Wallpaper

Text by Vince Aletti

by Images by Kimberlee Venable

THERE’S A FAMOUS PHOTOGRAPH OF DIANA VREELAND IN HER OFFICE AT VOGUE. Standing behind her desk, smoking a cigarette, she’s surrounded by images pinned to a bulletin board that fills the corner behind her. Many of these same images—including the most plainly visible one, a grainy A.P. shot of Maria Callas in an explosively oper- atic moment—ended up in Allure, the book that gave that idiosyncratic collection of news clippings, museum reproductions and tear sheets a place in the history of con- temporary style. In another photograph of Vreeland at Vogue, the bulletin board appears unchanged, but the room is suffused with light from a window further along the back wall that looks out on the upper floors of neighboring Lexington Avenue skyscrapers. So it was a room with a view, but the focus is on Vreeland and her dense array of pictures. She calls Allure “a potpourri,” chosen “to amuse and perhaps please the reader,” but that's uncharacteristically coy. In her years at Vogue, Vreeland did her best to pique and provoke the magazine’s readers; at Allure, with no editorial con- straints, she was free to refine and expand her very particular vision. The result is an elegant, eccentric scrapbook that epitomizes what Cecil Beaton called Vreeland’s “haphazard genius.”

Elisabeth Biondi may not have a book like Allure in her immediate future, but the photographs that papered every available wall in her office at The New Yorker could easily provide the raw material for one. As that magazine’s visuals editor for 15 years, until her departure this past spring, Biondi was responsible for every photograph that appeared in its pages. Because only a fraction of them ended up push-pinned or taped to her walls, the selection is as focused and revealing as Vreeland's. Not so coinciden- tally, a Xerox of the Maria Callas picture from Allure was hung just above Biondi’s work space so she could see it while she was on the phone. “When you have pictures of opera singers, you just hear them sing,” she says. “[The photo] was graphic and very much alive, and it would inspire me the way I hoped to inspire the photographers I was talking to." Next to that were a pair of Egon Schiele photographs whose erotic charge and stylized singularity she liked to keep in mind when discussing portrait projects. Anna Magnani laughed infectiously nearby.

But the display was never intended to be instructive; mostly, it was for her eyes only. Like the pictures that had filled bulletin boards at her previous offices at Stern and Vanity Fair (and how remain filed away in big envelopes), the photographs in her corner space at 4 Times Square accumulated organically, bit by bit. Once an image went up, it usually stayed up. “I never took everything down and started again,” Biondi says. “It was spontaneous and more about layering than changing and adding new things.” Although the office had more windows than walls, pictures proliferated across every available space—under built-in cabinets, behind ranks of file folders, up the frosted glass panels alongside the door. Because Biondi's view over Times Square was dominated by a huge Walgreen's sign programmed to flash words and pictures 24 hours a day, her display, no matter how hectic, had a calming effect. It was a sort of refuge, a place where the eye could rest and recharge.

Many of the photographs here were printed in the pages of The New Yorker, but many more were personal choices—memories, reminders and souvenirs, including pic- tures of and by friends and picture postcards from colleagues. Helmut Newton is a par- ticularly strong presence, cropping up both as photographer and subject, in one case arm-and-arm with Richard Avedon, whose 1992 appearance in The New Yorker opened up the magazine to photography for the first time. The picture of Katherine Hepburn looking severe and displeased is Avedon’s, and the nude in the mirror, her head cocked, is a Diane Arbus self-portrait. Keith Richards shares a corner with Alexander Liberman and Lord Snowden’s portrait of Agatha Christie. Pictures by Irving Penn, Lisette Model, Steven Klein, Cartier-Bresson, and Alec Soth overlap with images. I wish I could identify in an arrangement that suggests a towering, precarious house of cards. Anyone can play, but this is Biondi’s game, defined by her sure sense of balance and voracious appetite for the soulful, the subtle, and the unexpected. The mix of known and unknown quantities here is typical of her years at The New Yorker, when the magazine’s fiction pages became a prime showcase for new talent and welcome redis- coveries.

The big, densely layered mood or inspiration boards of pictures, drawings, and fab- ric swatches that fashion designers assemble in preparation for a new season’s line have become something of a cliché. Intended to stimulate ideas, focus a concept, and further a specific task, they’re as ephemeral as the mood they attempt to capture. Working at magazines, Vreeland and Biondi were just as task-oriented, just as alert and adaptable to the temperature of the culture at any given moment as some hip coutu- rier. But if the sprawling visual assemblages they surrounded themselves with had no pretense to permanence, they were meant to last beyond the next issue. As images accumulated, the infatuations of a moment were replaced by pictures that had lasting resonance—faces, figures and sights that continued to reward and provoke. A bulletin board isn’t a position paper, but it can be a self-portrait—in Biondi’s case as circumspect as it is confessional, and tellingly acute.