Co.Design

A Rare Glimpse Of William Burroughs's Belongings

New York photog Peter Ross captures the legacy of a leading postwar subversive in photos shot like a (very non-subversive) Sears ad.

Last year, Brooklyn photographer Peter Ross got rare access to something every 16-year-old kid who writes bad poetry and quotes generously from Naked Lunch would kill for: William S. Burroughs’s old pied-à-terre in New York City.

A former YMCA locker room on Bowery, which Burroughs affectionately called the Bunker, the place had been left largely untouched since the writer’s death in 1997 (save the occasional Buddhist happening). So Ross, who’d befriended the apartment’s keeper, the poet John Giorno, swooped in with a digital Canon 5G and started snapping pictures of Burroughs’s junk. Uh, his other junk.

"I found things in the apartment that really grabbed me, set up on the kitchen table, and photographed them," Ross tells Co.Design. "I was looking for interesting features. Like I found a pair of shoes on the floor and turned them over and saw big holes in the soles and knew that’s what I wanted to photograph."

The images — on view at the Conde Nast building until Monday — train on everything from a rusty pistol and a tattered copy of The Medical Implications of Karate Blows to one of Burroughs’s signature homburgs and, yeah, his holey (but dapper) shoes. It’s a creepy collection of stuff (the pistol in particular, since Burroughs, you might recall, shot and killed his wife playing William Tell).

Ross makes the objects even creepier by zapping them against a crisp white backdrop. The effect is to strip the pictures of any context — of any signs of the strange, mythological man behind them. If we didn’t know better, we’d say Ross had on his hands the personal accoutrements of Gay Talese, had Talese turned into a raging survivalist. "The Bunker is legendary, and it's already been photographed a lot, especially in the ’70s, when people like Mick Jagger [and others] flocked to it," Ross says, explaining why he shot the images the way he did. "So I wanted to give them a commercial feel, almost like a Sears catalog. It’s a timeless look at a different era."

It’s also kinda brilliant. Burroughs was not a genius writer. He had a lot of ideas, though, and he did a lot of drugs and managed to make homosexuality cool at a time when it was terribly uncool. He was a walking advertisement for the Subversive. That Ross would turn around and make him a walking advertisement for the Normal — a Sears catalog! — speaks volumes about how far the country has traveled in just a few decades.

Ross's photographs come in a limited edition of 20 and cost $950 each. Buy a print through Caviar20 here.

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