Originally aired on November 8, 2023
In this Wondros episode, Jesse Dylan interviews Lucy Sante, a writer, culture critic, scholar, and contributor to The New York Review of Books. Sante discusses a range of topics, including the creative process for artists in today’s world, her book “Evidence” that features haunting photographs found in the New York City municipal archives, her love for photography and collecting old photographs, the connection between photography and music, the fascination with the past and history, and the challenges and importance of research in her writing process.
The Challenges for Artists Today
- Sante reflects on the dramatically different conditions for artists now compared to when she was coming up in the art world.
- She notes that photographers often go through the academic route, receive grants, and do commercial or fashion work to support themselves.
- Living modestly and dealing with high demand, young artists often struggle compared to the relative freedom and low cost of living that Sante experienced.
The Origins of “Evidence”
- Sante explains that her book “Evidence” came about as part of her picture research for her first book about New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
- While searching for specific types of photographs, she stumbled upon the glass plate photographs in the New York City municipal archives.
- These photographs, found under a staircase and overlooked in a move, provided a unique and haunting glimpse into the daily lives of people living in tenements in the early 20th century.
The Strange World of Glass Plate Photographs
- Sante describes the glass plate photographs as hypnotizing and revealing of a part of New York City that no longer exists.
- The buildings, people, and captions are gone, leaving only the photographs and sometimes fragmented or missing information.
- These photographs, which were taken as part of police investigations and court cases, offer an interzone between life and death and give insight into how people lived in tenements during that time.
Photography and Intuition
- Sante shares her early attraction to photography, citing Walker Evans and Robert Frank as influences.
- While she took classes and learned about the technical aspects of photography, she realized she would always be an imitator rather than an original artist in the medium.
- However, she continued to collect old photographs and found a connection between photography and folk music, both capturing and transmitting certain aspects of American culture.
Folk Photography and American Culture
- Sante discusses her collection of folk photography, particularly postcards that depict Americana.
- She notes that her interest in folk photography was driven by visual appeal rather than subject matter.
- The photographs capture the outfits and culture that are reminiscent of American folk music, creating a connection between the two art forms.
Ramifications of History and Memory
- Sante reflects on the impact of history and memory on her work, noting her personal connection to the Catskills, reservoirs, and abandoned villages.
- She finds fascination in the disappearing or transformed landscapes and the stories that are lost or rewritten over time.
- Through her research and writing, she strives to capture and make sense of these stories before they vanish completely.