result, most of the photos are looking up at buildings, gawking. Within the camera he exposes the giant photo paper directly, physically manipulating the exposure in real time. The colors are ghostly and garish, the solid, darker things made bright, giving the photos the spatial clarity of a blueprint. Texture, by virtue of the print size, the volume of the colors, and Chiara’s hand, is palpable. The pictures are quickened by oxymoron. Pointed skyward, they feel subterranean. Defiantly unreal, they are utterly faithful to embodied sight. —Matt Levin 

The walk from the F train to the southern tip of Roosevelt Island is not just a relieving break from the concrete canyons of Manhattan—it’s a concise tour of three centuries of architectural history. Elsewhere in the city, such evolutions are cleared to a landfill in Jersey, making room for the next generation of buildings to rise, but on Roosevelt Island they coexist: the ruins of Renwick’s nineteenth-century smallpox hospital still stand (barely) as a verdant folly wedged between Thom Mayne’s futuristic building for Cornell Tech and Louis Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park, its midcentury ambition finally realized and opened to the public earlier this decade. Renwick is better known for his architecture in D.C., such as the Smithsonian Institution building, on the National Mall; Mayne made his New York name with the silvery hunk he designed for Cooper Union; and Kahn, well … just watch My Architect if you don’t know how much he contributed to modern architecture—said another way, I see it as an ongoing coup that New York has a posthumous Kahn anchored in the East River. I’m of the opinion that these crisp fall days are the best of the year; put on a scarf, brave the tram, and when you arrive on Roosevelt, follow the flow of the water. The leaves are just starting to change on the trees of Kahn’s hull-shaped plaza, making the paired colonnades that much more a delight. —Emily Nemens


Claire Fuller


Now that we’re all caught up in the giddy frisson of fall—pumpkin patches, mulled cider, and a proliferation of Instagram posts involving the two—is it too early to revisit the summer? Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange escorts us back to the ineluctable July heat of 1969. Embedded deep in the English countryside, the Lyntons estate remains unexplored, the weeds wild and untrimmed. But the novel’s protagonist, thirty-nine-year-old Frances Jellico, isn’t as enamored with the grounds as she is by the strange young couple that shares them with her. Cara is an alluring young adventuress, a storyteller who bewitches Frances with all the beauty and danger of a “flowering cactus,” and Cara’s presumed husband, Peter, is the first man to ever look at Frances “as a man looks at a woman, not as one might look at a daughter, or a student, or a library-card holder.” Deprived of intimacy her entire adult life, Frances is utterly seduced. But there’s something lurking in the shadows of the delectable summer days Frances spends at Lyntons, all the wine and cigarettes that the residents devour. Page by page, Fuller enchants us with prose as thick as clotted cream, only for us to realize too late that she’s been ensnaring us at every turn. —Madeline Day

In her most recent collection, Your Duck Is My Duck, Deborah Eisenberg is a prose stylist with a smirk—just when you feel confident that you know exactly where a sentence, a phrase, a plotline is headed, she gracefully places her foot under yours, and you stumble. The artful realism of her short fiction offers the depth and complexity of a novel. The story that has stuck with me in particular is “Cross Off and Move On,” which reveals the ugly and the beautiful as they are witnessed in the emotional challenges of filial loyalty, the complexities of female adolescent aspiration, and the relationship between a mother and daughter. —Lauren Kane

As usual, it’s all about mom in Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness. A newlywed couple, Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet), are on their way to France to visit Stefan’s aristocratic mother. After their train is delayed, they check into a grand hotel in the coastal Belgian city of Ostend. Upon arriving, Stefan pays off the concierge to lie and say his mother can’t be reached, and the honeymoon extends itself indefinitely. Enter the Hungarian countess, Elizabeth Báthory (the divine Delphine Seyrig), a lesbian vampire who travels with a moody assistant, Ilona (Andrea Rau). The more you delve into Seyrig and her performance, the more glamorous this film becomes; she was the great-niece of Ferdinand de Saussure and the daughter of a Levantine archaeologist. Kümel styled Seyrig’s character after Marlene Dietrich, which accentuates the feeling that you’re in a self-contained world here. Having eliminated the groom’s mother, the film chips away at the notion of a world outside the hotel—or the film itself. The countess (whose disarmingly red lips lend themselves to the French title, Les Lèvres rouges) is implicitly linked to several murders of local young women. And yet what really makes this a horror film—the physical violence, especially on Stefan’s part—the countess never instigates. Death and sadomasochism, like her evening gowns, seem to simply trail behind her. The film ends with an oft-used, though still effective, horror technique that hints of more violence to come, but questions linger: How long have the couple known each other? Even though it’s the off-season, are there really no other guests at the hotel besides this satanic foursome? Why is everyone speaking English in Belgium? It would be a tragedy to watch this film’s outstanding art direction and set design on a laptop, so don’t miss it at the Quad this Saturday, with additional screenings on Halloween and November 1. —Ben Shields


Still from Daughters of Darkness