Willing To Be Lucky
Ambitious New Yorkers in the Pages of LOOK Magazine
Museum of the City of New York
Curators: Donald Albrecht - Thomas Mellins
October 21, 2006 - January 3, 2007
An exhibition of some 130 photographs portraying dreamers, achievers, self-promoters, and other climbers for whom New York City proved to be transformative will be on view at the Museum of the City of New York. Willing To Be Lucky: Ambitious New Yorkers in the Pages of LOOK Magazine will document many of the city’s celebrated personalities—actor Zero Mostel, Stork Club impresario Sherman Billingsley, and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt in wedding preparations, among many others. It will also celebrate the anonymous strivers in LOOK who contributed to the city’s vibrancy although they never achieved fame. The exhibition takes its title from an essay by E.B. White, “Here Is New York,” first published in The New Yorker in 1949. “No one should come to New York to live,” White asserted “unless he is willing to be lucky.”
Susan Henshaw Jones, President and Director of the Museum, commented: “New York is a city of archetypes; in White’s words: ‘the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader, and the merchant.’ The LOOK images are engaging because the subjects are colorful and often humorous, but they are compelling because we identify with the hunger for recognition.”
New Yorkers are united by ambition. Dreamers, many of whom could only be happy in New York, have used the city as a stage from which to project their careers. During the middle decades of the 20th century, many such characters were photographed by LOOK staff photographers, and their stories were revealed in the pages of this widely read and influential magazine, which was largely pictorial. Collaborating with LOOK’s editors, art directors, and photographers, these hopefuls strutted, cavorted, and preened their way across the magazine’s pages. They projected their identities through carefully orchestrated poses, clothing, objects, and settings. Those already famous perfected their personae while others struggled for attention by performing off-beat jobs. These figures included, among many others, a flame eater who performed at the Waldorf-Astoria; a statuesque woman posing above the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street for a monumental billboard advertising Peter Pan bras; competing ballroom dancers; Rosemary Williams, a young woman captured by Stanley Kubrick in stills as she transformed herself into a showgirl. As portrayed in LOOK, New York was a city of winners, yet some of the photographs reveal the darker side of ambition and the cost of failure.
The LOOK Magazine photographs, donated by Cowles Magazines beginning in the 1950s, are a pillar of the Museum’s permanent collection. Totaling more than 200,000 negatives, contact sheets, and prints, the collection is an extraordinary record of New York and New Yorkers between 1938 and 1961, documenting not only the ever-changing city, but also projecting its image nationally during these tumultuous years. Willing to Be Lucky features the work of many LOOK staff photographers, none perhaps more notable than the teenage Stanley Kubrick, who would later become a film director of international renown. His visually and psychologically sophisticated photographs of aspiring showgirls and boxers form the centerpiece of the exhibition. White’s premise is evoked poignantly in Kubrick’s series of photographs portraying a day in the life of Rocky Graziano, boxing’s struggling middleweight champion in the late 1940s; Graziano later turned to show business, finding fame in his amusing use of the English language. Kubrick’s photographs of another boxer, Walter Cartier (dubbed the Prizefighter of Greenwich Village) are also on view in the exhibition; not incidentally, Cartier was the subject of Kubrick’s first film.
Willing to Be Lucky: Ambitious New Yorkers in the Pages of LOOK Magazine has been supported by the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Family Foundation.
The exhibition is organized by Museum of the City of New York curators Donald Albrecht and Thomas Mellins. The exhibition is designed by Pure+Applied.