When you enter the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street a sign warns tourists that the “hotel is not accessible to the general public at this time. The hotel is closed until further notice.” I hesitate for a second, but trod on swiftly to the front desk. I’m here on official business after all. As I check in and ask to ring up Lola Schnabel’s apartment, the guard shoos some seemingly illiterate, camera waving tourists away. At least these Swedes got a last good look at the place because even the tenants have been asked to leave. What’s to become of this great historic landmark, I wonder?
“Natalie!” a voice behind me huffs. It’s Lola, dressed in yoga pants and a denim jacket, lugging bags of groceries and flowers. “Perfect timing,” she says with a sigh of relief. “I just finished a spinning class. Do you mind if I shower first?” Of course not. Go ahead. As we head up the elevator, she gets excited. “You don’t know what happened to me!” she starts. Her eyes grow wide and her voice sounds elated. “I’ve just come back from India and I got this e-mail from this guy who asked me to do an avant-garde film with him. I didn’t answer at first because I was at a silent retreat, but when I came back he had sent me another message and I responded. We’ve been e-mailing and sending photos and exchanging ideas on film and art and philosophy ever since. He’s amazing! We’re moving in together! He’s going go be my husband!”
Wow, that IS amazing. Lola and I have been going back and forth about shooting for almost a year. She never struck me as a happy-go-lucky girl, a bit moody perhaps, or aloof. But this is a new Lola, a Lola-in-love, a Lola I am thrilled to photograph! “I think I needed that time in India to reflect. I needed to make that space for someone to enter my life.” And the funny thing is, Isaac is from New York, just like Lola, and the exact same age. They could have grown up on the same street and never known it. “I didn’t think I’d find someone in New York. I had given up. But Isaac is wonderful.”
Lola will be moving out of the Chelsea Hotel in May. She’s lived here for about 8 years but as legends go, everything good comes to an end. And she feels it’s time to go. “I’m a little bit tired of this rickety floor and crammed space. I want something new and modern, maybe even a house on Long Island!” For a city girl this may sound like a drastic, erratic move but for the artist/film maker it’s the perfect escape to concentrate on work and her blossoming relationship. Isaac is an artist too, and soon-to-be screen writer. He’s at the apartment when we walk in, hunched over his computer on the patio. He sounds like Woody Allen – with the same funny accent and pessimistic jokes. Except he’s tall and kind of lanky with a strong nose and friendly eyes. And when Lola gets dressed, she thinks of him.
I’m impressed with Lola’s commitment to our shoot. She’s thought of looks and make-up, reminds me of the flowers she bought “just for this”, and pulls out vintage pieces from her recent travels in Europe. I find out that Lola’s mother Jacqueline grew up near Antwerp in Belgium, which makes us half-fellow-countrywomen and me grow even fonder of her. “I bought this beautiful hand-embroidered apron with a matching peasent blouse at a local market in Holland. It’s open in the back so it’s quite sexy. But is the top too bulky?” she asks while she gleams at Isaac. She abandons the idea of covering her face in white face paint and puts on red lipstick and thigh highs instead. I must admit I’m a little concerned about all that exposed flesh, not to say that I don’t approve, but I want to make sure she’s OK with it. “I love it!” she beams.
At the end of our shoot Lola asks me to take a few photos of Isaac and her together. She gives him a pink cashmere sweater and black tie and decides to wear a matching pajama shirt. “These will be the first photos of our first week together!” she croons as she climbs the stairs to the rooftop. I have them sit next to each other, their feet dangling over the edge, like two love birds on a wire and I think: I’m so happy the sun came out today.