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The one-room Adamson Gallery looks and smells crisp, clean. Like fresh ink and paper, or new money. It’s 6:30 p.m., and I’ve just slipped in with a party of three after fumbling the keypad/intercom system downstairs. This group claims the corner next to the bar, in front of the windows and the binder explaining the exhibit.
I arrived on time, which of course means early, in hopes of interviewing Director Laurie Adamson or her husband, go-to printmaker David, before the place got too crowded. I turn down sparkling water, champagne, and mojitos, and instead do laps around the exhibit until they arrive at 7 p.m.
Laurie had responded to my request for an interview with her husband, David, the curator of Lou Reed’s photography show at the Adamson Gallery, with an invite to a private reception and the implication of face time with the founder of the Velvet Underground.
In retrospect, I should have stopped at the curator Q&A, because a little part of me died when I finally met my high school hero.
After our interview, David, a genial man with a charismatic accent, says Lou’s on his way and takes his leave to tend to guests and interested buyers while I mill around the shrinking space for the hundredth time.
The crowd favorite is #23, a $2,500 large print with powder blue-green vegetation, sepia sky and dirt, and a skeletal piece of farm equipment forgotten in the shade. Laurie says it’s “really special.” The more I stare, the more I have to agree. But I was most impressed with the skewed composition of #22, all blue sky and a swath of grey clouds, with a slate angel atop palatial Parisian architecture relegated to the left-hand corner. No one else seems drawn to the minimalism in that frame. Most of the other photographs look like something Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe’s lovechild might have produced with the double-edged aid and hindrance of mescaline.
“So what do you think?” asks Al, who had been thumbing through the gallery’s copy of Romanticism, the exhibit’s companion book, in the corner.
I tell him I always thought Lou Reed to be more performance artist than musician anyway, but that I didn’t expect his photos to be so benevolent. Pastoral scenes. Parisian architecture. A goat.
“Interesting,” Al says.
I look at his earring, his salt-n-pepper moustache, studded skull shirt and jeans. “What brings you here?” I ask. “Big fan of Reed?”
Al’s motorcycling his way up to Canada. He lives in Australia, but started his trip in Tampa, Florida, and stopped to stay with his college-era ex-girlfriend in D.C. She and her husband brought him here.
Soon I’m listening to Al’s ex-girlfriend and her husband Chip.
“Take a walk on the wild side,” the ex says, wiggling her head like a palsied rocker. She confesses to having few songs on her iPod, and most are Reed’s. She freezes a beat with the rest of the room when she catches sight of Reed, who has just arrived. They tell me to introduce myself, but I’m frozen solid and hang back in awe as Al et al. leave me to join the rest of Reed’s public.
Eventually Laurie finds me by Special #23, catty corner to the thicket of lusty collectors and/or Reed admirers who seem overly eager for physical contact. She encourages me to talk to Reed. She says she’s going to introduce me as a writer. I ask if I can tell him I’m a journalist. Her normally pleasant “Yes” face scrunches into a less-pleasant “No” face. We are standing conspiratorially close as she instructs me on how to talk to Reed. I feel sneaky, which reminds me of rodents. Rodents remind me of Reed’s word for journalists: “Vermin.”
Laurie pushes me into the group.
Up close, Reed looks like a dinosaur; a homeless dinosaur. He’s wearing all black—wrinkled cotton trench despite the 80-plus-degree weather, thin T-shirt stretched over a slightly distended belly, faded black jeans with frayed cuffs from his dirty yellow Nikes. His tanned hide is craggy, and his Grand Canyon neck is eye-level. When he talks, I find myself staring at the row of silver teeth in his bottom, stubbly jaw. He seems grayer, frailer than the pictures I’ve seen. Still, he has an arrestingly firm handshake.
“Lou, this is Hilary. She’s a writer,” Laurie says.
I look across the gallery to see Chip, throwing me a garish thumbs-up.
“Hi Hilary,” Reed says and grasps my hand, pulling me in closer. I had expected to be waved away, and before I could gather my thoughts a blond man in perfectly pressed chinos butts in to take Reed’s hand.
I’m pissed, but I pretend to study #9—a bland shot of a European garden—while blond guy asks about Reed’s work. Screw #9, I think, as I wheel around to assert my presence in the circle once more. I came here to meet Lou Reed, not watch people kiss ass and write checks. Laurie encourages me with raised brows. I wait, smiling, with insistent eyes until Reed meets my gaze. I reach out my hand and reintroduce myself.
“I really love… your… work your… art.” Damn. He doesn’t seem to mind, or care. He inspects me—Did he just look at my chest?—and waits for the real words to come out.
“I love what you’ve done with these photos, and… I was really curious about this one around the corner here…” ” I asked him about favorite #23.
“Which?” he asks.
I can’t tell if he’s smiling or not. He looks not so much “out of it” as “over it.” I think we’re both doing something we each find more than a bit cringe-worthy, but I can’t be sure. He’s being so patient.
“Uh, number 23.”
“Here, show me.” We stand in front of the Easter-green and sepia star of the show.
“This seems to be the favorite,” I say. He agrees and talks about how much he likes it too. I asked him how and where he captured the image.
“In Scotland,” he says. “It was during a, just about to storm.” He’s pointing at the trees and clouds, but his commentary is lost in the din each time his body turns away from mine.
Because of the noise in the room, Reed spends most of the secret interview-cum-belabored (on my part) conversation leaning into my face, looking down on me. This is scary for many reasons, chief among them is that Reed is scary looking: His brown bespectacled eyes have seen it all, and recorded as much in broken capillaries and yellowish splotches.
Reed says none of the photographs are titled and that he wanted it that way, so the viewer wouldn’t be distracted by place but be forced to rely on how or what the image makes him or her feel. He confesses he can’t even be sure he’s remembering correctly when he tells me a photograph’s origin. I ask him about #22, my favorite, the blue sky/slate angel composition.
“That’s Paris.” He waves a hand about the frame.
I’m freaking out. I’ve managed to escort Lou Freaking Reed around the gallery, to keep him engaged and the conversation blond-intruder-free for what feels like eternity, and he doesn’t seem bored.
He likes to get many different angles of the same thing, he says, getting up close, honing in on a breeze-caught leaf or strange fork in tree branches.
“It’s different angles, different ways of seeing things.” I nod. He shifts to my left side. “See,” he says, shifting to my right side.
“Either way it’s different, it doesn’t matter what angle. Just if it’s beautiful.” I smile to assure him this demonstration was quite effective, and he seems pleased. I bring up another photograph, and he leads me across the gallery. We stand in front of it, talk about shutter speeds and his tweaked camera that sees in “a different wavelength.” Not infrared, not black and white.
“It’s different,” is all Reed divulges about his digital camera. “I love digital. I’m not the type to mourn the death of film.”
Nor is he the type to discuss ideology, as evidenced by my asking if “Romanticism” is—per the press materials—a commentary on industrialization and globalization:
As I am delivering this question Reed breaks eye contact and looks down at my chest. Again. I finish my question, eyebrows arched.
Reed’s gaze comes up. “Where did you hear that?” he asks.
“I read it in the press release. Is that what this is about?”
“Then what is this exhibit about?”
“What it says in the press release.”
Chip comes up behind Reed, whom I’m facing, whose motives I’m trying to unearth, and snaps a photo of me and what I can only assume is the back of Reed’s head with his metallic-tangerine digital camera. He smiles at me, pleased, like he’s doing me a solid. I manage to ignore this, determined to have at least one of my direct questions answered directly.
I ask about the title of the exhibition, if William Blake’s brand of romanticism was at all a consideration given Reed’s rhapsodic treatments of nature.
Killing-the-conversation dead wrong.
“It’s just romance,” Reed says, waving his mojito-free hand palm-up in the air around him, gesturing to the gallery’s contents as if to say Duh!
“Romantic in the simplest sense of the word. You don’t need any point of reference to understand it.”
Judging by his tone, I think I’ve just been called stupid for referencing a Romanticist.
“It was nice meeting you, Hilary,” he says to me.
“You too,” I say, shaking his hand again.
I don’t know that either of us is particularly sincere. His grip is undetectable. He returns to another patch of potential buyers, and starts all over again. For a 67-year-old with wandering eyes, dressed like a vagrant, he’s a startlingly savvy businessman.
P.S. Chip, if you read this, can I have a copy of that photo?