In the summer of 2011, when New York native Victoria Cohen heard that the Hotel Chelsea was being sold and would be undergoing extensive renovations, she “felt many emotions,” she writes in her debut photo book, the beautiful, deluxe, oversize Hotel Chelsea (Pointed Leaf Press, August 2013, $95). “First and foremost, as an artist, I was angry and sad that an institution such as the Chelsea would have this fate. . . . It just didn’t seem possible — at least to me — that a place with such an extraordinary history, and where so many of the greatest literary minds, visual artists, musicians, and eccentrics of the twentieth century have called home for over a hundred years, could be torn apart.” So Cohen set out to capture the heart and soul of the hotel that had helped give birth to seminal works by Jack Kerouac, Arthur C. Clarke, Leonard Cohen, William S. Burroughs, Larry Rivers, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and so many others. For three weeks, Cohen shot what she calls “portraits” of the hotel’s guest rooms, rooftop, and hallways, although no humans are ever seen.
Instead, it is as if ghosts and spirits inhabit Cohen’s pictures, taken with a handheld camera using only natural light. More than two dozen are on view at Third Streaming in SoHo through October 25, wonderfully arranged by curator Michael Steinberg and Cohen. A mop and bucket, seemingly timeless, stand by themselves in a corner. An old piano looks like it might not have been played in years. Brick walls in disrepair on the roof hint at some bad times gone by. But the real mysteries of the Hotel Chelsea, which was recently sold to luxury hotel developer King & Grove, can be found in Cohen’s marvelously composed shots of the guest rooms, each one unique and different, from the dark couch in “Room 632” to the two bright-red chairs in “Eighth Floor South,” from the card table in “Fifth Floor South” to the mini-fridge and coffee paraphernalia against green wallpaper in “Room 203.” One series of photos zeroes in on made beds, while another focuses on rooms with two windows, adding a compelling geometric element to the works. One of the most striking images is “Room 1024,” the camera placed just in front of the entrance to a sparkling living room with chairs that seem to be inviting the viewer to take a seat. In each of these photos, Cohen also invites the viewer to create their own narrative about the past, present, and future, and it’s almost impossible not to.