Interview: Artist Fiona Gardner on “Meet Miss Subways”

10/19/2012 11:16 AM |

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  • MTA/Transit Museum

Photographer Fiona Gardner is meticulous. Her current project, “Meet Miss Subways” took her over five years to complete, culminating in a series of portraits, interviews, and archival material of 41 former “Miss Subways”. Those lucky ladies participated in the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Miss Subways beauty pageant, which ran between 1941 and 1976. Now, that project will be on view as an exhibition, and book, opening October 23rd at the Transit Museum. We chatted with her over the phone about all the detective work that went into forming such a comprehensive snapshot of the aging starlet, and how it all began with a diner in Midtown.

How did you find all the posters and archival information? It’s a lot of detective work, right? Did you go out to libraries or did you do a lot of this online?

I was able to find some things online; the biggest resource I had online was Lexis-Nexis. Some people think the entire world is available online, but it’s not.

I had Ellen’s Diner, so I was able to use that as a starting point.

Ellen’s Diner?

It’s run by a former Miss Subways.

When was the first time you went to Ellen’s Diner?

In 2004, there was a revival of the contest by the New York Post in a silly manner of campaign. I think generally, it lacked part of the glamour of the previous contests. That’s initially how I found out about it, because I saw the posters on the subway and I thought, “Well, this is really weird.”

Then I found out there was this historical contest and it was a really big deal in New York, but I filed it away in the back of my head. Then, I started working at The New York Times, and The Times is in Midtown, so it [Ellen’s Diner] wasn’t that far away. So, I went and visited the diner and wandered around looking at all these posters and was immediately struck by them. I thought, “What happened to all these women? What were their lives like after this, you know?”

And that’s what had initially launched the project was that I had done a portfolio the last day of December 2007 [for The New York Times]. It had photos, posters, and short interviews, but I had it in the back of my mind to do a larger book project.

It sounds like a huge help, but also increased visibility about your project as well, leading up to it. I’m sure that helped out your Kickstarter campaign.

Social media has actually helped a lot. As I would find peoples’ posters, I would put them on Facebook. Some of the original Miss Subways aren’t on Facebook, but they might have friends, children, all these people who would know them on Facebook. So, I started building the project off the Internet.

About Kickstarter, how I ran a successful campaign really had to do with how I used social media for “Meet Miss Subways”. I had never run a Kickstarter campaign, you know. I had the Facebook page that I had created, I had been in touch with all of these women who had been in Miss Subways, and then, well, anytime I found an obituary that had mentioned Miss Subways, I contacted people mentioned and would track down the poster, the relatives, too. All these people became involved, and that’s really how I ran a successful campaign for raising money for the project.

So you guys are installing this week? What’s going in the show?

The show itself is basically photographs and the book that has photographs and also first-person interviews by friend Amy Zimmer who’s a journalist. She’s my collaborator on this project. So, the book has that and also all the ephemera and posters.

How did you convince Amy Zimmer to do the project? Were you guys friends?

Actually, Amy was an acquaintance of my ex-boyfriend. He’s one of those people that’s very good at matching people up on projects, a “work matchmaker”. Then I saw her, actually, at a party, and just went up to her and talked to her. As it turns out, she had actually written an article about “Ms. Subways”. And she’s an “old New Yorker”, too.

It just made sense to work together. But the great thing is, we still really get along.

When did you decide you needed a collaborator, with Amy Zimmer?

Amy did all of the interviews. I just had the idea for this project, but I knew I wanted to work with a journalist, too, so that it wasn’t just a photography project; I wanted to tell their stories as well because it’s integral to the whole thing and I’m not a journalist. It would be a richer project in the end.

But it’s really the first time I’ve worked in that way, and “Meet Miss Subways” has been really fun and I’ve stretched myself as an artist; I had to change my practice in a lot of ways. Before that, I wouldn’t say the things I’ve done were that different. When I was an MFA student at Columbia, I photographed all these women who swim around as mermaids in Florida at a roadside attraction called Weeki Wachee.

So how many people did you end up finding out of the 41 portraits that will be on view in the book?

Overall, I’ve been in contact with about fifty women. But for various reasons not everyone’s in the book. Health problems, location, all sorts of things.

And most of these women, do they still live in New York? Are they still life-long New Yorkers?

There are a few die-hard New Yorkers. There’s a handful of them, but in all honesty, they grew up in New York during the whole urban flight pattern. It was a pattern of immigrants coming to the city and working class people competing, and the idea was you go out to Long Island and you buy a house, you don’t stay there. You leave the city to find more space.

How did you guys end up at the Transit Museum? And how is that different from shows you’ve put on at a gallery or a museum?

That was actually my idea; I didn’t really know anyone there, but about five years ago I just basically showed up. And at this point, the Transit Museum I know very well. It was a no-brainer to me, that that’s where it should be. Basically, I felt like this project was part of New York Transit history.

Will the Miss Subways be at the exhibition?

Well, there’s going to be a book launch at Ellen’s Diner in the late afternoon and the Transit Museum opening in the evening. I can’t confirm this, but they’re trying to get vintage MTA buses to pick up all the ladies at the diner and drive everyone to the Transit Museum.

I hear from these people all on a regular basis.

It sounds like you’re still in contact with a lot of them. Is it just email?

Oh, no, they call me up! I mean, Enid Berkowitz is really great. She’s in her 80s now, even though you would never know that. And you know sometimes they call asking to meet up to have lunch.

Did you have a favorite Miss Subways?

That’s such a hard question. There’s really a lot of great women who have come out of the project. I feel like a lot of these people will be in my life for a long time.