Thursday, October 30, 2008

Not Sunday with Richard and Polly and Rosemary

"This is Major Tom to Ground Control..." I heard the Bowie tune blaring in the entrance hall of the grand Bibliotheque nationale Richelieu as we entered.

"Uh-oh," I groaned. "One of my least favorite songs."

I caught on immediately, though. Not so subtly they were setting the mood for the special opening Monday night of the exhibit 70s: Le choc de la photographie americaine.

Having made it past the metal detector and the first invitation controle, we were directed to yet another line to wait to enter the gallery hall. The event had begun at 8 and we were pretty prompt, but it was already filled to capacity. Our patience was tested, but after 10 minutes we were in. We inquired as to whether there was a cocktail accompanying the vernissage (Roederer Champagne was the sponsor, so it seemed a reasonable question). Negative. Damn. One more check of our precious carton d'invitation and we were granted permission to enter the packed room. As we walked through the door, Rosemary said in a whisper,"That's Pierre Rosenberg," indicating distinguished man exiting as the seas parted around him. Art-world ignoramus that I am, I confided that I didn't know who he was. "The former director of the Louvre," she explained. There were clusters of invitees inside with the same famous aura about them, and it was hard to tell if they were some of the famed photographers, or journalists -- or just looked like it.

For the most part, the black and white photographs were all interesting, but I had a vague feeling of having seen most of them somewhere before. Arbus, Winogrand, Friedlander. It didn't seem all that much of a shock: I lived through the 1970s in America myself.

No actually, I began to get much more interested in the rest of the scenery -- the attendees at the exhibit opening. There was a scattering of tall, handsome men looking bored. I couldn't tell if they really were bored or just working on the look.

I stood in the middle of the packed room. Then. You know that odd two-step that happens when you step aside to avoid collision with someone and they shift the same way, so you dodge the other way and simultaneously they do it too? Then you both laugh a bit and wait for the other one to go ahead?

A funny variation on this happened. A man swiveled around and we were nose to nose. So I moved to the right. He moved to my right too -- but off-tempo, with about a 1-second delay. Repeat to the left and to the right. I smiled and stood still. He stood still too, unsmiling, but direct eye contact. I couldn't tell whether it was a technique to draguer or some sort of passive aggression. We finally parted ways.

At this point I wasn't focusing on the photos at all any more -- there was so much more entertainment in observing the crowd, noting behaviors and listening to little snippets of conversations.

Of all my eavesdropping, I heard only one couple actually discussing the art on the walls. They said, "Oui, c'est tres simple mais le montage est parfait."

Next I felt a fuzzy bear push me out of the way. Oh wait, it wasn't a bear, it was a lady in a linebacker mink coat and 1/2 pound diamond earrings, with a pouffy blond chignon, clunky heels, careening through the exhibit, dangling her wide-open clasp pocketbook by her side. As she grazed past the images I heard her spouting to her husband, "There is a grande soiree chez Dorothee, that will be much better." I think she and monsieur did the whole room in under five minutes.

As Monsieur and Madame Mink were exiting they crossed paths with a mover and shaker who appeared to be Somebody, in bright red chinos, cashmere sweater, a soft white shirt, Italian loafers. I didn't see him really inspect any of the photographs, either. Oh, he was looking around, all right. I felt better realizing that I wasn't the only one just surveying the crowd.

A pale bearded man in a heavy turtleneck and his bobo pal in a jacket and dark shirt were engrossed in conversation as they slid along past the photos as if on a conveyor belt. "People went to that party because they expected quelque chose de bien." "Ouais, I saw people the next day and they didn't accept what was happening. You don't laugh about anyone like that."

After about half an hour, when we were ready to leave, the room was almost completely vacant. There was more space to actually see the photos, but where had all the jammed crowd gone in such a short time? Locusts, descending and then vanishing.

High up on a wall near the exit was an inscription by Diane Arbus:

"I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them."

We wandered out -- Richard, Rosemary, and I -- into the main hall.

Grace Slick was belting out her best over the loudspeakers. "Don't yo-ou want somebody to lo-ove..."

Now read Richard's evening description here.

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