British playwright and author W. Somerset Maugham’s portrait is all eyes. Deep black pupils gaze out from behind a landscape of wrinkles that furrow his aging face. “We see that Editta has caught a few hard grains of time itself,” he once said of Sherman’s work. “Life is something pinned down by light and time. Her portraits are forever.”
The 60 portraits that fill the “The Duchess of Carnegie Hall” certainly prove Maugham’s statement: They preserve the expressive faces and observant eyes through which the greatest luminaries of the 1940s, ’50s, and beyond saw the world. But more than Sherman’s ability to capture her sitters at their most relaxed, content, or vulnerable, they reveal her unique personality: the joy she found in creativity, her craft, and the people who surrounded her.
“Her subjects didn’t sit for her, they sat with her,” Kushner tells me. “What you see on their faces is oftentimes a reflection of what she’s saying to them and how she’s photographing them. So there’s that bit of Editta in every single one of these photographs.”
While it might be difficult to glean Sherman’s contagious élan from the portraits alone, Kushner made sure to include elements that offered a more rich picture of the photographer’s charisma. There is a vibrant, ornately patterned Bill Blass dress, from which Sherman removed the feather cuff to wear as boa. There are also three of her signature hats, one made for her by Cunningham.
And most striking, there are two films that feature Sherman not as the artist, but the star. The first, assembled by Astor with outtakes from his documentary Lost Bohemia (2011), about the lives of Carnegie Hall’s last remaining residents, shows Sherman waltzing giddily around her apartment in an ever-replenishing supply of hats, and blowing out the candles on a birthday cake that marked her 97th year. “She was the figurehead. She was the duchess. She was really the spirit of the place,” Astor remembers.
Nowhere in the exhibition is this made more clear than in a short film placed near the show’s entrance. We see a 50-year-old Sherman in an elaborate tutu as she rises on pointed ballet shoes and dances Russian choreographer Mikhail Fokine’s “The Dying Swan.” Her body sways passionately through her studio, under the photographs of her “stars,” and it’s suddenly undeniable that Sherman was one of them.