Daily Features

Hotel Chelsea Lives On in Photographs

Photographer Victoria Cohen’s images capture the historic New York landmark as it will never be seen again.

By Jennifer Krichels, Superscript October 2, 2013

When photographer Victoria Cohen first visited Hotel Chelsea more than 25 years ago, she remembers feeling as if she had stepped into a Fellini film: “There was art everywhere—and also lots of rockers, models, freaks, and druggies, as well as a few adventurous tourists lounging on the sofas.” The New York native returned to the historic landmark under very different circumstances two years ago, when she gained permission to photograph the hotel’s storied interiors just before it closed for renovations in August 2011.

An image from Victoria Cohen's Hotel Chelsea, a photographic collection that memorializes the interiors of New York's bohemian enclave.

While the twelve-story brick hotel on West 23rd Street is well memorialized as a backdrop for the work of its guests and residents, Cohen’s photographs show the space in its own right. Devoid of visitors both famous and infamous and captured in natural light, the rooms take on their own personalities and are a poignant reminder of the physical environment that cultivated so much literary and artistic work.

The results of Cohen’s intensive three-week shoot went on display last month at the Third Streaming gallery in SoHo in an exhibition that will run through October 25. Marking the first time the work has been shown in New York, Hotel Chelsea is organized by independent curator Michael Steinberg and accompanied by a photography book of the same name, published by Pointed Leaf Press. I talked with Cohen about the process of shooting one of New York’s most culturally significant interiors:

Jennifer Krichels: What was your personal history with Hotel Chelsea?
Victoria Cohen:
I knew the Chelsea growing up in New York—I’m a native New Yorker and I’d been there several times and stayed there. Friends would stay there when they were in from out of town. A friend of mine had said he heard the hotel was closing and being renovated or sold and said I should go by and check it out, but I did not plan to photograph it. A day or two later I was near the hotel. I spoke to the management and they confirmed what was happening and I said I want to shoot it.

The Book

Hotel Chelsea Victoria Cohen

JK: Tell me about the process of photographing the rooms.
I would go every day and they’d give me the keys. It took three weeks. I shot it as the rooms were cleaned and about to be emptied and not re-rented out. I wanted the rooms to be clean and vacant and not have any trace of who had just been there because I wanted it to be the Chelsea that was available for everyone—to show it as a host to thousands, rather than shooting the residents. I write about the process in the book’s introduction.

Using only natural light and a hand-held camera, Cohen captured rooms' inanimate objects as guests might have seen them.

JK: Did you change your approach at all as you began to spend time in the environment?
I didn’t change my approach. My idea changed about the whole project, though. I became very emotionally attached through the experience of being in that space and thinking about the history that took place there. As it went on, I felt more of a responsibility to document it because it’s really important. So many lives have been touched by these spaces.

JK: Did you learn anything new about the hotel as you photographed it?
It was just very surprising in funny, good ways to see the sinks in the walls and other elements of the architecture and interiors. I learned more going through the halls—at that point the art was still left in the hallways. I was moved by seeing the artwork of people who lived there and stayed there; a lot of people traded art in exchange for rent.

The interiors were all very different and eclectic—nothing was the same. You’d go in one room, and it would be very dark and there would be a lot of despair, visually. The next room would have flowers and mish-mashed colors. From the beginning, I wanted it to be very authentic and for people to see what I was seeing, like they were in the room. I’m not an interiors photographer. I really shot a lot of it as portraits; it’s really a sense of a soul and a presence. I used only natural light and available light and I hand-held the camera. I really wanted this to be as authentic as possible. My interpretation of what I was looking at was what I wanted to offer.

Cohen documented more than a hundred of the hotel's guest rooms during a three-week period in August 2011.


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