Greenwich resident Anne Hall Elser is a portrait photographer of some renown. Having worked many years for The New Yorker, specifically in the Art Department, she has documented (as Anne Hall) numerous New Yorker artists and writers in distinctive black and white photographs.
But lately Elser has put her talent to photographing the interiors of historic houses -- specifically in Tennessee. She has a new book called "At Home in Tennessee," which she has collaborated on with a former New Yorker colleague, Donna Dorian, later the Style Editor of Garden Design magazine, who writes on interior design and the decorative arts and lives in New York.
The book includes Andrew Jackson's Greek revival mansion, the Hermitage, and was praised in the September issue of Antiques magazine for its "wonderfully diverse sampling of American architecture and interiors," and for its photographs that "capture the mood and harmony of the rooms." The Citizen visited with Elser and Dorian in Elser's Greenwich home to learn more about the new book.
What are your Tennessee connections and what was the origin of this book?
AHE: Donna and I became friends back in the 1980s, when we were both on staff at The New Yorker - Donna read manuscripts in the Poetry Department and I was in Art. Donna married and moved to Tennessee, and being a free-lance writer already, she came up with the idea for the book.
DD: We lived in Franklin (near Nashville), Tennessee, 25 miles from a very important historic house called Carnton (circa 1826). It was a hospital during the Civil War. I wrote about it for Colonial Homes with Anne's photographs and that was the start.
How many houses do you feature in the book and what period are they?
AHE: There are 20 historic houses of the antebellum period, 1800-1860, before the Civil War. The book is divided into "Historic House Museums," "Private Historic Residences" and "How We Imagine the Past."
How did you come by the title of the book?
DD: In the 19th century you'd send out these invitations to a party at your house and people would come all day. There were no cars, bad roads and people lived far from each other. The book is really not about houses or historic houses but the decorative arts inside the houses. Such as the trompe l'oeil murals in the 1861 McNeal House in Bolivar, in western Tennessee. The house was designed by Samuel Sloan, the most important architect in America.
AHE: Doing a book in color was a challenge. I normally work in black and white using natural light. This book is shot almost entirely in color, and unlike most pictures you see in magazines, I did not use any artificial light. We wanted to show the houses in the way people lived in them when there were no electric lights. I was using long exposures, on a tripod, taking my portrait technique and using it on rooms. My pictures are full of light and shadows and look the way they would look in real life.
We would often have only one day to take pictures of a house, with its interiors and antiques. Even on the darkest days (pouring rain, no light!), I learned not to panic. I adjusted, waited it out.
DD: I was an editor of Garden Design magazine and working 70 hour-weeks and there was a ton of research to do on each house.
What are you most proud of in the project?
AHE: We were attempting to capture the spirit of each house in its entirety, giving a sense of the way people lived and the people who lived there. I think we did that.
How long have you lived in Greenwich, Anne?
AHE: For ten years, since marrying Fred Elser.
How did you get your start in photography?
AHE: In college. I took pictures, in the summer, for a newspaper. Later, I became a freelance portrait photographer using black and white film and natural light. I learned darkroom technique, which was very helpful. The effect is more beautiful, more natural.
What subjects intrigue you?
AHE: Portraiture. I try to avoid anything that looks like an obvious pose. I started by photographing people I knew - people at The New Yorker.
Who were your mentors?
Where have your photographs been exhibited?
AHE: Over the years, I have had a number of one-woman shows and been included in many group shows. Eight of my portraits of New Yorker artists were on exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York this past spring accompanying a show of original cartoon art called "On the Money: Cartoons for The New Yorker from the Melvin R. Seiden Collection." Sixty-five of my portraits are part of that Collection at the Morgan. A few of my pictures were also exhibited at Greenwich's Bruce Museum in 2005, as part of a show of New Yorker cartoon art.
When did you first work for The New Yorker?
AHE: Right out of college. Along with many young ladies from New England women's colleges who headed for publishing in New York, I graduated from Wheaton College and immediately went to work for The New Yorker, starting in the typing pool, which at the magazine was referred to as Waldon Pond after Mrs. Harriet Waldon, who ran it.
What were your duties?
AHE: After a few months in the typing pool, I worked in the office of William Shawn, the editor-in-chief, and for several other editors before becoming Art Editor Lee Lorenz's assistant in the Art Department. Lee retired after 25 years, and I then worked as an art dealer for the magazine, selling original cartoon and cover art. During all that time, I was taking pictures of friends and colleagues there. I retired from the magazine three years ago.
What is your next project?
AHE: I'm thinking about a book of my portraits of New Yorker artists and writers.