Q&A With Interview Magazine

The following interview with Evelyn Lauder appeared in the November 2005 issue of Interview magazine. All text is © Interview magazine, and it is reproduced here with permission.

THE WOMEN Portfolio by Evelyn Lauder

Ingrid Sischy: Let’s go back to the very beginning when Evelyn Lauder was a little girl.

Evelyn Lauder: Well, I was born in Vienna. My family escaped from the annexation of Austria by Germany shortly after Hitler marched in. We got captured at the border. We were sent back. They wanted me to go on the Kindertransport. My mother wouldn’t let me separate from her. My father said to our captor: “Take the silver and look after it for me,” and that got us our exit visas. And we made it out of that part of the world; then we lived in Belgium, then in England. That’s where I learned to speak English. In England I was separated from my parents because my mother, being an Austrian citizen, was confined to the Isle of Man, where they put all the so-called “belligerents”—citizens of the “belligerent” countries. My father couldn’t take care of me that well; he was busy getting our papers, so he put me in a nursery. The separation was an enormous trauma.

IS: How long was it for?

EL: I don’t remember. I read a book recently about those who went to the Isle of Man; some of them were kept there for the duration of the war—but not with us. They let my mother out. We went on a convoy of three ships that traveled to the United States. The first ship hit a mine, and we took on the survivors. There was a lady who slept in our room with us. When we arrived in New York my mother woke me up really early in the morning to see the Statue of Liberty. That’s a sight that I’ll remember for my life. After that I grew up in New York.

IS: And what about photography? When was the first time you took pictures?

EL: When my children were born. Photography didn’t become an avocation until we were building the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and I was very involved in the décor. I wanted there to be spiritual images for people to look at—-because there were no windows to look out of I felt that there should be some visual horizons. Even if you think you are well and just going for a mammogram, it is still a very anxious time. I wanted to have images for people to look at that would calm them. So after I harnessed all the photographs that I had taken, I realized I didn’t have enough, so I invited other photographers to join me in donating images to the center. Whenever I saw a beautiful image in a magazine, we would contact the photographer. Elizabeth Kujawski was my curator at the time, and she’d be very careful to return the transparencies to the photographers after they’d permitted us to make prints for the center. Altogether we had about 55 other photographers who joined me in the project, which involved around 700 or 800 images. It was through that project that I got my first show at the Holly Solomon Gallery. Solomon donated her space for two weeks, and the pictures sold beautifully. While the show was up, Paul Gottlieb from Harry N. Abrams, Inc. came over and decided to do a book.

IS: All the proceeds from your pictures go to the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center, right?

EL: At that time they went to the Breast Center. That was the first effort. And then in l993 we started The Breast Cancer Research Foundation. The creative juices had gotten flowing.

IS: Since then, between all the shows you’ve had and the books you’ve done, you’ve raised a significant amount for the Foundation.

EL: Over a million dollars, all told.

IS: And now in the name of the same cause you’ve got a surprise coming with your next show at Pace/MacGill in New York from November 8-12. As people will see this time, in addition to your usual subjects, you’ve also been doing figurative photography. Tell me, what are the ladies you’ve been shooting made out of?

EL: Some of them are bisque, and some of them are porcelain. But they’re all ceramic. The difference between bisque and porcelain is that bisque is unglazed, and you get a matte finish. With porcelain there’s a glaze on it. I have one umbrella girl whose face is bisque and whose hair and clothes are glazed. She’s a combination of techniques.

IS: How tall are they?

EL: They average in size from three or four inches to no more than six. They are small-scale objects.

IS: Up until the ladies, your photography subjects have mostly been nature, landscapes, and abstractions, right?

EL: Yes, they are a complete departure from where I had been coming from before. Creatively, I needed to do this because I thought that they were so interesting, so amusing.

IS: And so connected to the history of how American women have been represented, and how they have been taught to present themselves.

EL: It’s a completely different vernacular from today—the women are dressed in hats and gloves and earrings and a lot of makeup. They are about something that existed in this culture in the middle of the 20th century. Originally conceived of as decorative objects that would hold flowers, these vases reflect the creator’s attitude towards women. The person who created these molds must have had a certain image himself—or herself—of what women were like. There is submissiveness, coyness, femininity, and in one case there is a forlorn expression on the face of the vase. You can create a story when you look at the face of each of these objects. Each person can make up their own story out of what it is that these women are doing, saying, and thinking.

IS: They’re definitely part of the history of a certain color and class of American women. Tell me about you and the subject of women and beauty. How long has this been part of your terrain?

EL: All my married life. When I married Leonard Lauder he wasn’t the Leonard Lauder that you know today. And Estée wasn’t the Estée you remember of yesterday. The company was small. People had not heard of Estée Lauder. They’d heard of Sir Harry Lauder, the music hall star. We were in the trenches. The company, Estée Lauder, didn’t start expanding until the beginning of the 60’s.

IS: And the brand hasn’t done badly since them, has it?

EL: No, we’ve grown haven’t we.

IS: (laughs) A little bit, don’t you think? And with all that experience you also have such perspective on the history of images of women. The ladies who you’ve been photographing lately refer to that history and also to your own story, right?

EL: Yes. These figures sort of connect to it all because of the makeup, the expressions, the mascara, the nails, the hairdos. They talked to me the minute I saw them. I connected with them immediately.

IS: I bet. When we look at them now we bring a kind of tongue-in-cheek attitude.

EL: Yes, they’re a bit over the top. I guess because the person who created them idealized them in a way that was probably hard for most women to live up to. In those days everybody dressed more than we do today. Now everybody looks as though they are about to go on the tennis court. Back then it was very formulaic. Everybody had their hair the same length. Their hemlines were the same length. They wouldn’t dare wear slacks.

IS: Do you prefer it now or then?

EL: Oh, now, please! I mean, we have short hair, we have long hair, we have straight hair, we have curly hair. We have slacks, we have jeans. We have skirts that are short, skirts that are long, high heels, flats, sneakers, whatever. I mean there’s a freedom today that is so refreshing and individualized, which allows us to be who we are and who we want to be.

IS: And your ladies are testimony to how far we’ve come.