Open Studio with Jared Bowen

S8 E43 | FULL EPISODE

Photographer Rania Matar, "The Age of Innocence," and more

This week, a conversation with photographer, Rania Matar about capturing moments of peoples’ lives during COVID-19, the celebration and centennial of Edith Wharton’s, “The Age of Innocence,” and the 1892 Pabst Mansion in Wisconsin.

AIRED: June 26, 2020 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio,

WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture

from around the region and the nation.

I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,

"Portraits of a Pandemic."

>> There's a window that became a picture frame in a way

for people to do whatever they want within it.

But at the same time, I am creating a relationship

to the inside and to the outside,

because the outside is often reflected in.

>> BOWEN: Then, we look back atThe Age of Innocence,

as Edith Wharton's novel turns 100.

>> AndThe Age of Innocence, even after it was published,

she still wasn't happy with it,

and it went through six additional edits

before the final version was published.

>> BOWEN: And a "blue ribbon" home for the Pabst family.

>> When you're walking through the house,

you experience some unique things from our history

that set a path for where we are today.

>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.

First up, photographer and portraitist Rania Matar

typically gets all up in people's spaces,

as she told me in 2013, when she was featured

in the Museum of Fine Arts exhibition

She Who Tells a Story.

>> They decide what they want to put on the wall.

They're surrounding themselves with

all these things they're going through,

and what they're choosing to be.

>> BOWEN: Now, in the midst of a pandemic,

Matar has had to find a way into her subjects

from the outside.

Rania Matar, thank you so much for joining us.

>> Hi, Jared, thank you so much for having me.

>> BOWEN: Well, just to start,

by, by way of background, your photography generally,

before the pandemic, is very intimate.

You are very much in people's spaces, of their spaces.

Give us a sense of, of how you operate.

>> When I started photography, I started photographing

my own children.

And I remember showing the work to someone

and showing work that I had done in Lebanon.

And the feedback I got was, like, you always need to get

the same intimacy you have as the pictures of your children.

So here, working on something very different,

it was a challenge of me, for me to try to think about it.

>> BOWEN: How did this idea occur to you to shoot people

from the remove of their homes?

>> You know, I mean, like everybody else, it just hit us

all of a sudden that everybody's home,

and life kind of went on hold.

I had been photographing for the past three years

women, once they leave home and the,

with the relationship to the landscape

and the outside space,

and, which is very different

than photographing people indoors.

And I realized how many images I had that had something to do

with the sense of inside and outside.

And I was spending a lot of time in the kitchen,

and across my yard,

there's my neighbor's yard, then across her yard,

there was my neighbor who would sit in her window,

there's, like, a window seat.

And she would-- I saw her reading in that window,

and I thought that was very beautiful.

And I just had, like, I had an a-ha moment that I would,

I should do that.

I should go photograph people from the window.

>> BOWEN: Well, you just painted this picture of what it was like

to see your neighbor through her window,

which I guess at the outset, one wouldn't think

that you could tell a lot from a person

just looking through a doorway or through a window.

But you seem to be able to.

>> You know, this is when the idea came to me,

and I did, I wasn't sure I was, it was gonna go anywhere.

And I did instead find a picture as I was editing

that, that was when I had photographed somebody

through her window.

And somehow, when I was looking at that picture,

I realized that even though this person is inside,

there's so much reflection that I am photographing

of the relationship to the outside on some level.

So I posted that picture on Instagram,

and I said that if you live

about half-an-hour drive from Brookline,

I'd love to come, come and photograph you at your window.

And I was humbled by the response I got, actually.

>> BOWEN: Well, I wonder what your process is like,

because I know for photographers,

especially when you're doing portraits,

it's all about being in the room or the studio,

and that connection that you have with people.

But here, you're doing it from afar.

So how have you found that to be effective?

>> For me, the challenge became,

how do I create that same level of intimacy

while not being able to touch people,

or to be really close to them?

I was truly collaborating with people, and create,

making it a photoshoot.

And there was the beauty of nobody being rushed,

and, about it, but people excited

to be part of that project.

And, and it was a gift they gave me, I want to say.

And I, it was my responsibility

to, to represent them beautifully, I want to say.

There's a window

that became a picture frame, in a way,

for people to do whatever they want within it.

But at the same time, I am creating a relationship

to the inside and to the outside,

because the outside is often reflected in.

Then I had the challenge of placing myself

out of the picture, because of the reflection.

>> BOWEN: How much is there a narrative in here, too,

in terms of-- mindful that people reached out to you

wanting to be photographed,

and probably, so, you're looking as the photographer

at the relationship between inside-outside.

But did you have, did you start to have a sense

of what they were bringing to it,

why they wanted to be photographed?

I started to pay attention to how people were dressed.

Some people are very formally dressed.

You see people who are together,

in the way they're holding one another.

And, and maybe this just speaks to me,

but I start to read relationships,

uh, read into what relationships are,

what people are thinking, what they're feeling

during this really difficult time.

>> It's actually-- yes.

And that's very interesting.

It was a matter for me to really let them be who they are.

In terms of the clothing, it was interesting to see

how it changed over the course of the project.

The early images people were-- including me, I mean,

everybody was almost in, like, pajamas, or whatever it is

that we were wearing at the beginning.

And then eventually, like, I had a shoot two days ago,

and they really dressed up for me.

So I think it speaks to the new normal in a way.

And at some point, I would tap, as that,

as the project also developed,

I knew more what I was doing.

And I realized, for example, that bright colors

worked beautifully with the reflections.

Again, it completely became collaborative.

One of the pictures, I photographed two tango dancers.

They wanted to wear something flamboyant and colorful.

And I'm, like, "That's great."

I mean, it became on some level

that this window was a stage, in a way,

and they could perform anything they want within it, right?

>> BOWEN: There was a woman holding two stones.

I was curious about her, as well, what her story is.

>> Her name was Tracy,

and she had actually just bought that store

from somebody, literally during the pandemic.

I photographed her at the window,

and I thought, "I got great pictures,"

and I'm carrying my stepstool and my mask, and I'm leaving.

And then she asked me at the end,

"Would you mind making a picture for me?"-- for her.

And I'm, like, "Absolutely."

And she got the stones, the one said, "Smile,"

and one said, "Blessings," and...

And I'm, like, "Oh, my God.

That's not for you, that's a picture for me."

I mean, that's, I didn't end up looking at,

I didn't look at the other photos.

I just knew that this was it.

>> BOWEN: And finally, do you have a sense

of where you'll take this?

You've talked about how this has evolved from where you began.

Does it have a, does it have an end?

>> I don't know where it's going.

Originally, I had said this is only going to be this project

during the pandemic, but I feel like...

It's not like we went from one day,

everything being shut down, to everything being open.

So it feels like this is a transitioning...

A transitioning, transition period, in a way.

And I feel like the windows are starting to open,

people are dressing up for the pictures, as you see.

So maybe I should embrace where it's going

and let it define itself.

I already have a museum show for this work for next spring.

>> BOWEN: Well, congratulations on that.

Where's the museum showing-- are you allowed to say?

>> Yeah, yeah, yeah.

It's the, it's the Rollins Fine Arts Museum at...

Sorry, the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College.

>> BOWEN: Well, congratulations.

It's been such a pleasure to see you again and to talk with you.

Congratulations on this project, it's so fascinating.

>> Thank you.

This was an honor, thank you so much.

>> I want you to talk to me about May.

Are you very much in love with her?

>> As much as a man can be.

>> Do you think there's a limit?

>> BOWEN: That was from Martin Scorsese's 1993 film

The Age of Innocence, a story about a love triangle

in the high society of 19th-century New York.

It's based on the Edith Wharton novel

published 100 years ago this year.

I recently spoke with Susan Wissler,

executive director of The Mount--

Wharton's onetime home in Lenox--

which has organized a host of online programs

to celebrate the centennial.

Susan Wissler, thank you so much for joining us.

>> My pleasure, Jared, happy to be here.

>> BOWEN: Well, I think the time is so interesting here

for when Edith Wharton wroteThe Age of Innocence.

So here, she'd moved on from The Mount.

We see the picture behind you of the gardens there.

She's in Paris.

We've seen these amazing philanthropic efforts

that she had underway.

She was a journalist on the frontlines during World War I.

But who, who was she as a writer?

Who was she allowed to be as a writer

when she wrote The Age of Innocence?

>> Well, it's an interesting story.

So, Wharton was 57 when she wroteThe Age of Innocence,

which I think not coincidentally is the same age

as Newland Archer at the end of the novel.

>> BOWEN: He's the central character of the novel.

>> Central character, yes.

And she was deep into her war writing,

and the publisher said, "Really, the public has had enough.

"We don't want a war story.

"What we want is a novel likeThe House of Mirth,

"a novel of manners,

and we're not moving forward with the project."

And she, Wharton, had bought two houses recently--

one in the suburbs of Paris, just outside of Paris, a villa.

And then she bought a house on the French Riviera,

which was basically a shell of a house.

It was an old convent, over 200 years old,

and badly in need of a lot of renovation.

And so she needed money.

And so, kicking and screaming,

she came up quickly with this idea

forThe Age of Innocence.

Within seven months,

she, she wrote the entire manuscript

forThe House of, forThe Age of Innocence.

>> BOWEN: Well, I know you have a lot of firsthand materials

at The Mount, and through these upcoming virtual programs,

I'm sure you'll be talking about them.

But what do they reveal as you see these edits--

in her own handwriting, in cases--

what do they reveal about her writing process

for this particular novel?

>> Well, I think her original handwriting,

it's fast and furious.

So you get a real sense of the velocity

with which she's composing.

And then the editorial process is much more painstaking

and belabored.

And literally, she's cutting and pasting.

You know, she's crossing out.

You get a very real sense of the process.

AndThe Age of Innocence, even after it was published,

she still wasn't happy with it.

And it went through six additional edits

before the final version was published.

>> BOWEN: Was this unusual that she would...

As you mentioned, she wrote this in just about seven months,

a, what, 365-page novel.

Did, did she usually work with that kind of ferocity?

>> I would say this is, this was enormously fast for her.

>> BOWEN: Contemporary writers from Roxane Gay to Dennis Lehane

all cite this novel even today, and how resonant it is today.

I mean, just everything that you've talked about.

We see social mores come into play, and empowerment,

and restrictions on rights and, and... self...

You know, self, being self-possessed.

How deliberately was Wharton writing

about all of those things?

>> Oh, I think very deliberately.

In fact, I, I consider the novel to be,

in many respects, perhaps her most autobiographical novel.

>> BOWEN: So then this was, she wrote this...

First of all, it was serialized.

It wasn't published as a novel at first.

It's, it's a hit with the readers.

It's a hit with critics.

And then she wins the Pulitzer Prize.

She's the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.

What kind of an acknowledgment was that,

to give her that designation?

>> She called it tainted, actually.

She had mixed feelings about it.

She was very happy with the $1,000 check that came with it.

But she calls it tainted because of the controversy

surrounding the selection.

It was originally supposed to go to Sinclair Lewis,

and he was unanimously chosen by the board--

it was an award given by Columbia University--

but forMain Street.

ButMain Street was about a, sort of the narrow-mindedness

of small Midwestern town.

And so the Columbia University president

overruled the decision,

and instead chose to give it to Wharton.

And everyone actually on the selection committee resigns.

So it was a, it was a fairly controversial choice.

And it was also supposed to be given for the novel

that best represents the highest in American values and morals,

and, you know, the best of American manhood.

And Wharton did not like her novel

to be characterized that way.

>> BOWEN: I've been there with you to The Mount,

to her house in the Berkshires,

and, and you have a fabulous library.

You've tried to assemble many of her own volumes,

including one major one this year.

Tell me about that.

>> Yes, so we are the beneficiaries.

We received this in, I guess it was in late December.

Wharton's own first edition of...

It was her copy ofThe Age of Innocence

that contains her signature and her bookplate.

And it was donated by Dennis and Andrea Kahn.

They live in New Jersey and they contacted us out of the blue.

>> BOWEN: And she didn't just have any library.

I mean, anybody who, who wants a library,

loves to spend time in them, this is one to die for.

She, she very meticulously curated what she gathered.

>> Oh, very, very much so.

And we have about 2,500 of the volumes.

It's not her complete library.

Part of it was destroyed in World War II.

But we have...

You know, we have...

We acquired the bulk of the collection

back in 2005 or '06, from an English bookseller.

But volumes do tend to appear and find their way back.

So we have many very interesting stories.

>> BOWEN: Well, you have beautiful grounds there

at The Mount.

People can visit her home.

You mentioned her gardens earlier,

and I know she considered herself in some respect

a better gardener than she did a, a writer.

But what are your plans for the summer?

I, I know you can't answer with any certainty.

But, but what are your hopes and expectations for the summer,

in terms of opening?

>> Well, we have taken the position...

We do have 50 acres

of, of beautifully manicured gardens and woodlands,

and abutting those 50 acres are another,

oh, 120 acres of, of trails which we are now managing.

And so, the regulations issued by Governor Baker

with respect to public parks

have been the most lenient.

And so we have been basically operating as a public park,

in terms of our grounds,

and they remain open to the community and the public

for just walking the dog, or reflection, that sort of thing.

Um...

We are in phase, we are slotted for phase three,

which is, open, at the earliest, June 29.

So we are making preparations to open the house

sometime in early, early to mid July.

>> BOWEN: Well, the big news in all of this is,

it gives people just enough time to read the book

before going out and spending time with you

and visiting The Mount.

Thank you so much for being with us.

>> My pleasure, Jared, thank you very much,

and I look forward to seeing you in person

as soon as that's possible.

>> BOWEN: It's time now for Arts This Week,

with everything from Isabella Rossellini to a miniMacbeth.

>> ♪ Dies irae, dies illa

>> BOWEN: Sunday, find the best of Boston Baroque online,

including Mozart'sRequiem.

He was literally on his deathbed composing this one.

Learn about actress Isabella Rossellini's

animal instincts Monday.

Visit the Museum of Science's YouTube page

for her conversation with canine expert Brian Hare.

Happy birthday wishes to Olivia de Havilland on Wednesday.

One of the final links to Hollywood's Golden Age,

the Oscar-winning actress turns 104.

Urbanity Dance is moving online-- literally.

Thursday, check out video of pop-up dance performances

projected on buildings around Boston.

Saturday, catch a mini marathon ofMacbeth.

Liars and Believers presents Shakespeare's masterpiece

in five- to ten-minute serialized episodes.

And, finally now, you might want to grab a cold one for this one.

We travel now to Milwaukee, Wisconsin,

to visit the Pabst Mansion,

home of the onetime brewer baron.

Today, it's a time capsule of the Gilded Age.

>> The Pabst Mansion is a historical home

located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,

that represents a lot of the different pieces of history

that speak to the city of Milwaukee.

It is the story of German immigrants

who started an entrepreneurial beer business,

and how that contributed to the landscape of Milwaukee

during its formative years.

>> Captain Pabst emigrates from Germany

when he was 12 years old, 1848.

Eventually, he became a Great Lakes steamship cabin boy,

and then rose to the rank of captain by the age of 21.

So that's why we have the name Captain Pabst.

When he was plying the waters of Lake Michigan,

that apparently he met

his future father-in-law, Phillip Best,

who owned a small brewery in Milwaukee,

and Phillip Best was traveling

with his young daughter Maria Best.

They met and had a two-year courtship,

and they were married in 1862.

He invested half of his fortune

into his father-in-law's brewing company

and purchased a half interest in the Phillip Best Brewing Company

for $21,000,

which doesn't seem like a lot of money today,

but in those days, that was a significant sum.

That really firmly made Milwaukee his home base,

and he committed himself to the life of a brewer.

By the 1880s, they pretty much had national distribution,

and so in 1889,

they changed the name from Best to Pabst.

The year that the name is changed

from Best Brewing Company to Pabst Brewing Company,

you start seeing Captain Pabst

doing a number of different things.

And one of those important things that he did was

to engage an architect to build a large mansion

on Milwaukee's Grand Avenue,

which is today West Wisconsin Avenue.

Between 1890 and 1892, the house was built.

They moved in July of 1892.

The cost of the house was $254,000,

and just over 20,000 square feet.

So it is known as kind of the second-largest home

to have been built in Milwaukee.

The largest was Mrs. Pabst's sister's house,

which was twice the size of this home, which is remarkable.

>> There are actually five levels to the Pabst Mansion.

The first, second, and third floor

are what the family would have utilized

for entertaining and their living spaces.

The rear side or the north side of the Pabst Mansion

was the living and working spaces for the staff here.

Those are the levels the guests today will see.

They'll be able to see the main areas the Pabsts

would have entertained in, their bedrooms,

their private offices, and studies here at the house,

and then also where the servants would have eaten

and helped prepare the food for the family.

So these three principal rooms here on the first floor

are really where guests would have spent a lot of time

with Frederick and Maria Pabst here at the house.

Mrs. Pabst's parlor-- or the ladies' parlor

is the more general term for it--

probably the most formal room in the house.

The least utilized, actually.

It would have been just for the ladies.

Mrs. Pabst and her daughters did not have formal jobs,

but they did have a lot of entertainment

to do here in the house.

We're currently sitting in the music room.

A lot of people think this could have doubled

as a gentlemen's parlor,

but the family utilized this mostly as what we would call

a living room today.

The family celebrated Christmas in this room.

They had a daughter that was married here in 1897,

in the music room,

and then both Frederick and Maria Pabst's funerals

were also held here in this space.

Just to the north of the music room here,

this is the one spot in the home-- the dining room is--

where the family would have entertained.

Everything as far as entertaining at the home

was going to be food-centric for the Pabst family.

Second floor, probably the section of the home

the family spent most of their time in

when they didn't have guests here.

You're gonna find...

The four principal family members who lived here

what we consider year-round or full-time

had their bedrooms on the second floor.

So a central hallway called the foyer,

and then the bedrooms radiate off of this.

>> Guests that come to visit the mansion,

they're here for maybe ten, 15 minutes,

and they really, I think, are struck

by the intimacy of the house,

and that this really is kind of a family home,

rather than a vast mansion.

Captain Pabst passes away on New Year's Day 1904.

His wife remains here until her death in 1906,

and it's eventually purchased by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

And so for almost seven decades,

almost through the entirety of the 20th century,

this was the home of five different archbishops.

It's actually one of the things that saved the Pabst Mansion,

is that it continued to be used as a private residence.

And so in 1978, our organization,

with the help of 23 savings and loans--

I always think that's kind of

one of the best parts of the story,

is that raising the money was really difficult--

but 23 savings and loans each wrote a $10,000 mortgage

to finance the purchase of the house.

So we, we were able to do that,

and opened formally for tours in May of 1978.

When guests come to visit the Pabst Mansion today,

they're seeing a very accurate view

of, you know, what the house was all about in the 1890s.

We're very fortunate that the Pabst family commissioned

Milwaukee society photographer Simon Stein

to come into the house in 1897

and photograph two to three views

of all the principal rooms in the house.

The Pabst family has been extraordinarily generous

in loaning and donating original objects back to the house,

and so the mansion is actually

repopulated with entire rooms of original furniture,

and then objects and artwork.

>> When you're walking through the house,

you experience some unique things from our history

that set a path for where we are today.

>> It's a house built by Milwaukee architects

for Milwaukee clients by Milwaukee craftsmen,

and I think showcases Milwaukee at its very best.

>> BOWEN: That is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.

Next week, the museums and artists turned activists.

>> The time is right for the conversations

thatAmerican Moor is putting forward--

not only conversations about race and, and racial bias,

but conversations about what theater we're making,

why we're making it, who gets to make it.

>> Some people will get just the surface read,

which is sort of the drawing, and then,

and covering the rest

is sort of part of the engagement and exploration.

It's a little bit like a poem, really.

>> We limit girls.

Our culture doesn't let them be assertive.

We certainly don't want them to be aggressive, right?

>> Have you ever killed your enemies?

>> (speaking foreign language)

(translated): Yes, I killed them, a lot of them.

(speaking foreign language)

(translated): I even killed some

with blows from a hoe and with pickaxes.

>> BOWEN: Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.

Thanks for joining us.

As always, you can visit us online

at wgbh.org/OpenStudio.

And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter,

@OpenStudioWGBH.

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