Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Q & A with Yona Zeldis McDonough

Yona Zeldis McDonough is an author based in Brooklyn, and the wife of photographer Paul McDonough.  

BA: What did you mean when you said "there’s a bit of a story" behind In The Studio (Paul McDonough's recent book of nude studies)?

YM: For decades, Paul’s photographic life took place outside his home—either on the streets of New York, or the many the places he travelled both within the United States as well as Europe, Japan and Mexico. He’d be out several hours a day, Leica slung over his shoulder, ever on the alert for the serendipitous gesture, face, street-or-landscape that caught his eye. Then a few things happened. He got older. He became a father. And we moved to Brooklyn, where a lucky real estate windfall allowed us to build a studio on top of our house. He had come to photography via drawing and painting—he studied art in Boston—and he continued to draw from models occasionally, often at the studio of his friend Audrey Frank Anastasi. He also photographed nudes but again, in a kind of sporadic way. But having a studio of his own—and it was quite a studio, 400 square feet with big windows front and back as well as a skylight—changed all that. He loved that space and made it entirely his own, covering the walls with artwork and images of all kinds, filling the shelves with his extensive photo and art library, and decorating the space itself with objects and furnishings that appealed to him. It became a world of its own, and he began hiring figure models to photograph (and still occasionally draw) when he was in it. Both the resulting photos and drawings became denser, richer, and more detailed, filled as they were with things he loved (a figure of a cherub I bought him, a teapot he’d found at a yard sale), open books that referenced his favorite paintings and sculpture, ads from magazines and newspapers, wooden screens, bolts of patterned fabric, articles of women’s clothing (a ballet tutu our daughter had worn, a feather boa), a seven foot gilt framed mirror, still life composed of fruit, flowers, goblets, vases and the like. At first this work was only in black and white, but later he began to venture into color.  

For a period of about ten years, he produced a significant amount of work that was, at least to my eye, compelling, singular and flat out gorgeous and I encouraged him to show it to people in the photo world. The initial response was not positive. I think people had come to expect one kind of photograph from Paul and these pictures were so very different—off brand as it were. He was told that the work was “not good” and that he should not seek to exhibit it. 

The art world is a fickle beast. Negative response might be disappointing, but they don't surprise me. 

But I was not content to let it rest, and because his Alzheimer’s disease had already begun to erode his sense of initiative, he looked to me for support and help.  As an outsider in the photo world, I didn’t quite know where to begin. Then I met Joshua Chuang, curator at the New York Public Library, and invited him for a studio visit. On the way upstairs he saw a couple of the nudes that had been printed 30” x 40” and was immediately struck by them.  “Did Paul take these?” he asked and when I said yes, those were the only pictures he wanted to look at for the entire visit; he raved about them, and later was responsible for publishing a small group of them in the Swiss magazine Else. His encouragement gave me the push I needed to keep going and I showed the work to Joseph Bellows; he too raved and said he’d never seen such pictures before and asked to represent them in his La Jolla gallery. This kind of feedback led me to think that the work warranted a book, and

thanks to Joe Lawton, who was also a fan of his work, I found Carl Gunhouse, who spent days poring over every photo of a nude and every drawing until he put together the grouping that comprised In the Studio.  

So it was a long road and for me, not always a pleasant one as the opposition often took a hostile and even vitriolic tone. I was accused of many things, including undermining my husband’s work and his position in the photo world. But I was the one who lived with him and loved him; I knew what this work meant to him, and that he wanted to have it seen and recognized. As his disease progressed, and I had to watch this once exquisitely refined, thoughtful and nuanced artist crumble like a sugar cookie before my eyes, the production of this book became even more important—it was both a tonic and a balm. And although Paul couldn’t fully participate in its creation, the result was deeply satisfying to him. It still is. 

Did Joseph Bellows ever show that series? If not, what happened? 

No, Joseph didn’t end up showing that work, though he remains a big champion of it.  But the #MeToo movement had started to affect certain photographers and Joseph felt the moment wasn’t right. I think this is a good place to add that whatever is said about the male gaze and its effect on women, these photographs are so much more than that. Paul truly loved women, which is not at all a given, even for men who are sexually aroused by them; he loved to talk to them, listen to them and yes, look at them. But there was nothing coercive in what he did, and I know this because I was there—the studio has no door, and everything that went on up there was audible to me on the floor below. He hired young women as figure models, always making it clear what he was seeking from them. He paid them well and he remained professional at all times.  These women became friendly with him and they loved the photographs he took. The photographs are also self-portraits, even though Paul doesn’t appear in them. But all the visual references, the things he included, were all carefully selected and arranged. They had meaning for him, and the resulting photos are kind of a map of his life as an artist.  

I’m glad you mentioned the male gaze. There are many photos of scantily clad women in Headed West. How do you feel about them?

I don’t have any problem with these pictures. These women were in public spaces. He never invaded anyone’s privacy in any way. 

What do you think motivated Paul to shoot them? Was there a sexual dimension or attraction?

Yes, I think that was there, though it was only part of the attraction. Paul really was attracted to the whole person—a woman’s mind and soul, not just her physical appearance. 

Was he influenced by Winogrand’s chauvinism?

Certainly attitudes were different in those years, and much of our present reckoning was still decades away. Was Garry a chauvinist? I didn’t know him well—he’d already left New York when Paul and I got together—but he was always lovely and welcoming to me, and treated me with respect and courtesy. I know that when Garry was asked about why he chose the title, Women Are Beautiful, he grinned and said, “Because they are.” I never found his behavior objectionable in the least. 

I never knew Winogrand so I can only speculate. I believe he did self-identify as a chauvinist. His working title for Women Are Beautiful was “The Observations Of A Male Chauvinist Pig”. That may have been a tongue-in-cheek title chosen to be provocative. Or more serious. It’s hard to know what he was thinking. But the photos in that book certainly objectify women as physical objects. At least to my eye.

Garry Winogrand, from Women Are Beautiful
That sounds like he was joking, making fun of himself. I don’t know how he treated other women but as I said, he was always so nice to me, and in what seemed like a very genuine way. 

My take may sound negative. But I am actually OK with his outlook, and I love that book.

I do too. 

One thing I admire about Winogrand is that he seemed happy in his own skin. He embraced his own identity, and did not try to obfuscate or make excuses for it in the way that is more common now. If physical attraction to women came through in his pictures, that was simply an honest reflection of his being. I kind of love that.

I agree with you one hundred percent.  

I think very few photographers are transparent in that way nowadays. So that was the thinking behind my question about Paul. I’m curious if he was coming from a similar point of view while shooting in a similar time period.

Well, Garry was a BIG personality. Paul was not. So I find it hard to think of him making such a bold claim for himself or his work. He just wanted to be left alone so he could do it. 

I am curious how Paul felt about his studio photos, since these they seem quite different from his earlier street work in style and approach. Do you think he was bored by street photography at this point?

Not so much bored as aged out—he told me he didn’t have the same stamina to pound the pavement hour after hour, day after day.  But he still wanted to work, and so needed another outlet for his energy.  He was very attached to the studio work he did and felt it had merit. Given his reticent nature, I don’t think he would have sought attention for it on his own. It was because his illness forced me to take a more active role in his career that this book came about; I don’t think he would have pursued it as aggressively as I did. 

Maybe he’d reached some creative plateau with that approach? Do you think the studio work gave him the same satisfaction? 

Absolutely. It came at exactly the right time and wasn’t, for him, a lesser form at all. Instead it was a rekindling of a long-held interest and passion. He told me that when he was an art student in Cambridge, he dreamed of moving to New York, becoming a successful painter and living in a penthouse. The studio we built was that penthouse it and it allowed a different and previously dormant side of his creativity to flower and grow.

Can you tell me a bit about how Alzheimer’s affected Paul (and you indirectly)? How did it initially manifest?

The first thing I noticed was that he lost his sense of direction, which had always been unerring.  He began getting lost, even in neighborhoods he knew well.  

Did Paul express any thoughts about the disease to you?

Rarely. Sometimes he would ask why he was so forgetful or couldn’t do something and I’d explain why. He’d express dismay but it was always passing. He didn’t dwell on it. 

You said in an earlier email that he lost initiative. Did he also lose some ability to relate to his own photos? Or how did it effect his understanding of them?

He still liked looking at photographs, both his own and those of photographers he loved. He still seemed connected to them.

It sounds like the the ticking clock of Alzheimer’s spurred this recent book Headed West. Did he feel pressure to finish it, as if under an impending deadline?

No, I don’t think he was able to feel that sense of urgency. But I did. 

Did he still have some mental clarity by the time it was published?


if so, what was his reaction? 

He was extremely pleased with it, and very grateful for the work Andrew Borowiec did in making the book come together. Even now, he still flips through it and seems to get pleasure from doing that. 

I get the sense that Paul did not promote his work very much. And that you helped motivate him to get it out in the world. 

That is an understatement. He would have sooner stepped out into traffic than promote his own work. I urged him to do this but he said it wasn’t his way, and for a long time, I respected his position and didn’t push. But his illness changed things and I felt I had to step in.  

Why do you think he was reluctant?

I think that was how he dealt with the possibility of rejection—if he didn’t put his work out there, he was spared the pain of being turned down. 

Did he have a poor relationship with the art world?

Not at all. 

How do you think he perceived the fine art world of galleries and museums?

He had many friends within that world, and during the 1970s and 1980s, was part of that group of street photographers working in black and white. He knew—and liked—people in the photo department at MoMA.  Susan Kismaric and Peter Galassi were both friends and he admired John Szarkowski enormously. He was friendly with various gallerists of that period as well. He had a very tolerant and accepting nature, and did not make enemies or hold grudges.  

Was there an outlet there for his style of photography?

Yes, I think there was for a time and then, interest in that kind of work faded for a while. But it’s been rediscovered recently. There seems to be an enormous appetite for what New York City—and many other places—looked like in those years. 

I am curious about your relationship. How and when did you and Paul meet? What was your marriage like? 

at Tod Papageorge's wedding, 1986

We met in 1981, at a party following an opening for the work by Leo Rubinfien. Paul was forty and I was twenty-four. We married in 1985, and had an extremely happy and mutually supportive marriage that was based on mutual respect and admiration for one another’s work (I’m a novelist and children’s book author). In 2001, I sold my first novel to a major publisher for a large sum of money. He was teaching at Pratt that day, so I called the department and left a message asking him to call me as soon as his class was finished (no cell phone yet) and that it was important. The person who answered the call gave him one of those little pink slips that said, while you were out. Just recently I was cleaning out his wallet and I found that message—call your wife, it’s important—still folded and tucked inside. He was a devoted, supportive and loving husband and father and now that I’m not living with him, I can feel the full weight of his loss; I miss the person he used to be.

Did Paul photograph you and your kids?

We have two children, James, who is now thirty, and and Katherine, who is twenty-five. He took lots of pictures of all of us, mostly snapshots. He also used me as a subject of some drawings, and he did some wonderful collages (another of his loves) using photographs of our children. He wanted to put together a book of the collages, and maybe I will be able to do that for him. 

The collage book sounds very interesting. I hope that happens.

Street photography is usually a solo endeavor. I’m curious if you were ever around him while he was shooting, or had a chance to observe his process on the streets. If so, can you describe it?

We took many trips together and yes, I was with him often when he worked. Paul knew Diane Arbus slightly; he told me that she was very charming and used to engage with her subjects to get the photographs she wanted. He was the total opposite—he wanted to be invisible, and did his best not to call any attention to himself. He showed me various ways he made it seem he was looking elsewhere while actually taking a photo, and he had many little gestures to deflect scrutiny or notice. He’d be holding the camera and look in one direction while the lens was pointed somewhere else and then carefully, quietly, press the shutter—that was a typical ploy. Sometimes I would aid in these deceptions, like the time we were in Cezanne’s studio in the Aix-en-Provence (he loves Cezanne so this was a quasi-religious  experience for him). Signs posted in several languages made it clear that photography was forbidden but I knew how much he wanted to take pictures in that exalted place, so I very intentionally distracted the caretaker while he discreetly shot film. In another instance, we had stopped at a dairy bar in NH and saw a man buy two large bowls of vanilla ice cream which he then gave to his two golden labs who were in the front seat of his truck. I chatted the guy up while Paul took pictures of those two big pooches deliriously dipping their snouts into the ice cream.

It’s interesting that you mention Paul’s various tricks and subterfuge methods for trying to remain invisible. Was this his normal mode? Or did he also shoot in a more direct/obvious manner in public? 


He did if it was in a crowd and he could move around unobserved and unnoticed. When there was a lot of activity, eyes were not focused on him. There is one photo, I believe it’s in New York Photographs, in which someone is looking directly at him so clearly the person saw what he was doing.  But that was rare.  

What will happen to all of Paul negatives, prints, and photo work after his death?

He has two dealers—Sasha Wolf in New York City and Joseph Bellows in La Jolla and so I am hoping that they will be able to advise on this subject. But since we have children, it might be better to leave all that material for them.  

About the archive (which hopefully finds a good home), would you say that most pictures have been edited and funneled down into books at this point? Or is there a sizable amount left which might provide material for more books?

There is definitely more work that could be be assembled into book form. For several years, he photographed funerary statues and monuments and some of the pictures appear in a portfolio that Gus Kayafas @ Palm Press made; it's called Bodies At Rest. But Paul always wanted those pictures to go into a book. 

And he had other book ideas, like one of windows and mirrors. Also, he was deeply inspired not only by the work of but also the lives of his dear friends John O’Reilly, a collagist, and Jim Tellin, a sculptor. For years he paid regular visits to their house in Worcester, MA, and was always nourished by the time they spent together. He assembled the photographs he’d taken of their home—its garden, studios, idiosyncratic collections and art work on its walls—in a limited hand bound artists’ book called The Geography of the House. It’s a love letter to a pair of artists whose commitment to their work and to each other gave him a model for how to live a life. I know he wanted that to be more widely available a well. 

What was his printing method? Did he make his own darkroom prints? Or have someone print for him? Did he consider himself a good printer, or was he more concerned with shooting?

He had a darkroom in our apartment on Second Avenue and then built a bigger one in when we moved to Carroll Street. He did most of his own printing and felt he was good at it though sometimes, when he had a show, he had else print for him—either Sergio Purtell, who has a professional darkroom here in Brooklyn, or Andrew Jarman, a former student. 


Eric Lee Smith said...

Paul was my favorite teacher at Pratt and we became friends. One summer I helped him develop film and aided in printing some of the work that appears in "Header West." Paul drew nudes and photographed them also, I'd seen some of the work and liked it. I am so pleased that this book has been published. Yona, thank you for helping get Paul's work out into the world. ~Eric

Luppolo Francesco said...

Telling a man's passions and work despite the difficulties is not easy at all. Thanks for doing it Yona.

Marilyn Andrews said...

Love this interview, to my taste it is your best one yet! What a lovely couple!