The French word “dérive” is variously translated in English as “drift,” “drifting” or “unplanned journey,” and in the early months of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, actress Jessica Lange embarked on a dérive of her own. photographed the suddenly eerily quiet streets of New York City with her Leica camera.
She lives in New York City, although she travels and works extensively. She is currently in Ireland filming Long Day’s Journey Into Night for the third time, in which she plays Mary Tyrone. Lange took on the role in stage productions in London and won a Tony Award in 2016, a Broadway production.
The two-time Academy Award winner, who also boasts three Emmys and a slew of other hardware for her career, has spent much of her life returning to her cabin in northern Minnesota, not far from Cloquet, where she was born 73 before an extraordinarily eventful years.
In late 2020 and early 2021, Lange spent six months learning about French philosopher Guy Debord’s 1956 Theory of the Dérive, on a tip from her Brooklyn-based musician son, Walker. When you go with the flow, Debord posited, “you drop all your usual motives for movement and action and let yourself be drawn in by the attractions – mostly urban and the encounters that you find there.”
Lange’s third photo collection published by powerHouse Books and fifth overall, “Dérive” captures discreet, blunt moments in a poignantly young, mysteriously distant tale. The uncropped black and white images of homeless New Yorkers, of buildings and sidewalks devoid of human hustle and bustle, of New Yorkers of all kinds, mostly isolated, seen through windows, on stairs, on bridges – the photographs add up to a kind of film, like the unique one Cine story “La Jetée” by Chris Marker from 1962, chronicling the times in between.
“One thing photography has taught me,” she said over the phone at a hotel in County Wicklow, south of Dublin, “is patience. It’s a good lesson for me.” This Saturday, as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, Lange will discuss “Dérive,” her life and career, and what else is coming up, in conversation with Adam Gopnik, a staff writer at The New Yorker. speak. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: When you look back on the time you took the photos in your new book, does it feel new to you? Away?
A: It was such a special time. At the beginning of the pandemic, New York, like Chicago and so many other cities, certainly changed overnight. It was pretty amazing. People who were able to walk — and I later went to my cabin in northern Minnesota — many of us have walked for a while after lockdown. Five months later, in October 2020, I came back. And the city was still completely closed. We tend to forget that time, which is strange: thousands of people die every day, hospitals are overcrowded. What interested me was these first effects of the pandemic, the first wave. In the spring of 2021, the city began to come alive again. You began to feel and see signs of hope, much of which had to do with spring itself.
Q: The book started with a suggestion from your son…
A: Thank god for this suggestion! This notion of derive, in the six months i took to document the city, it became a regular practice. I roamed the city several times a week with this theory of drifting. So yes. It actually helped me get through that time in New York. Just wander the streets and stop and talk to people, many of whom are homeless, and learn about their history. I don’t know, it sounds cheesy, but it was an unexpected gift. Just to talk to people, in the context of blocks and blocks from nobody.
Q: Here you work with a “no-crop” rule in your photographs. It seems like there’s a natural comparison to stage work. There is no cropping when performing on stage.
A: That’s the difference between stage and film. There is a dynamic of its own on stage. It’s like boarding a train, you step out of the station and you have a speed and energy all your own. Some evenings you feel like you’re tapping into something. And other nights you feel like you’re missing the moment, or something is going a little haywire. You just hope you can find some truth in who you play. But with film, since the camera is right there, it’s a wonderful kind of…synergy, I think. A very different kind of energy and intimacy.
Q: If you search online for Cloquet, Minnesota, your place of birth, you’ll find a local diner, the Family Tradition restaurant, with a website that says, “We’re sure once you’ve visited our beautiful city, you will.” never wanting to leave anything again.” You obviously ignored that.
A: Oh well. (laughs) When I was a kid we moved so many times, like 18 times. We lived in so many small towns around Minnesota before I returned to Cloquet for my senior year of high school. From there I went to the University of Minnesota, finished a term, took a photography class, met some people (including a future husband, photographer Paco Grande, who predated her long-term relationships with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sam Shepard) and ran away from Europe. I modeled something. Came back to New York, moved to Paris for a few years. Lots of movement in those days. I’m glad I had all those troubled, crazy, wild years. One adventure after another. All over Europe, 68 in Paris, Amsterdam, then back home, all over the States, finally ended up back in New York and then tried my hand at acting. I’m so glad I had six, eight years to just do whatever came up. Whatever adventure awaited. When acting started, everything changed. Suddenly, I was actually pursuing something I hadn’t really been doing before.
Q: The images in “Dérive” and in your earlier book of photographs “Highway 61” show us two elements at once: the past or a piece of the country we were that somehow bleeds through the country we are.
A: That’s what I’m drawn to, I think. When I’ve driven across America, I have a penetrating sense of isolation and loneliness. That was felt in New York City during the pandemic, that feeling. separateness. Maybe that’s what catches my eye. I don’t get that feeling here in Ireland where I work now. But I feel it all the time in the States. It feels friendlier here. more forgiving.
Q: Tell me about the role photography has played in your life and how it intersects with your work on screen, from King Kong to Joan Crawford in Feud.
A: Photography has always been personal to me. The fact that someone, after looking at some photos I took, said to me, “You know? You could make a book out of this.” It wasn’t what I thought it would be. I have never pursued photography with an aim or purpose. it was only for me But it turned out to be a great diversion from film or theater. There you are surrounded by people, equipment, everything that an ensemble performance entails. It’s rarely something private. Photography is wonderfully private. You are not dependent on other people. It’s a different way of seeing. And it complements acting because it forces you to be present. “In the moment”, as they say. But all alone.
Jessica Lange: Capturing the Unplanned Moment with Adam Gopnik as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival is November 12 at 7:00 p.m. at the Francis W. Parker School, 330 W. Webster Ave.; Tickets $20 at www.chicagohumanities.org
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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