The exhibition “Linda Troeller: Apolda – New York” that is opening this week, June 28th at the Kulturfabrik in Apolda, Thüringen will focus on a lifespan of works by the exceptional Photographer Linda Troeller who lived and worked over a whopping period of 20 years in the Chelsea Hotel, which was undoubtedly one of New York’s most iconic buildings and outstanding artistic communities.
Steady in her vision and work, since starting out as a female photographer in the early 70ies she speaks with a clear voice for women, without any hysteria, explores fields such as healing waters, fashion, and landscape, or the concept of self portraits.
At her retrospective exhibition in Apolda will be also an immersive installation about female sexuality spanning over the last 50 years and the fire that burned down to the ground her house and nearly all her belongings in 2016, which led to a series about homeless people in the East Village, that will also be on display.
I remember particulary well the first time I met Linda, as she was the first artist I interviewed in person. I met her at one of my first stays in 2013 in Bad Gastein, when she gave a photo workshop during the Sommer.frische.Kunst festival. She had twisted her ankle and we were sitting on her bed while I was interviewing her. An unusual and intimate setting that felt somehow very natural.
I saw her again two years later in a subversive queer space in Berlin Kreuzberg when she toured Germany to introduce her latest, back then quite controversial book about female orgasms. We never entirely lost touch and I am grateful as somehow her presence as a female artist, photographer and strong woman always lingered in the background like a good ghost, during my career as a writer and working in the arts.
Linda, you are celebrating your 70th birthday at the end of June this year with a big retrospective exhibition in Apolda, a town in Thüringen. Germany.
From New York to Apolda, what’s the connection?
I was in Apolda for cultural functions at the Apolda Museum and The Bell Museum from 1996 on while working with Toskana Therme about twenty minutes away, but I got to know it best after being commissioned by the Apolda Museum to shoot the “Fashion Design” catalogues of winning student fashion designs.
I chose models and locations in 2000, 2001, 2005 and returned to attend the final fashion show there and to also sign my catalogues when the Apolda Museum held a retrospective of Karl Lagerfeld’s fashion photography.
Apolda had formerly been a textile town whose businesses fell apart after the fall of the Wall, but local re-branding and new factories have since made the area a forcible presence in Thuringia.
Looking back at a long, successful and turbulent life as a female photographer, how does today differ compared to when you started out, especially regarding being a woman in this field?
It was very, very different. In order to find role models, I wrote to photographers whose work I saw published and asked for slides and their biographies in order to create a course, since in 1973 there were no books of their collected work. I taught, “Women in Photography” at Syracuse University, namely at the Community Darkroom, the first public access photography facility of its kind, providing information to crowded enrolments.
My first portfolio, Greenhouse and Beyond, was based on the idea that women were safe in these warm, fecund spaces to express their sensuality and dreams, which I helped create by providing the sitters with objects and costumes.
It was successful, and the most famous image, Bridal Rite, showing a woman in a cut-off wedding dress straddling a large cactus, stood for outrage and need to show our vision and was published in the Village Voice, NYC.
It was at the time of the first 70s Women’s Lib movement and we ‘women photographers’ met in groups to looking for ways of getting into museums run by male curators. Sadly, even after I had gained a MS in Photojournalism, my childhood area newspaper, The Asbury Park Press, would not hire me because photo-journalists ‘had to go to fires and dangerous assignments not suited for a woman.’
I decided to get my Master of Fine Arts and set my sights on teaching photography at university level, which I did mostly through one-year adjuncts and visiting positions involving a lot of moving around, rather than tenures held mostly by men, but I evolved an international career.
Please tell us what motivated you to become a photographer. Who were your idols back then?
I discovered Diana Arbus at Photo-kina at the Cologne trade fair in 1972 and was immediately attracted to her probing style as a catalyst.
I also worked as an assistant at Ansel Adams’ famous “bookmaking” workshop in Yosemite in 1994, and was lucky that he personally took time out to encourage me to focus long and hard before taking a picture.
Kamaitachi and Killed by Roses by the Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe and Nathan Lyon’s Visual Studies workshop lecture at the Center for the Eye taught me to stop looking for the great picture. The German philosopher Goethe’s ‘transformative theory of color’, which presents the idea that every color corresponds to a part of your soul and that perceptions are ‘inner color pictures,’ guided me in my color photography.
The last time I saw Linda was when i stayed in New York for Volta Fair and the Armory Show in 2017, we wanted to meet at the press preview of the big Georgia O´Keeffe exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Based on some technical problems we couldn’t reach each other and due to other commitments I ended up going one day after the preview. (One has to know, Linda was lucky enough to have met the big O´Keeffe in person at her Ghost Ranch, when she was just doing her first steps as an artist, and even got advise from her.) The show left me in awe and deep admiration when I was wondering through it. I was looking at one work deeply immersed in it when I turned around and Linda was standing in front of me. I took immediately a photo of her, and we wandered the exhibition together without speaking much. It just wasn’t necessary.
You were so lucky to meet Georgia O´Keeffe at her Ghost Ranch in Arizona. Please tell us about it, and what she taught you.
She saw me with a Rollei camera at the student Ghost Ranch luncheon at her adobe building on the property. She opened the wide doors, and said to me,
You should go out in the arroyos and see what the spirits tell you.
It was there on Ghost Ranch that I made one of my first self-portraits.
At the time we discovered women were confused about intimacy and thought talking about orgasm was stigmatized and feared it, but were utterly curious and in need to know their bodies. Marion and I embarked using the similar question format to my earlier book —
What was your first orgasm and can you show, express it to camera?
It took quite a few years to line up the sitters, translate and prepare the book, since most publishers now wanted a graphically made dummy. Plus the tides turned in 2012, when rape on campus became an unending news story in the USA and political correctness and corporate women’s gains in earning top job equality actually dampened the role of sexuality in their lives.
However, Orgasm published in 2014 by Daylight Books immediately came out to press interest with a hit story in the Huffington Post with thousands of likes and blogs about it, but the fear surrounding sex affecting women’s rights on campus did not bring me invitations to speak as in the case of all my other projects, so it was harder to tell the story. Marion and I had a good book tour in Germany but the topic was affected by the #metoo theme, which took abuse of women by men as the enemy, not intimate healthy knowledge around orgasm. Yes, today sexual workers are being financed to find a place in society but the shame around intimate women’s topics is stuck in limbo. This is why Marion and I are preparing a women’s summit focussing on sexuality issues in July 2020.
You published two books on woman and their sexuality – The Erotic Life of Women in 1998 and one on female orgasm in 2014. Back then it was quite controversial as you featured sex workers next to “ordinary women” – weirdly enough, these photos now have a nearly vintage feel to me. It’s like woman’s awareness of their bodies and how they look at them, especially regarding body acceptance, periods, and female sexuality in general, has been taken to a completely different level. A LOT has happened since then. How do you see this development, especially when you look back and considering how you started out?
The Erotic Lives of Women with my photographs and Marion Schneider’s interviews was cutting-edge, breakthrough vision. It was just before “50 is the new 40; 60 is the new 50” era and the internet, and we valiantly revealed how women expressed their sensuality and sexuality for pleasure, excitement, health, fulfilment and recovery from abuse. We featured young and old as at that time flirting and a flare for life was admired. The book was a huge success. It was called the ‘best book of the decade’ by the New York Times, and was the subject of many ten-page spreads in magazines ranging from GQ to Marie Claire.
You lived for a very long time at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. How did you come to move in?
My neighborhood was hit with gentrification and at that time the collector Marion Schneider, who was evolving as my creative partner, used to stay there when she visited me. She suggested I consider it. I made a sudden change when the managing director, Stanley Bard, showed me a writer’s room on the eighth floor. I left my full set of furniture saved from my earlier marriage at the 8th Avenue Salvation Army resale store and moved to the hotel, which offered storage for my photo shows in their basement, a great room and place for photo gear, clothes, suitcases, a private bathroom and a lobby for meeting other creative and international guests.
What could be better than the first night, when the bell hop took me for a ride on his Harley with white fringe handlebars and explained all the cool places around those blocks?
You met Alexander McQueen at the Chelsea and he invited you to his fashion show the next day. Can you remember which one it was and what you two talked about?? What was your impression of him and the fashion show?
The bell hop at the hotel nudged Alexander and me together in the lobby, and soon he was in my room looking at my Healing Waters portfolio and seriously discussing how to imagine the images as a backdrop for his Paris fashion show.
He was in New York for an East Village show in a former Jewish Temple – I think in the 90ies?
He immediately saw to it that I had a VIP invitation seat, and I was energized by the night’s procession of models in fragile white dresses, very torn, bloods-soaked outfits. I woke up the next day knowing my ‘photo’ palette had to change! I started using new slide films, off brands and it gave me a push into experimenting.
You had quite a catharsis in 2016 to say the least, when a lot of your work and nearly all your possessions were consumed in a big house fire. How has your life changed since and how did this event influence you as an artist?
I was devastated. Since then I had the opportunity to save my childhood press clips on things like winning beauty contests, as well as world-wide tear sheets and my family history photographs in nine volumes of carefully archived material over two years with the help of two assistants. I have no children, so this was to be my trace of me in legacy, which the Syracuse University rare book room agreed to have in their holdings, where I had already sent up some prints.
After the fire, these notebooks were too smoky to be in the library, so I applied to the Joan Mitchell Foundation and the Kappa Kappa Gamma Foundation and I am grateful I received funds to photograph this information with my camera. I then made 20×24″ prints of the most treasured history of letters, spreads and relatives and sent them to SU.
Recently a professor there told me she showed this portfolio to her photo class and they were moved, so the two-year action to do this helped relieve my loss.
For two years I also wore gifts of no-longer-fitting nice clothes from people to save money to help the rebuilding, as I had lost all I owned. A friend said, “You don’t look like Linda so much.” By then the house was finally rebuilt and I got my type of look back.
I also taught a workshop at the Atlantic Center for the Arts a year after the fire which gave me new perspective on what I have to offer.
At this residency I had time to edit my 50 years of self-portraits and the portraits taken of me by photographers and to later organize originals into a matted exhibition that will be taking place in 2021 – I will soon be announcing the location. Many of these photographs will be in the upcoming Apolda – New York exhibition along with my Healing Waters book project, which brought me together with Marion Schneider again and Klaus Bohm, who are sponsoring this show.
They had a new water therapy, Liquid Sound, that needed visualization and German photographers had not nailed it. They purchased my Healing Waters prints for the walls of their clinic with the agreement I would shoot Liquid Sound. With the experiments with Micky Remann, the inventor, I landed on an image still used today.
The curator is evolving the show so I am not sure of final choices but it may well include installation of my fire photography, a meaningful collaboration after the fire with Christine L. Selzer, who led us in making digital collages from the remains. Also included will be a projection of new water visions, Healing Waters murals from their collection, fashion from the Apolda Catalogue 2005, Chelsea Hotel photographs (Klaus and Marion got to know it when visiting me over the years and images of it are on show in the lobby of their Bad Orb Spa hotel), and landscapes of the region.
It will be very exciting to see this life work joined or disjoined in one space – my life’ passion to bring healing and self-hood together in an artist’s lifestyle in a direction I have always liked to call ‘art documentary.’
If you could give advice to female photographers and artists just starting out, what would it be?
Great pictures are rewarding to each photographer’s soul. Shooting and posting, uploading to contests and calls for entries now often keep you on top of your game; even the latest gear could be useful,
but we live in a world of these two keys: ‘narrative’ or ‘conceptual.’
Find your spot in those areas and stick to something for as long as necessary, like for dear life, like months to years.
You then can have landed on your gold mine.
Linda Troeller: Apolda – New York
Opening: 28th of June, 7pm
Galerie Kulturfabrik Apolda | Dr. Külz Strasse 4 | 99510 Apolda
Header Photo: Natty, Berlin from the Orgasm book. Photographs by Linda Troeller, Interviews Marion Schneider
Author: Esther Harrison