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Irene Fay: A Conversation with Vance Stevens

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Irene Fay (1914-1986) chronicled her life from behind the camera, seeking to build a sense of permanence by cataloguing fleeting moments. Trained in darkroom techniques by Gotthard Schuh, Irene was able to draw an income by taking portraits – first in Switzerland and then in the United States, where she and her husband Stefan Fay settled down to raise their family. The common connection between Irene’s fine-art and commercial photography pursuits is evident in her sensitive attention to small details; the viewer is guided to discover what Irene finds fascinating in her subjects. Her photographs are thoughtful, tender, and captivating.

Vance Stevens was a graduate student when he first met Irene Fay. In time, he would become instrumental in helping her secure dealer representation, continuing to offer support and advice from behind the scenes for the rest of Irene’s life.

As Vance’s career transitioned from teaching to freelance graphic and interior design, his relationship with Irene and her family gradually intertwined. With residences in New York City and the Catskills, Vance gained insight into Irene the artist, and Irene the person. I talked to Vance about his friendship with Irene. The admiration and affection he holds for Irene, whose art practice is now being reintroduced to the world via FFOTO, is evident throughout our conversation.

Craig D’Arville, FFOTO Co-founder

Vance Stevens holds up a plastic portfolio of Irene Fay photographsVance Stevens, friend and adviser to Irene Fay

Craig D’Arville: Vance, take us back to when you first met Irene. What are your recollections of that encounter?

Vance Stevens: I think I met Irene in 1969 or 70. Her daughter, Janine, and I were in film school together in Boston, and Irene and Stefan came for a weekend. Janine invited me and another friend from film school to meet them at an outdoor picnic. That was my first meeting, and my first impression was, "These are major people." Both of them, Irene Fay and her husband Stefan, were ... They were the kind of people that, when they walked in the room, they got everybody's attention.

Craig D'Arville: How did a longer-term relationship spring from that initial introduction around 1970?

Vance Stevens: Well, I got a job teaching at Jersey City State College, which is right across the river from New York City. Irene and Stefan invited me over for dinner and Irene started showing me some of her photographs, which I found very interesting. I was running the art gallery at the college. She showed me her quilt collection along with her photographs. I thought it would be really interesting to do an exhibit combining the two.

At first, she thought, "No, just a quilt show. I don't want to go public with my photographs." But I convinced Irene that it would be interesting because a lot of the photographs that we chose were photographs of the Catskills, where she accumulated this quilt collection at farm auctions.

Then a good friend, Herb Rosenberg, who was teaching photography at the college, thought it would be interesting to involve Irene in a program he’d devised which paired students of photography with established photographers. I asked Irene if she would like to do that, and she said Yes. She took on one student each semester to work with her in her darkroom. Irene was a wonderful teacher, but not in the conventional sense of teaching. She didn't say, "Now this is the way you should do this and this. Do it this way." Instead, I think she informed people. It was a “show don't tell” kind of situation. She could have a big influence on people in a very subtle way.

"House with Three Saplings", 1971, by Irene Fay"House with Three Saplings", 1971

And also, the other thing that happened was Stefan was building houses up in the Catskills, up in the country, near their farm. He showed me one, one weekend when I was up there. I thought, "I want one of those." I purchased this little house from Stefan and became their neighbour in the country as well as their neighbour in the city. It just all slowly fit together.

Craig D'Arville: You were instrumental in helping Irene secure representation by an art dealer. Was that next step connected to the exhibition that you helped arrange for her?

Vance Stevens: I submitted some of Irene’s work to the Jersey City Museum, where my friend Cynthia Sanford was the curator. It might've been after that, that I suggested to Irene, "Let's get a gallery. Let's see what happens.” She put together a portfolio of photographs and I must've made an appointment at the Witkin Gallery, or maybe I just walked in, and showed them Irene’s photographs. The gallery immediately wanted to represent her.

Craig D'Arville: What was Irene's reaction to that?

Vance Stevens: Well, it was odd because in a way she was this worldly, experienced, elegant, European-American woman who was not shy at all, but when it came to her photography, she was a little bit hesitant about putting it out there. She would often make miniature copies of her photographs and glue them to note cards and she'd send a little personal note to people, which people loved. I still have several of them.

"Untitled" (Deer in the snow), c. 1967, by Irene Fay"Untitled" (Deer in the snow), c. 1967

It was odd because her original activity in photography was portrait photography. Maybe she thought of herself as more of a commercial photographer. Even though Lisette Model, and Diane Arbus, and André Kertész … all of them encouraged her and valued her photography -- thought it was wonderful -- but she was still a little shy about showing it.

Craig D'Arville: Was she one to carry a camera with her when she was out in the world, or was there an intentionality behind her photo-making?

Vance Stevens: Well, when she was in the city, she photographed a lot of what was in their house, but in the country, she'd go out with a camera and wait for something to catch her eye, or the light. I don't think she went out with exactly an intention, knowing what she was going to come back with. I would say she went out with a camera more in the country than in the city.

"Sheet on Line with Man Mowing Lawn", c. 1978, by Irene Fay"Sheet on Line with Man Mowing Lawn", c. 1978

Craig D’Arville: Let’s circle back to exploring Irene’s representation through Witkin Gallery. Do you have any recollections of how that relationship between dealer and artist functioned?

Vance Stevens: I think it was a good relationship. Eventually Irene moved from Witkin to Neikrug Gallery, uptown. I think she left it up to the dealers to decide what they would do with her photographs, and what kind of shows she'd be included in, and was happy to go along with things.

Craig D'Arville: Do you know if Irene was the sort of artist who invited feedback from her dealers, or did she set her own agenda?

Vance Stevens: Irene liked to invite people to her apartment for afternoon tea. She was very big on afternoon tea. You'd go there… it was very European, very Old World. It was wonderful. Then she would bring out whatever she wanted to show. I would imagine she would invite them, maybe, back to her studio where she did the work.

Daybook from a Kitchen Drawer, by Irene Fay

Craig D’Arville: Was this the setting where you began to help Irene put together her book, Daybook from a Kitchen Drawer? (copies can be found on ABE Books)

Vance Stevens: Yes. And I was just thinking that the way Irene arranged things in her apartment was very, basically, white Bauhaus spaces, but she would fill them with one or two really impressive antiques. She had Harriet Beecher Stowe's couch – this great big, dark red velvet, tufted couch – which was quite spectacular. On the other side of the room, she had a Swiss antique cabinet that she used as a bar, but everything else in the room was very modern, very clean.

The way she hung pictures was very sparse so that you would only look at that picture. There was nothing distracting your eye. I thought the way that she decorated both the farmhouse and her apartment was the same way the book was done, with a lot of white space around each photograph and nothing visually competing with the photograph.

Even the text on the opposite page of each image, it was a typeface that was very simple and a little bit on the light side, so that the photograph really took up your attention.

The way it began… Stefan wanted to encourage Irene’s photography and get her involved in something that she really cared about. He asked me if I would create three books, one for each daughter, and one for them to have. I made these handmade, red-covered, hard-bound albums. The book came out of that project. 

"Nude Under Willow Branches", 1982, by Irene Fay"Nude Under Willow Branches", 1982

Craig D'Arville: Earlier you mentioned some legendary photographers who were in Irene’s circle: Lisette Model, Diane Arbus, and André Kertész. What was Irene’s connection to them?

Vance Stevens: Together they were all members of the New York Camera Club, and I think they influenced each other. Irene didn't go out searching in strange places for subjects. She started out shooting stuff in her apartment having to do with food or flowers. The same thing in the country; whoever was there, she'd come out with her camera and arrange them. She had a very specific eye. I also remember her taking photographs of people when they weren't aware that she was nearby.

Craig D'Arville: Could that be Irene’s background as a professional portrait photographer asserting itself?

Vance Stevens: Well, when Irene went to Switzerland, and also when she came to New York, Irene earned money making portraits. I know she met Diane Arbus in Washington Square because they had children the same age. They would take their kids to the park and they got to know each other. That could have been the connection to the New York Camera Club, and other people that she got to know, and caused her to start thinking of herself more as a fine art photographer.

"Sky Lights", 1985, by Irene Fay"Sky Lights", 1985

Craig D'Arville: Does the New York Camera Club become a significant influence on how Irene made photographs in those last two decades of her life?

Vance Stevens: I think so. I don’t know how factual that is, but I recognized that the club had an influence on Irene’s process. But the foundation was set from her time working with Gotthard Schuh, especially regarding her darkroom techniques.

Craig D'Arville: Last question: What do you think people should keep in mind when looking at Irene’s pictures?

Vance Stevens: I think two things. One would be going back to that earlier idea about “show don't tell” – not that Irene intended that in a conscious way, I don't think. But directing people's eye to a certain thing in a certain light, in a certain composition, follows that way Irene had of subtly influencing people. Then that business about creating this little world that was her own private domain, that could give her a feeling of permanence; something that couldn't be taken away from her.


Order one of Irene Fay's photographs

Read our biography - Irene Fay: The Diamonds are in the Enlarger

Read Irene Fay: In Her Own Words

Read about preparing the archive for FFOTO in Cataloguing the Collection