When Tom Taylor offered photographer Shannon Greer the opportunity to shoot at the former Ockawamick High School in Claverack, just minutes outside of Hudson, he jumped at the opportunity.
It was in early May 2020, just months following the start of a global pandemic that forced the world into lockdown, and the school proved to be the perfect place to shoot a selection of photographs imbued with themes of isolation and separation.
“The feeling of abandonment was pervasive, and it seemed to echo the abandoned spaces due to Covid at the time,” Greer said. The school, originally built in 1952, had once been teeming with students and faculty, but that came to an end in 1999, when two school districts merged and the students were bused off to another campus. The building has stood largely unoccupied since then. Few are ever granted the privilege of stepping foot inside.
Taylor, however, had been going inside regularly and curating a sizable collection of art, functional objects, and furniture within the school’s classrooms, offices, and gymnasium. He had done so at the behest of the property’s then-owner, the prolific New York City interior designer, art and antique collector, and rescuer of distressed properties, Eleanor Ambos.
When Ambos needed a place to store the possessions she had amassed during a lifelong career spent acquiring, repairing, and renting art and antiques, she purchased the old Ockawamick School on a whim in 2014. She tasked her friend Tom Taylor, himself a visual artist, set decorator, and interior designer of some repute, with not just acting as steward of this collection, but curating it within the school’s dozens of rooms. Nearly the entirety of the building’s 78,000 square feet quickly became home to the thousands of paintings, sculptures, and object d’art, not to mention as many chairs, hats, lampshades, periodicals, and, as Taylor tells it, “2,500 cell phones from the 90s,” almost all of which personally belonged to Ambos.
“The caveat was that it should not look like storage,” Taylor explained. “So I had unusually free reign to create fantasy worlds with an endless array of objects that kept pouring into the building.”
This was the world that Greer was invited to explore that day in May with his assistant gallerist and sometimes-model, Nina Scheff. The original intention was to simply document the rooms, but stepping inside immediately evoked strong reactions from both Greer and Scheff.
“We weren’t trying to make an art show,” Scheff said. “We had all the space and time in the world- we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Every room I stepped into, I felt like I was turning into a different character.”
The work that Greer and Scheff shot, along with Taylor himself, comprises the photographer’s latest show, “Distancing School: Iterations of Isolation,” which opens this Saturday, April 17, at the Hudson Milliner Art Salon (415 Warren Street).
The images they produced together are all at once whimsical but arresting, evoking emptiness but also welcoming the viewer into a realm of magical realism. The show seems most concerned with an exploration of how we influence our surroundings, and how the spaces we occupy influence us— a particularly potent theme to all those who have spent the greater part of the last year in lockdown, likely occupying what feels like a far-too-limited amount of space.
Greer, a fashion and commercial photographer whose clients have included Jockey, Hilton, and Redbook, owns and runs the Hudson Milliner Art Salon with his partner, artist and restaurateur Charlotta Janssen. When asked about producing art during a pandemic, Greer said, “It was a little bit life saving- it produced some sanity to an insane period of our history. It allowed me to focus on creating images instead of focusing on the virus and just how alone this all was.”
The show is as much a meditation on life lived in isolation as it is a remembrance of one woman’s career and the objects she amassed during it.
Ambos, who immigrated to the United States from Germany at just 20 years old, was the subject of a short documentary film released in 2015 which chronicled her life, work, and prolific collections. She passed away a few months into the pandemic, in her early 90s.
Greer dedicates the show to the “memory of Eleanor Ambos,” and Taylor puts it this way: “She wasn’t in Hudson all that often— she was mostly in New York [City]— but we spoke on the phone anywhere from three to seven hours a day. Whenever I was in the school, I had her on speakerphone, telling her about what I was doing, or maybe she’d want to speak about fata morgana or Mt. Olympus. It was never boring.
“In my life, I don’t think I’ve ever had an interaction with another person that was so deep.”
“Distancing School: Iterations of Isolation” opens to the public at the Hudson Milliner Art Salon (415 Warren Street) on Saturday, April 17, 2021 from 6-8pm. The show is scheduled to run through June.
Video production by Allison Valiquette.
Proper distancing and health standards were maintained during the production of this interview.