Real Photos Inspire A Fictional Life In 'Feast Your Eyes'

Apr 25, 2019
Originally published on April 25, 2019 6:59 pm

Feast Your Eyes is the name of a new book that tells the story of a young woman — Lillian Preston — who ventures to New York City in the 1950s, absolutely determined to be a photographer. The book is set up as if it's a catalogue accompanying her posthumous show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The supposed catalogue describes 118 photos — but we don't see a single one, because Lillian Preston is fictional, and entirely believable. She's the creation of author Myla Goldberg, who says that while Lillian is fictional, a lot of her photos are real. "The wonderful thing about describing a photograph is you don't need the rights to it, because you're not putting the actual picture in the book," she says. "And so I actually lived with street photographers for five, six years, and I had five or six books of street photography on my desk at any given time. So some of these photos, they're just, I just took them. The work of Vivian Maier is in here, the work of Garry Winogrand is in here, the work of Diane Arbus is in here, the work of Louis Faurer is in here."


Interview Highlights

On picking the photos for Lillian's catalogue

I was looking through these books constantly for inspiration. Occasionally, there'd be a photograph that was just, like, this photograph is perfect, I want to use it. So the description you're getting in the book is the description of an actual street photograph. Other times, I would see a photograph, and one corner of it would be what I wanted my photograph to be. So in my mind, I would enlarge it, and that would become my photograph ... other times, I would see a setting, and I would sub out one kind of person for another kind of person, or put my own people in the setting and that became my photograph, and other times, yes, I did just make it up. So it's a combination of all those things.

On the photograph at the center of the story

That would be a photograph called "Mommy is Sick," and what ends up happening is, Lillian ends up taking twin, or dual, nude and partially clothed portraits of herself and her daughter. It comes at a time when she needs to be taking care of her daughter, and her daughter doesn't want to go outside all the time to take street photography, so they're in the house a lot together. And this particular photograph, she is suffering the aftereffects of an illegal abortion, and it's a picture that she had taken with a timed camera, of her in bed while her daughter is trying to help her as best she can, and in the picture she's offering her a glass of milk. And that one is an entirely made-up photo — kind of the most essential, central photos of this novel are the ones that I just made up out of whole cloth.

On where the book began

The book began with this idea of, how do you be both? How do you be both an artist and a parent? And so I looked at, I was reading a lot of biographies of artists ... I was reading about all of these choices, and so I guess the photograph started from that idea. Also started from the idea that I knew I wanted to write about abortion. We're talking the '50s, that's pre-Roe v. Wade, and I'm a child of the post-Roe v. Wade era. I read a book called The Choices We Made that the first half of it was personal essays by famous, successful women, who gave their names, they were not anonymous, talking about their illegal abortions. And basically, if you were an ambitious woman of that era, you had an abortion, and so reading about that, I knew that this was a huge part of the story.

This story was edited for radio by Justine Kenin and Jolie Myers and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The new novel "Feast Your Eyes" tells the story of a young woman determined to be a photographer in 1950s New York, Lillian Preston. And the format of the book tells you that she succeeded.

MYLA GOLDBERG: This book takes the form of the catalog notes to Lillian Preston's posthumous retrospective museum exhibition.

SHAPIRO: That's author Myla Goldberg. She assembled "Feast Your Eyes" as a series of letters, diary entries and, most importantly, descriptions of photographs taken by this legendary fictional artist over the course of her life. There are 118 photos numbered and titled, but the images themselves never appear in the book. I assumed they all came from Myla Goldberg's imagination, so I was shocked when the author corrected me.

GOLDBERG: It's funny 'cause actually a lot of them do exist.

SHAPIRO: Wait; what?

GOLDBERG: (Laughter) The wonderful thing about describing a photograph is you don't need the rights to it because you're not putting the actual picture in the book.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

GOLDBERG: And so I actually lived with street photographers for five, six years. And I had five or six books of street photography on my desk at any given time. So some of these photos, they are just - I just took them. The work of Vivian Maier is in here. The work of Garry Winograd is in here. The work of Diane Arbus is in here.

SHAPIRO: You just blew my mind.

GOLDBERG: (Laughter) So some of them - some of - and so I was looking through these books constantly for inspiration. Occasionally there'd be a photograph that just, like, this photograph is perfect. I want to use it. And so the description you're getting in the book is the description of an actual street photograph. Other times, I would see a photograph and the one corner of it would be what I wanted my photograph to be.

So in my mind, I would enlarge it, and that would become my photograph. And that's what gets described in the book. Other times, I would see a setting. And I would sub out one person for another kind of person or put my own people in the setting, and that became a photograph. And other times, yes, I did just make it up. So it's a combination of all those things.

SHAPIRO: Just so readers have some idea of how this looks in the book, will you read photograph No. 78? It's called "Couple On Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 1964."

GOLDBERG: (Reading) At first, this one seems pretty straightforward. He's got his right arm across her shoulders, his hand like one of those arcade claws gripping a prize. He's put together, but her coat is unbuttoned. And her hair is mussed, like he might have just had her up against the brick wall they're standing in front of. With his tie, pleated slacks and pomaded hair, he could be on his way to an office. That belted dress could put her on the service side of a department store counter, except that their faces tell you they can't be more than 14 years old. And there you have it - two middle-aged children stuck in your head like a sad song.

SHAPIRO: Do you remember where that photograph came from?

GOLDBERG: I do. That one is a Diane Arbus one.

SHAPIRO: What was it about that photograph that you were like, this one has to be in my book?

GOLDBERG: Their faces. I mean, the way I just - you know, they are middle-aged children. When you look at them, everything about their attitude is older. Everything about what they've seen of life that is reflected in their eyes is older, yet they're these smaller people. And it's just heartbreaking but true at the same time.

SHAPIRO: At times reading this book, I almost felt like I was taking an art appreciation class that would teach me how to look at photographs, even though I wasn't really looking at the photographs. It's like, this is what you see when you look at a still image, and these are the kinds of stories you can elicit from them.

GOLDBERG: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's magic. I - it really is magic what a photo can do.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about the photograph that is at the center of this story.

GOLDBERG: That would be a photograph called "Mommy Is Sick." And what ends up happening is Lillian ends up taking kind of twin or dual nude and partially clothed portraits of herself and her daughter. It comes at a time when she needs to be taking care of her daughter, and her daughter doesn't want to go outside all the time to take street photography. So they're in the house a lot together.

And this particular photograph, she is suffering the after-effects of an illegal abortion. And it's a picture that she had taken with a timed camera of her in bed while her daughter is trying to help her as best she can. And in the picture, she's just - she's offering her a glass of milk. And that one is an entirely made-up photo - that one. The kind of the most essential central photos of this novel are the ones that I just made up out of whole cloth.

SHAPIRO: That photo is where the book begins. Is it where the idea for the book began for you?

GOLDBERG: The book began with this idea of, how do you both - you know, how do you be both an artist and a parent? And so one of - I looked at - I was reading a lot of biographies of artists. You know, Dorothea Lange, super-famous WPA photographer, put her child - her children into foster care. She basically paid someone to take care of her children so she could go around taking photographs. And that was one choice she made.

And then on the other end, you have Sally Mann, who incorporated her children into her work so she didn't have to make that separation. And so I was reading about all of these choices. And so I guess the photographs started from that idea, also started from the idea that I knew I wanted to write about abortion. You know, we're talking, you know, the '50s. That's pre-Roe v. Wade. And I'm a child of the post-Roe v. Wade era.

I read a book called "The Choices We Made," that the first half of it was personal essays by famous successful women who named - they gave their names - they were not anonymous - talking about their illegal abortions. And basically, if you were an ambitious woman of that era, you had an abortion. And so reading about that, I knew that this was a huge part of this story. And so this central photograph, I guess, arose from all those different strands kind of coming together.

SHAPIRO: Yeah the male characters in the story are like here and gone, relegated to the sidelines.

GOLDBERG: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: They pass through on a breeze. Did you always know that you sort of wanted to keep the masculinity to a minimum?

GOLDBERG: No, that was not a conscious decision on my part. I just - as I was writing this, it just very much was a story about a woman's experience. And it's a woman who is fairly isolated to begin with and doesn't - you know, that men are not a big part of her life. But - I wasn't - this isn't a book about, you, know men, they're not important. No. It's just that this is focusing on the experience of being a woman at a time where women didn't necessarily get a whole lot of support.

SHAPIRO: There's a letter from Lillian Preston early in the book where she says, I don't want to make photographs, I want to make windows. Does that describe your feelings about writing?

GOLDBERG: Definitely. I think all art, any piece of art is a window into something else. And that's why it is central to the human experience. It's how we understand each other. It's how we get outside of ourselves. And it's how we grow empathy in this world, which is what our world needs more than ever. And so, yeah, those windows are essential.

SHAPIRO: Myla Goldberg, thank you so much for talking with us.

GOLDBERG: Thank you for talking with me, Ari. This was really fun.

SHAPIRO: Her new book is called "Feast Your Eyes." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.