AT TWILIGHT on a rainy Saturday in late fall, Torrington, Connecticut, feels like any rusted-out post-industrial Northeastern mill town: barely alive. Between abandoned brick factories, faded clapboard houses with tar-paper-covered roofs creak in the wind. Under the eaves of the Sons of Italy social club, patrons smoke beside a sign for Wednesday bingo. Although nestled in Litchfield County, the preternaturally preserved Revolutionary War-era enclave where many wealthy New Yorkers keep second homes, Torrington remains an uncharted territory to most of those residents.

But a few years ago, the debonair 66-year-old Tunisian-born photographer Gerald Incandela — a Manhattan fixture whose work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of Art — became an unlikely champion of this town of 35,000. Instead of denying the rust, he has embraced it, exploring the complex relationship between high culture and urban decay in the 464-square-metre former pool hall off the town’s desolate Main Street he bought as his studio in 2012.

Here, there is no artists’ colony of young gentrifiers with fixed-gear bicycles and feral facial hair. There is just Incandela, in the cavernous space he has shaped into a patchworked homage to high Viennese culture, the bordellos of New Orleans and SoHo’s raw glory days.

Gerald Incandela in his studio’s bordello-red study. Photos by Nicholas Calcott.

“People don’t understand this town, but l love the people and the history,” he says, standing in the doorway of the boxy one-story building, topped with a row of mismatched early 20th-century iron

finials salvaged from railroad signal posts. Incandela is as long and lean as he was in the late 1970s, when he began making his moody pieces that combine multi-negative photography with painterly splashes of developer. (This is also the period he became Robert Mapplethorpe’s rival for the affection of the collector and patron Sam Wagstaff.) “I love how the studio fits in here, yet it’s so mysterious,” he says. “You don’t have any idea of what you are walking into from the outside.”

A large-scale project

Most of Incandela’s friends thought he was slightly daft for taking on a project of such magnitude, as did his partner, the antiques dealer George Schoellkopf. (The couple lives in Hollister House, an 18th-century home with a vast English-style garden in the nearby hamlet of Washington, Connecticut.) But Incandela was obsessed. When he bought the pre-war building, it was a bedraggled warehouse, with seemingly nothing to save except the interestingly pocked concrete floors; the ceiling had been dropped and the walls were cement blocks. He wanted to preserve the loftlike feeling but also to create highly mannered rooms surrounding the central space, alluding to the late 19th-century studio of the painter William Merritt Chase on Manhattan’s West 10th Street, with “beautiful corners for people to sit and have their portraits taken,” he says.

Below all this is the studio’s theatrically lit centrepiece: a giant 19th-century antique English carpet that he bought at Christie’s from the estate of a friend, the collector Paul Walter. He had admired it throughout many parties at Walter’s apartment during his New York years, which began in 1977 when Incandela arrived from Paris. The rug represents what he treasured about his 30s, when the city was still dangerous and messy: “The entire art world stood on this carpet,” he says, “arguing and drinking.” Recently, the rug gained even more significance for him when he spotted it in a 1960s photograph of the entry hall of Henry Ford II’s house in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. “I love objects that are impregnated with other people’s lives,” he says.

In the front parlour, tufted velvet Louis Philippe furniture from the Tunis home of Incandela’s parents stands near a rack of antique cast-steel objects.

Beyond this space, Incandela has carved out several small, extravagant rooms. There is a front parlour, on a raised platform, with gray-blue velvet Louis Philippe furniture from his parents’ home in Tunis. The floor is laid in a classic French

Regency-inspired pattern, using white enamelled steel plates that he found in bulk at a scrap-metal yard. He also cut them into larger tiles to line several other chambers, including a Josef Hoffmannesque lunchroom with fine china stacked on open shelves and a blood-red office that evokes the mid-1800s erotic photographs of Auguste Belloc.

The walls are hung with Incandela’s collection of 19th-century photographs, including two recently acquired works placed in clever juxtaposition: a portrait of the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, across from one of the Countess of Castiglione, her husband’s mistress. The photo of the empress, he says, is something that Wagstaff would have liked. He and Wagstaff never had an affair — despite Mapplethorpe’s fears, exhaustively documented by biographers — but Wagstaff was an important mentor and profoundly influenced Incandela’s eye.

Bigger plans ahead

Most days, Incandela drives the 30 minutes from his home to spend six hours or so in the studio. He gets lunch, a salad with a dollop of ranch dressing, at Rick’s Nutmeg Grille, a luncheonette around the corner. When the Sons of Italy clubhouse next door had to be sold at auction to pay back taxes a few years ago, Incandela paid the debt and gave it back to the members. He often lends his studio when local non-profits ask to host fund-raisers.

A 19th-century iron daybed in front of a steel wall treated to cultivate rust.

In fact, now that the place is largely complete, he has other big plans for the town, some admittedly fantastic: His dream is to convert one of the abandoned gas stations into a winter garden by enclosing the concrete island in glass where the pumps once stood, then planting a verdant jungle. This might become his greatest work, he says, as his eyes narrow with pleasure at the thought: to create, amid a sea of red —budget ink, crumbling brick, rusting metal — a wild oasis of green. — NYT

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