You can’t judge a book by its cover. But you can sure judge Westport by its New Yorker covers. Also by the 20 photos of the exact spots depicted on those covers, taken lovingly by Mike Goss and exhibited now, side by side, at the Westport Historical Society.
The photographic reproductions are astonishingly well done. They’re taken in the same season the covers were painted or sketched, at the same time of day and in the same light. The moods of each image and painting match. Taken together, they show Westport — then and now — in all its gorgeous, small town, maritime, bustling, artsy glory.
What is particularly remarkable is that Goss came late to the craft of photography. And the exhibit itself was designed long after “The New Yorker in Westport” — the wonderful book by Eve Potts and Andrew Bentley — was in proofs. It shows 50 full-size covers of Westport scenes, by artists like Charles Addams, Perry Barlow, Whitney Darrow, Jr., Albert Hubbell, Garrett Price and Charles Saxon.
Goss spent his professional career as a financial executive. After retiring in 2013, he took a few classes in one of his hobbies: photography.
Bentley — who had already written his “New Yorker” book — asked his friend Goss to take a few promotional photos.
Bentley liked what he saw. Goss took more. He showed nearly 2 dozen to the Westport Historical Society, and the Westport Arts Center’s Helen Klisser During. An exhibit was born.
Taking those photos was far harder than point-and-shoot. Each cover showed a different season. Goss created a spreadsheet, so he could take each image at the right moment. He tried to mimic the covers as much as possible, including light, color, even blurred lines.
His first photo, of Round Pond in the snow, was shot last February. Others had to wait for summer. “I drove by the beach for weeks, waiting for a lifeguard chair to appear,” Goss recalls, of another memorable cover.
There were other challenges too.
“Artists can take licenses with their paintings,” he notes. “They can move buildings around, and eliminate overhead wires.”
A photographer can’t do that. As a result, he says, “some photos are not as bucolic as the covers.”
Some of the artwork was “cartoon-y,” Goss adds. A 1955 magazine cover showing construction of the Connecticut Turnpike showed a beautiful tree-lined street on one side, with steam shovels digging in a straight line on the other.
He spent hours trying to find attractive lines, before ending up one night on an I-95 overpass. That photo did not make it into the main exhibit. It’s shown instead in a side exhibit, “The Cutting Room Floor,” alongside other images that did not quite work.
Others work fantastically. Goss loves his Round Pond shot, tinted blue and with the sun shining through trees. He’s also very proud of the deli counter at Oscar’s. Those 2 could stand on their own, he says.
Others would not. A dark picture of the train station is “ugly” — just like the original cover. Yet “complementing each other, they’re very interesting.”
The entire process taught Goss the value of a collection. “If we just did one cover, it might not have been interesting. But when you put them all together, you get a real sense of what Westport is all about.”
There’s a certain sense of history — but also timelessness — at the Historical Society exhibit. The bunting in Goss’ photo of the Westport Country Playhouse balcony matches Helen Hokinson’s 1936 painting almost exactly. The rafters and balustrade are almost identical too.
Another strong image is of the railroad tracks in Saugatuck. A 1963 cover captures the beauty, in a strong black and blue painting. Goss does the same.
Just as there is whimsy in New Yorker covers, some photos elicit smiles. Next to 1961 artwork of children reading comics on a green Sunday morning, Goss captured his own kids in the same sort of setting — reading iPads.
Goss spent 6 months on this project, and took thousands of photos. You can see them at the Westport Historical Society through October 26 (weekdays 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturdays 12-4 p.m.).
They’ll also live forever on his website: mikegossphotography.com.
(Interested in the “New Yorker in Westport” book? Thanks to the generosity of Andy and Fiona Bentley and the Potts Book Fund, every cent of the $40 cover price goes directly to the Historical Society. Click here to order.)