As we come in, Jenna offers us a basket of 3-D glasses: red, yellow, or black. Ingrid chooses black, which matches her outfit. Standing at the podium she announces, “Greg wants his glasses back after the event!” Greg is Greg Dinkins, the co-founder of the New York Stereoscopic Society. He’s at ICA tonight to give a presentation about Max Margulis, a musician, writer, teacher, and a founder of Blue Note records; a hanger-out at the legendary Cedar Tavern with the hard-drinking New York School artists; and a stereo photographer.
I have worn 3-D glasses before, but only for easy thrills at the movies. I have never really looked through them, and it takes some getting used to. At first the images shift and blur as my eyes settle in. What Greg has to say is as interesting as what he’s showing us. In the fifties, Max Margulis made 3-D portraits of his artist friends in their studios and photographed New York street scenes. One story about Margulis involves his friendship with Willem de Kooning. When the photographer first knew the painter, de Kooning was so poor he didn’t own an overcoat. In winter, Max would come over and lend him his coat so de Kooning could go out, then wait around the apartment for him to bring it back.
Once I get used to the glasses, it really is amazing how deep the images go. You can see how far back the divan is in one room, just where the easel sits, how a column defines the space. The column in particular seems so definitively placed that I succumb to the illusion, moving my head in vain to try to see around it. In another image, two people play duets at a piano that seems to stretch backward forever. In a third, de Kooning, wearing a blue shirt, poses in front of a portrait he painted of Margulis himself: a portrait of de Kooning with a portrait of Max. In the background, a bunch of paintings lean casually against a wall. “Think of all the museums they’re hanging in now,” Greg says. The Museum of Modern Art, for instance, which is currently presenting an enormous de Kooning retrospective. The curators working on that show used the Margulis images as an aid to their research. One stereophotograph shows the the monumental painting “Excavation” partly done, offering insight into the painter’s process and materials. The researchers asked Greg to blow up parts of the images to give them a closer look.
I like the glimpses into the artist’s studios, those mystical springs of inspiration with their battered furniture and empty bottles, their serious-faced men (they’re almost always men) looking potent and inscrutable. But even better, for my money, are the scenes of New York street life. The distance elongates like taffy, pulling you in. On Delancy Street on the Lower East Side, on the Succot holiday, a peddler cart bright with yellow citrus looms in the foreground, while the shoeshine boys and the old Jews with beards recede through space down the long street.
Greg says, “There’s a common phrase about 3-D photography—coming at you.” Comin’ attya. “I like to think, instead, that the images take me there.”
In one store window, vicious-looking squirrels pose, a taxidermist’s comment on city life, perhaps. In another, we gaze through the façade of an abandoned storefront at the giant hole in the ground that will become Lincoln Center. New York as it was—and in its becoming what it is—comes alive for us tonight in this Philadelphia auditorium. A face pressed to a window seems be peering back not only into space but also time, the illusion of seeing into the third dimension creating the sense of seeing into the fourth.
In a few images, you can see a flicker of Max’s reflection in the glass. A lingering ghost, documenting a place receding steadily into the past.
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