Strawberry Lane Revisited

An Interview
Kevin McDermott,
author of
ELEPHANT HOUSE: or, The Home of Edward Gorey

by Glen Emil

more information:
ELEPHANT HOUSE: or, The Home of Edward Gorey

Visit Kevin McDermott's site for more images & information from EH, now in it's 2nd printing. Purchase the limited edition and fine prints here as well.

Photographs and text
by Kevin McDermott
Forward by John Updike

Published by
Pomegranate Communications

128 pages
70 photographs
15 drawings and etchings

Hardcover with dust jacket
Size: 11 1/4" x 8"
ISBN 0-7649-2495-8
$35.oo list price

Order your copy from Amazon
1 February 2004      Special to Goreyography

Once used to the buffeting and jarring the small Cessna was enduring over a windy Cape, I began to wonder what Sally Whitehead would think of Edward Gorey's house today. For over a decade, Sally had been Mr. Gorey's housecleaner. After poring over Kevin McDermott's Elephant House: or, The Home of Edward Gorey [2003] for the umpteenth time, I tried to imagine what she could have felt as she surveyed the muddle that was the entrance room at 8 Strawberry Lane, before Gorey's passing. Contrast that with her thoughts as she viewed that same perspective three years later -- her observations could be quite profound.

I always wanted to make this trip while Gorey was alive. But after reading that he disdained drop-in fans who came by to gawk at the artist who brought so much joy in his joyless manner, I thought it prudent to gawk at his house instead, circumventing Mr. Gorey's disapproving sighs. So I waited.

"When I looked at the photograph of the bust in the window, I was surprised by the resemblance. I would like to think that something supernatural on Edward's part had taken place." -- Kevin McDermott

Months before publication, McDermott casually mentioned his upcoming project, and I recall thinking 'finally!' When he said Sam Shahid, recently of Abercrombie & Fitch notoriety, was designing the book, I thought 'goodness, this is serious - maybe this will be enough, I won't actually need to go there.' However, after Elephant House delivered so precisely what I had hoped for, I felt it now necessary to have my own Sally Whitehead experience. To furthur augment the effect, I spoke with Mr. McDermott just before my December trip to Yarmouthport:

GE: When did your career as photographer begin?

KM: As an acting student at NYU, I took several art history courses as electives. In the early 1990's I began to explore the world of fine art photography. However as young actor living in New York City, photography was an interest with too high of a price tag for me to really pursue. In 1995, I left New York and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. It was at this time that I enrolled in courses for black and white photography and darkroom technique.

Are there photographers who have influenced your work?

There are many photographers whom I admire. A few are Duane Michals, Irving Penn, Edward Weston.

ELEPHANT HOUSE is your first photographic art book. How did it come about?

I shot the photographs of Edward's house and then I put them away. Somehow I didn't feel it was appropriate to deal with the images for a couple years. When I decided I wanted to create a photography art book, I showed a couple of the images to a gallery owner in New York who I respected and asked him for some feedback. He liked the images. I then told him that I really wanted to create a book of the photographs and he recommended that I speak with Sam Shahid.

What happened next?

The next day I spoke with a friend who is the creative director of a major magazine to get his take on Sam. He was very positive. So I got up the courage to call Sam. Sam met me at the Gotham Book Mart and we went through the photos in the gallery there. He took a look at the photos and said, "Lets do it"!

What was it like working with him?

Sam is a pro. He works with the major players in the photography world, so when I would get caught up in life (and seeming) death of it all, he helped me maintain my sanity.

Did you have strong opinions about how the book was going to look before you started?

I was very clear with the organization of the book. I knew how I wanted to walk the viewer through Edward's house, and Sam and his art director, Matthew Kraus, were very open to my requests. I also knew that I wanted to use the images of Edward's elephant prints to separate the rooms. I let them design the book. I made only a few changes (and then only the order of some photographs) to Sam's design.

When I see the pictures, or rather, portraits of Gorey's possessions, I feel a story is being told. Was there a narrative being developed in your mind as you took them?

I couldn't help but feel the relationships between objects. These objects took on personas. I did approach the photographs as portraits. Also, the majority of my work as a photographer has been taking portraits of people, or placing a human figure in a landscape. So I am sure some of that came into play here in Edward's house. I found those arrangements of objects more intriguing than overall room shots.

The narrative of the journey through the house became more important to me as I constructed the book. This is when I really sat down and thought "okay, what do I want the audience (viewer) to feel at this point?" And from my experience as a producer of Gorey theatre projects, I knew how important and sometimes frustrating -- challenging may be a better word -- for imagination and discovery to come into play. I wanted to have people feel as though they are wandering through the house. The publisher wanted to put an index at the beginning of the book and also to number the pages, but I thought it was important emotionally to feel as through you had come upon the house with its front door open and you explored its contents. Of course, I wanted to guide the visitor gently.

Are there photographs that are particular favorites of yours?

The salt and pepper shakers, which I call "Edward's City"; the bust in the window "Looking Out the Window"; the still life of the concentric circles from the ball room, "Galaxies". The viewing public seems to be drawn to the blue bottles, "The Blue Hour".

The one of Dickens's bust looking out the window is intriguing because of a seemingly Goreyish visage upon it's own reflection. Has any one gone back to take another look at the bust, to see if the resemblance is palpable?

Now for this Dickens bust -- it is a bit of a mystery. Edward's friend on the Cape, Rick Jones, who now owns the bust, told the group who attended my gallery talk at the Gorey House in October [2003] that he has tried to recreate the photograph himself. He has been less than successful. I do believe it was one of those magic moments.

When you say magic moments, I feel as though you allude to a bit of the supernatural at work. Do you believe in ghosts?

I'm fascinated by the idea of ghosts. I had a very Catholic upbringing, so the idea of an after-life was drummed into me at an early age. On an intellectual level, I would say "No, I don't believe in ghosts". But on an emotional level, I would say that I'm intrigued with the possibility, and I always enjoy experiencing "happy coincidences". When I looked at the photograph of the bust in the window, I was surprised by the resemblance. I would like to think that something supernatural on Edward's part had taken place. I think he would get a chuckle from that.

Looking back to when you were creating ELEPHANT HOUSE, did you ever feel you were reliving the part of Mr. Earbrass in Gorey's The Unstrung Harp [1953]?

I now understand The Unstrung Harp in ways that I wish I didn't. Andreas Brown suggested that I give it another read while I was dealing with my publisher on the book. I had to laugh out loud, because Edward was so "right on" with his take on getting a book to market; the self doubt, the frustration of dealing with a publisher, the second guessing, that feeling of being very alone. It is amazing to me that this was Edward's first book. The fact that he could know so much about the process of writing and publishing in his first venture is incredible.

Since ELEPHANT HOUSE is a success -- now in it's 2nd printing, do you plan to publish your own works, or more books on Gorey's life and works?

Yes, I am encouraged to do more photography books. I don't know who will publish said book, but I will be putting another one together. Another book on Edward's work may be down the pike, but probably not for a while.

Kevin McDermott by Christopher Bowen

Kevin used two cameras to shoot Mr. Gorey's home: a Contax 645 medium format camera with two different lenses (80mm and 140mm) for the majority of the photographs, and a Nikon N90s 35mm camera with a wide-angle (20mm) lens for the overall room shots. Kevin McDermott once again lives in New York City, studying and researching the Edward Gorey archives at Gotham Book Mart.

Glen Emil,
December 2003

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