If you’re looking for a last-minute gift, or for something to hunker down with during holiday travels, consider “Nothing Is Lost,” the compelling anthology of essays by Ingrid Sischy, published last month by Alfred A. Knopf.
The title comes from Henry James — “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost” — and was chosen by Ingrid’s wife and longtime career partner in editorial brilliance, Sandy Brant, who is also the book’s editor.
Nothing was lost on Ingrid. Everyone who knew her knows that. Ingrid was a keen cultural participant, observer, critic. Her writing is as she was as a person — learned, deeply insightful but laced with humor, her strong opinions tinged with tolerance for the human condition. Ingrid really got to know her subjects. In the collection of 35 pieces, her intelligence, breadth of knowledge and lack of pomposity are on full display. The essays were published beginning in 1989 and through to 2015, the year of her death, many in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and The New York Times, although there are pieces from other sources as well, such as an introduction of her dear friend Karl Lagerfeld when he was honored at the Gordon Parks Awards dinner in 2011.
Ingrid’s brilliant career that started with a brief stint in museum p.r., accelerating quickly to editor of Artforum at the age of 27 and, in 1989, Andy Warhol’s successor at Interview, where she stayed for almost 20 years before becoming a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Condé Nast International. Along the way, she developed expertise in photography, art and fashion, as well as a keen appreciation for their intricate web of interconnectivity. The book features pieces on supernova of those milieus: Robert Mapplethorpe, Lee Friedlander, Bob Richardson; Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, Alice Neel, Francesco Clemente; John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Calvin Klein, Miuccia Prada.
But Ingrid’s interests were not limited to those spheres. During her tenure at Interview, she became one of media’s most salient voices on entertainment and actors, and Brant includes pieces on Nicole Kidman, Kristen Stewart and Elizabeth Taylor — the last a look at the woman through her home and possessions as photographed by Catherine Opie. The title: “Her Place in the Sun.”
Individually, the essays paint compelling portraits of their subjects. Collectively, they are a treatise on dogged reporting and exquisite writing. Ingrid didn’t do superficial: She dug deep with her research and spent time with her subjects. Often, she approached her primary topic laterally, with a lede that grabbed you and meandered to the main point. A 1989 New Yorker piece on photographer Dan Weiner, timed to his show at the Museum of Modern Art, starts with an anecdote about the museum’s malfunctioning copy machines, one of which she encountered when working on a project. It bore a sign imploring users to “not take it personally when the machine has its problems…it’s just a machine. Please don’t bang, bruise, beat [or] bump [it]. It won’t help.” “The Rebel in Prada,” published in the February 2002 issue of Vanity Fair, begins with a graph on the impact of the September 11th attacks on the fashion industry, and quotes Tom Ford — “On September 11, the 90s ended” — before mentioning the word Prada.
The wide-angle lens was typical of Ingrid, who frequently looked at her subjects intimately and in big-picture context. “How many artists have passed through the world without being noticed? How many got a flash of attention, and that was it?” These words open “Let’s Pretend,” a 1991 New Yorker piece on Lady Clementina Hawarden, who took up photography in the 1860s as it was gaining favor as a cutting-edge pastime among tony social types. For an intense period of eight years before her death at 42, Hawarden found expression in dressing up her two oldest daughters as different characters, and photographing them, while meriting scant recognition in her lifetime. Years after her death, a granddaughter donated her pictures to the Victoria and Albert Museum. “Behind the scenes,” Sischy writes in “Let’s Pretend,” “many museums are more like a crowded attic; there’s usually an accretion of stuff, some of it valuable, some of it junk.”
This is the piece with which Brant chose to open the anthology, clearly establishing Ingrid’s lifelong fascination with creativity on grand and personal scales. It exemplifies her fusion of deep-thoughts erudition with good old, straightforward observation, and her penchant for compelling comparisons. A few pages in, the piece expands from the solo focus on Hawarden to a comparison of her work and that of Cindy Sherman, the women “soul sisters separated by more than a century.”
Ingrid often draws from the past to make a point in the present, sometimes her own past. “A Picture of One’s Own,” from “1997’s “Branded Youth and Other Stories,” recounts the heart-wrenching story of the Sischy family’s departure from its native South Africa in 1961, when Ingrid was nine. It was “The last time I saw John Ropetzoh,” Ingrid wrote. “The most honest way to describe John’s official status would be ‘servant,’” but in fact, “John in private had become the other father of our family.” Yet as a black man, “a new life wasn’t an option for him.” The piece is both autobiographical and universal. “I remember mourning the fact that I didn’t have a picture of him,” Ingrid wrote, her personal story an argument for the power and importance of photography.
In a short amusement for The New York Times Magazine in 2000, Ingrid revealed that her first job lasted an employment-world nanosecond; she got herself fired because she had to wear a skirt (she bought “an ash gray, asexual number that was unexceptional in every way, but it turned out to have an enormous influence on the rest of my life.” While she didn’t name names then, five years later, in a Vanity Fair piece on John Szarkowski, who built the photography department at MoMA and who had years before given her fellowship sans skirt mandate, she identified the offending institution: the Guggenheim.
Ingrid’s writing is consistently respectful of her subjects, her assessments reasoned and tough when called for. A line that she penned about the artist Alice Neel could also be said of her: “She doesn’t pander to her audience or to her subjects.” Nor was she ever obsequious in the presence of celebrity, but then, she was always at least as knowledgeable and respected as her subjects, if not always as famous, though within the art and fashion worlds, she was that, too. Only in the piece on Szarkowski did she give in to fandom, no doubt the result of his mentoring of her younger self. Her description of him is as close to starstruck as she gets: “Old-fashioned movie-star beautiful, though not a pretty boy; he’s as masculine as Gary Cooper — and as feminine.”
Otherwise, she was less breathless but not stingy with praise. “Despite her stratospheric fame, [Elizabeth] Taylor was always deliciously regular in so many ways.” In “Nicole’s New Light,” she calls Kidman “the one-in-a-generation kind [of actress] who, like Elizabeth Taylor, is bigger than the Hollywood system, and is also unafraid to be human and real, which only makes her more popular.” In Kristen Stewart, “there was something so endearing, so human, about her combination of bravado, kindness, self-preservation, self-assertion and revved-up fierceness that I found her cheering.” And she described Lagerfeld as “the man who wears more hats, or fascinators, than they just had at Kate and William’s wedding.” She and Lagerfeld “became friends over our mutual obsession with photography.”
Ingrid’s in-depth approach is clear throughout. A piece on John Galliano was more than his first mea culpa after the instantly infamous anti-Semitic barroom debacle that forced his ouster from Dior and cultural fall from grace. Along with giving him a direct platform to address this disastrous incident, she delved into the elements of addiction that might have led Galliano to say what he said while also addressing obvious subtopics — whether the fashion world would ultimately forgive him — and working in unexpected tidbits, such as whether Rudolf Nureyev was an anti-Semite. (The Russian ballet star was the inspiration for Galliano’s fall 2011 men’s collection, shown only weeks before his Dior exit.)
There’s also plenty of point-making humor. “Jeff Koons Is Back!” for Vanity Fair, July 2014, opens with an account of a talk Koons gave at the Frick Museum on Renaissance and Baroque bronzes, in which “no opportunity was missed to point out breasts, testicles and phalluses.” Many in the crowd loved it, “as a deadpan Koons busted taboos in snootsville.” In “Selling Dreams,” a fascinating 1992 piece for The New Yorker on the Japanese Takarazuka Revue, in which women play female and male roles, Ingrid noted the visual dichotomy between one Revue star and her assistant, “who contrasts with her the way a paper towel does with Christmas wrapping.” And in a piece on Miuccia Prada, she recalled being “partly responsible for a spat” between Prada and her husband Patrizio Bertelli. The two women had chatted for too long a time and kept him waiting. When he appeared at the top of a stairway, “his voice rained down on us, and, while I couldn’t understand the words, their tone was enough to want to make me scram.”
At its best, feature writing conjures such distinct imagery. More broadly, it goes beyond the facts, delving deeply into a subject, contextualizing and offering perspective, sometimes universal and transcendent of time. Yet like all writing, it is ultimately of its time. While many of Ingrid’s essays could have been written yesterday, others highlight how dramatically the world has changed in a relatively short time. Top of the list: the impact of #MeToo. Ingrid opened the Takarazuka piece by referencing how American culture devours its celebrities in “a form of cannibalism.” Her example: Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, whose relationship had recently combusted over his affair with Soon Yi. The long, fascinating piece wends through numerous Takarazuka performances and generations of the Revue’s stars before ending back home, with a New York Daily News story that proclaimed, “A Midsummer Night’s sex tragedy for Woody.’ Where is Puck when we need him/her to help us dream up a happy ending for that star-crossed story?” Ingrid mused wryly, 26 years ago.
Similarly, in “Calvin Klein to the Core,” Vanity Fair, April 2008, Bruce Weber recalled a shoot on the island of Santorini with a line one reads very differently now than a decade ago. The conditions were challenging, including hotel rooms that were literally caves, “‘very cold caves, which is why people kept getting in bed together to warm up,’ says Weber with a laugh.”
Then there’s the 1991 piece on Lee Friedlander’s “Nudes,” a series with some pretty raw scenery, including the famous shots of the young Madonna. Ingrid wrote that Friedlander found his models informally and usually went to their homes alone, without even an assistant, where “most of the time he followed the models’ leads in terms of posing,” as they twisted, stretched and contorted. It’s inconceivable that a famous photographer would show up solo in women’s homes to photograph them naked today. Back then, Ingrid seemed torn about the power imbalance. “There’s no getting around the fact that he’s been dressed in a room while his subject has been naked, and that he is the one who’s capturing her, so the antennae do go up.” Ultimately, she maintained that, “It’s our gain that he followed his instinct to say yes to the subject,” yet she still finds that “the results are fairly strange.”
Ingrid didn’t avoid difficult issues, even those she couldn’t fully resolve, and she was not afraid to call out grandiosity. A 1991 New Yorker piece on the much-lauded photojournalist Sebastião Salgado takes issue with his greatness. His attempts to capture human suffering, as with a series photographed in the famine-devastated Sahel region of Africa, rang hollow with Ingrid. She called his work “sloppy with symbolism,” and said, “it is Salgado everyone seems to end up admiring — for getting so close to such suffering.”
Conversely, Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos about homosexuality “signal the changes that were going on with gay liberation in the Seventies and Eighties…they encapsulate the hope, the craziness, the sense of emerging freedom,” and, sadly, “have also become an eloquent record of loss.”
Such could be said about this book itself, encapsulating as it does hope, craziness, empowerment, freedom, audacity, yet a reminder of the loss of a wonderful, brilliant, funny, informed woman. Ingrid Sischy was a genuine original, whose journalistic acumen and dazzling way with words always taught you something new and made you consider, and perhaps reconsider, what you thought you knew. They still do.