The year that Marilyn Monroe marries Joe DiMaggio, that Elvis Presley releases “That’s All Right,” that the first mass polio vaccinations begin, that Frank O’Hara publishes his prose poem “Meditations in an Emergency” in which he confesses “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life,” a Swiss artist who has been living in New York for nearly 20 years takes two photographs of his sparsely furnished Brooklyn Heights studio. At first glance the two exposures appear identical: we can see a small table for brushes and paint, an uncomfortable-looking wooden chair, a wastebasket and a steam radiator. Tacked to the wall are three or four postcards and art reproductions (including one of Goya’s Nude Maja). A few books, including a mass paperback of Plato’s Dialogues and a Pogo comic book, sit on a small shelf. The atmosphere is one of austerity and dedication, of a life lived in pursuit of art and nothing else. A later commentator goes so far as to describe the scene as “endowed with dignity by God.”
Visible in each photograph through a double-hung window that looks in need of repair is a view across the East River. Weirdly, the two views are not identical. In one image we see some piers and the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan, most noticeably the Woolworth Building, while in the other photograph the Brooklyn Bridge, which isn’t visible in the first shot, dominates the view. Only after careful comparison of these two seemingly identically framed images do we notice that for the second shot the photographer has stepped a couple of feet closer and moved a little to the left. (Some of the postcards and the objects on the table have been rearranged as well.)
How many hours or days or years of looking out his window did it take for the photographer to notice that by slightly shifting his position he could so dramatically alter his view? Or did he only remark on this strange visual conundrum after he had taken the two photographs and studied them side by side? Coming upon these images nearly 70 years later, we are struck by the material poverty of the artist’s quarters and by the relative emptiness of the Lower Manhattan skyline, but also by something else: there’s an unsettling parallel between the postcards and the scenes outside the window, as if what is visible from a window might be as contingent, as easily replaced, as a picture pinned on a wall, as if the urban scenes we gaze at from our windows might be nothing more than a series of selected images, an endless slideshow, orchestrated by our restless minds.