From New York with Love
At its best,
Montevideo can't really make up to other cities. Neighbouring towns like Buenos Aires are so full of culture, artistic expression and opportunities in development - in a personal and artistic level, that makes us look small and wretched. And considering it's only an hour-long distance from Montevideo, I'm going to say it's our nonchalance what's causing this mess. It's a big flaw, and it's completely our fault, for neglecting the lack we live in, just complaining and doing nothing.
It is a sunny October afternoon and I find myself sitting in front of my desk, with a blank stare fixed at my computer screen. Here I am: a writer at large working for an arts magazine who has been given the responsibility to write the main article for the upcoming issue; still, I have no clue what to write about. Nothing seems to happen in this town, nothing seems to fulfill me; and in spite of having sworn not to, I always find myself coming back to the subjects I promised to destroy. And now, as I am lying helpless, shuffling along in desperation and looking for something interesting to happen somewhere, it looks like my prays have been listened by something or someone much greater than me.
It is a sunny October afternoon, and this is how this story begins.
I can't talk much; I am nervous as shit. I mean, I've interviewed a sizeable amount of people, but never something like this. I look like a groupie; it all seems unrealistic to me. We're in DBD, and in the inside of the bookstore something seems off. Even if I count myself and Lucía as professional journalists (we are not) two is still a low number if you consider who these guys are and what they have done. A big sign announces their arrival at the city, thanks to Virginia Robinson, The Bohemian Gallery, and the John H. Robinson Foundation. The event we're here today for is the signing of their latest publication; a catalogue that goes under the name of "Mistaken Identity". The Hilton Brothers are in town, and they're not going to stop until they've squeezed all the juice out of it.
As they arrive at the bookstore, they're immediately intercepted by a group of journalists. I am tense and eager, and the fear of fucking it all up spikes every thought that crosses my head with calmed desperation. After about eight minutes, it's time to get myself together. The small group of journalists have just finished recording a terribly bad interview with really poor English (a journalist who doesn't speak English should not -ever- be allowed to interview Anglophones) so that means it's my turn.
I am about to have a nervous breakdown; I am in the spotlight now. There is a camera pointing at my direction (the one the other journalists were just using) and everyone seems to be listening to my words. I mumble incoherently for a second and babble a few words before I can get my shit together and act like a real journalist; so in a rush of blood to my head I hysterically toss my first question. From this point on, it's all pretty much downhill. But let's hold for a second here as I try to explain you what the hell I am talking about.
"The Hilton Brothers" is the artistic identity of Christopher Makos and Paul Solberg; a dynamic and talented duo of photographers who have been working together since 2004. Their name has a tinge of irony, because it can be related both to the Hilton Sisters (the 1930s Vaudeville Siamese stars), or to Paris and Nicky Hilton (heirs of the Hilton fortune). Whether it's the vaudeville stars or the dumb-fuck alcoholic blondes, it's certain that their name toys around with the concept of identity they talk so much about.
Sometimes mistaken for a book, "Mistaken Identity" is actually a catalogue that documents an exhibition with that same name, and encapsulates the first four years of their collaborative work as The Hilton Brothers. That is the reason why they're in this city to begin with. Ironic, appealing, and full of liveliness and visual vigor, "Mistaken Identity" is a delightful show composed by Makos' and Solberg's purest expression of true everyday collaboration. But it's hard to imagine a piece of work as vast being pulled off by a duo. Most people can't work in a group without getting their egos in the middle, splattering and polluting everything with selfishness. Unsurprisingly, their case is quite different.
In my career I never went after money, I always went after achievement and personal success. With achievement and personal success, money comes. - Christopher Makos
Considering they began shooting as a duo when they were traveling through foreign, exotic locations; it's easy to realize that living and experiencing all these different cultures was a key element regarding the birth of their ideas about identity. Chris stated that traveling truly has an impact on human perspective, and it's when you get to visit all these different cultures -and see the way people dress and live- that you realize how different everybody is. "We go to China a lot" he says "and they have all these Shopping Malls just like this we're in. It looks very western, but it's really a stage setting; it's just like the theater. The Chinese people wear western clothes and have all these things that makes them look like they're American, but deep down they are still Chinese."
As the world gets more and more globalized, culture is starting to homogenize. All around the world -from Peru to Nepal- local cultures are being washed out by the standard western idiosyncrasy. "They have a very different cultural feeling," he adds, "the way they look at things, the way they touch things, the way they see things; it's so far away from the western culture. That is why when you go there as a Western, and see all these inherently North American elements, you actually mistake their identity. It may look western but it's not. They are Chinese people in a setting of a western culture."
Anyone sensitive enough can actually see the importance of traveling in the Hilton Brothers' work and development. Traveling does not only give you the opportunity to experience different environments and cultural diversity, it also gives you the chance to re-invent and re-consider stereotypes you've grown with. Paul has an interesting view about it, as he says that "traveling makes you realize that "the more you know, the more you don't know". That saying is true. The broader your world becomes, the less you know about it. Everything gets dismantled from traveling."
But what might be hidden -or at least camouflaged- behind every piece of work the Hiltons display, is the personal style each photographer has developed through the years. Both Chris and Paul have unique and incredible parallel projects, independently to their collaborative work as the Hilton Brothers.
Christopher Makos has been developing his photography for over 40 years, and is a true reference to the scene. He was born in 1948 in Lowell, Massachusetts and grew up in El Monte, California; only to move to New York after he finished high school. He assisted Tennessee Williams for a while, before relocating to Paris to study architecture. It was there when he became the apprentice of the prolific and hugely talented photographer Man Ray (later referred to as his "original mentor").
In an interview by Julian Bain (called "A Moment with Christopher Makos"), Chris expressed that "he (Man Ray) always used to tell me 'Don't edit while you work', and that is one thing I use to this day". Ray's influences on Makos' work are subtle but strong; and I believe his experience translated into his life as much as it did to his work.
When he was 23 years old he met Andy Warhol at one of his expositions, and a year later he was hired by "Interview" Magazine; working on a regular double-page spread by the name "IN". Although Chris' jump onto the photography scene didn't happen until the publishing of his 1977 book called "White Trash"; he had been working extensively with Andy Warhol, introducing him onto photography (he taught Andy how to use his first camera) and later making him aware of both Jean-Michel Basquiat's and Keith Haring's work.
His latest book -"Lady Warhol"- features over 120 portraits of Andy Warhol wearing various wigs and make up; a collection of images from the 1981 two-day photoshoot Makos and Warhol conceived as an homage to the 1921 collaboration between Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp (from which Duchamp's "Rrose Sélavy" pseudonym emerged).
Chris conceives New York City as the place that changed him as an artist and as a human being. In his own words, "if you go to New York City -no matter where you come from- that's the place where you're reborn; it's the most wonderful place in the world. It is a fascinating city full of fascinating people."
His humanistic points of view are splattered around his whole persona; the way he sees, moves, and talks. Chris looks like an eternal child, full of curiosity and eagerness. He's anxious and enthusiastic, and never really stops moving. He orbits around with a cheerful and astonishing energy, like a never-aging kid with a constant sugar rush. Even now that he's entered his sixties, Chris' energy and inspiration remains intact, just like when he was 22. His constant artistic drive will never fade, and his contribution to the Hilton Brothers is a perfect proof of that.
Twenty years younger than Chris, Paul Solberg didn't develop a photographic career until he met him seven years ago. He was born in 1969, in St. Paul, Minnesota, and later became an anthropologist (thing that eventually led him to visit Uruguay a bunch of years ago). In spite of having a much shorter career, he does not lack the energy or the creative drive, and he seems determined to never stop doing what he loves. Paul's first book -called "Bloom"- explores the true nature behind flowers, and approaches this often visited subject from a different perspective: as pure and truthful portraits. With the flowers set against solid backgrounds, every shot emphasizes not only the beauty of these blossoming living creatures, but also the space created around them.
He is much calmer than Chris, in the sense that he does not move around constantly like he's on Red Bull or something. But behind his glasses, deep inside his eyes, you can see the energy that runs through his soul; a spark that shines upon everything and everyone.
Decided to know more about their interaction, I ask Paul about how their personal styles changed and evolved since they started working together, and how he thinks they have influenced each other's work.
"Chris has an long established career, while I have a relatively new career - of under ten years" he replies. "It is a very interesting process to bring two people together at different stages of their careers and find and discover there is something very egalitarian. Creativity has no hierarchy".
Through the years they have discovered similarities and differences in their work, but as Paul puts it, it's the constant discovery and re-discovery what makes collaboration a great thing. "That is why people collaborate," he explains. They're both linked by a verbally undefinable language; a language composed solely by images, vivid visual expressions of what cannot be displayed. It's the language of their collaboration -of their relationship and their friendship- what makes their work so rich, fulfilling and interesting.
I am twenty and I don't know. I mean, most people my age believe they've got it all figured out, as if it's written somewhere and you can learn it. As Sartre used to say, "Everything in life has been figured out except how to live," and I think that's mainly why our generation is getting so shallow and juvenile. We focus on the impossible. We're not trying to answer a question; we're trying to solve an existential angst. We drown ourselves under assumptions of what it is supposed to be and how it should work, but, really, what do we know? It is when you stop caring about it that you can actually breathe easy for the first time. And being twenty years older than me, I think Chris already went through that same path.
In a momentous display of tenderness and caring, Chris addressed us from the heart of his life experience. It is not his professional career what we're talking about now. The three of us are about to engage in a forty-minute conversation, with its subject ranging from New York City and the North American culture, to Chris' most sentient love advices. And at the end that is what really matters.
"You have to become who you are because of yourself; somebody else cannot make you whole. If you think that the person you care about and you love is the person that's going to fulfill you and make you who you are, you're just lying to yourself. You have to really be in love with yourself and know who you are before you're able to really love somebody else. As humans, we're predisposed to love, but you need to realize that you have to live your life before you give it to somebody else. Oh, and last but not least: if you have to get married, just wait until you're thirty or forty. Part of knowing yourself is to know other people."
As I'm walking away from the Mall, I feel an inevitable sense of victory over the forces of evil, as I've beaten the monster responsible for my horrible writer's block. Little do I know, that this meaningful course of events is not even near to be done yet. As I walk under the dimmed city lights I can't help but wonder how this is all going to evolve.
Now, more than thirty days later, I can look back on my steps and realize how wonderful everything went. From the moment we met Chris and Paul they immediately felt attracted by our energy and our drive; making us feel like a strong team. Both Lucía and I still can't process the way things happened and how meaningful the experience was.
From an exhibition premiere at the Santos Palace on Tuesday, to a private dinner party with the Mayor, the Hilton Brothers were never afraid of opening their arms and welcoming us into their lives. For a week they did everything to make us feel comfortable, and to really show us who they really are. They took the time and the energy to show themselves real; to show themselves alive.
Hours after Chris and Paul boarded their flight to Argentina, I began to think about the true trail of energy and love they left behind as they walked by. Not only they left us with a beautiful exposition, but with a Ménage à Trois in between themselves, their work, and this city; a true Love Affair.
Recalling the experience; it was true magic. In a week I learnt more about taking pictures and collaboration, than in the two entire years I spent studying photography. In a week I learnt more about life and about this city and its people, than in my short twenty years of life.
In a week I learnt to really love what I do, and to take recognition for it and be proud, and I learnt the fine art of true, inspiring and pure everyday collaboration.
It is a sunny November afternoon -the 19th, to be precise- and I find myself sitting in front of the same desk where this story began. Today, more than a month later, I find myself -again- staring at my computer screen, only this time my eyes are not lost in the vacuum of my own inadequacy; this time they're fixed on an experience that changed the perception I've got about this town, its people, and the true power of human energy.
It is a sunny November afternoon, and this is how this story ends.
— Article by Santiago Decarlini // Photography by Lucía Ferrei, AKA International Photography