What is it like to be an image archivist?

Nelson Harst and Nikki Igol are the husband and wife duo whose entire job is hunting down and archiving rare print materials.

In the tight­ly-crammed Brook­lyn apart­ment of Nik­ki Igol and Nel­son Harst – researchers and archivists who deal in coun­ter­cul­tur­al imagery, rare lit­er­a­ture and odd­ball ephemera – there is a toi­let roll on dis­play beneath a tele­vi­sion, near-naked with­out its hygien­ic tis­sue sheath­ing. Drawn in felt mark­er on the roll’s exte­ri­or is a Jonathan Putz illus­tra­tion of Miss Pig­gy, sport­ing out­sized breasts and open legs, her hands expos­ing the crude out­lines of a bel­ly but­ton, or – pos­si­bly – a clit.

This undress­ing of an icon­ic (if already saucy) children’s char­ac­ter feels typ­i­cal of the couple’s idio­syn­crat­ic tastes. Igol, a fash­ion image archivist who devel­oped one of the ear­li­est dig­i­tal cat­a­logs of edi­to­r­i­al imagery with VFILES, is the head of archives for a lead­ing fig­ure in the beau­ty indus­try. Harst, a some­times-rare book­seller (who began, offi­cial­ly, sell­ing text­books with friends, then with a pop-up on Howard Street and lat­er an Insta­gram store, deal­ing under the name @antifurniture), cat­a­logues and main­tains the vast lit­er­a­ture inven­to­ry of a promi­nent con­tem­po­rary artist (among that artist’s col­lec­tion are many ear­ly inscribed copies of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road).

Their shared domes­tic space is a buzzing, squishy, blow-up, stacked-high mon­u­ment to every­thing that is sub­ver­sive and sticky and glo­ri­ous­ly exper­i­men­tal in Amer­i­ca and beyond: long-shut­tered New York night­clubs where any­thing went, the unwieldy, Wild West of ear­ly desk­top self-pub­lish­ing, kink, bondage and sex­u­al pow­er­play, camp aes­thet­ics in fash­ion, and free post­cards from the 90s that adver­tised web­sites. (“They’re all like, surf over to www​.ama​zon​.com,” says Harst, laugh­ing. They show this now-invert­ed rela­tion­ship between the phys­i­cal and the digital.”)

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Their home dou­bles as a liv­ing library, much of it lined with large white shelv­ing units, and each spilling with pre­cious, oft-lewd print­ed mat­ter that dips in and out of new visu­al rab­bit holes. (The rest remains in a giant stor­age unit.)

There is a lot to see. Here, on the floor of their neon-pink lit hall­way, is a sculp­ture of a fried egg. There, span­ning sev­er­al shelves, are Harst’s vol­umes on ear­ly com­put­ers and the bur­geon­ing inter­net: 24 Hours in Cyber­space, Design­ing Online Iden­ti­ties, Apple T-Shirts, Mars Obser­va­tions; tens of thumbed-over edi­tions of Mac­world. Pulled down from some oth­er place are stacks of now-rare, hyper­styl­ized greet­ing cards from LA com­pa­ny Paper Moon Graph­ics, and a glossy book by Japan­ese air­brush illus­tra­tor Hajime Soraya­ma fea­tur­ing half-robot­ic women in sex­u­al posi­tions, large-breast­ed and some­times strad­dling sil­ver machin­ery. Laid out on a table are old copies of mag­a­zines like archi­tec­tur­al rag Nest and Details and Oui, as well as The Adven­tures of Sandee The Super­mod­el, or Yvesaac’s Mod­el Diaries, a three-issue com­ic book opus released by design­er Isaac Mizrahi in 1997.

Each new dis­cov­ery leads to anoth­er: a lit­tle spike of infor­ma­tion­al dopamine. I ask if all the pair do on week­ends is pour over their per­son­al col­lec­tion – but like the rest of us, I sup­pose, it turns out they’re often watch­ing TV.

We’ve been here togeth­er for sev­en years,” says Igol. She moved in alone 13 years ago. It was the first apart­ment a bro­ker showed her when she moved to New York on a whim, hav­ing just grad­u­at­ed from art school, where she stud­ied art history.

I didn’t know what I want­ed to do. I just made some­thing up so my mom would send me to study in Chica­go. And after, when I was fig­ur­ing out what to do next, I had a friend in New York who said, Just move here. I’ll get you an intern­ship with [fash­ion design­er] Andre Walker.’”

She rec­og­nized the name imme­di­ate­ly from Details mag­a­zine, a title she dis­cov­ered at a garage sale at around 11 or 12 years old, just before her Bat Mitz­vah. I’d been obsessed with it. I came here for the week­end, and just moved. And I began work­ing with Andre – it was a very good time for him. He was doing a lot for Marc Jacobs. I was his per­son­al assis­tant, intern, any­thing. It was him, myself and Car­los Tay­lor. The three of us just got shit done.”

After a few years with Walk­er, Igol decid­ed she need­ed to be in mag­a­zines. She turned up at the V offices unan­nounced, and land­ed an intern­ship in the same after­noon. That’s how it was back then,” she explains, lean­ing back on a two-tone couch. You’d walk right in, and if you had the right look, the right atti­tude and had a good con­ver­sa­tion, you’d just get it.”

We’re talk­ing 60s Harper’s Bazaars with Ver­usch­ka on the cov­er, signed some­thing like Michael, I’ll love you for­ev­er. Ver­usch­ka.’ And there’d be rat poop on top of it” – Nik­ki Igol

Igol began in the wardrobe depart­ment, but lat­er moved to archiv­ing after real­iz­ing none of the images pro­duced for V had ever been orga­nized, and sug­gest­ed it was prob­a­bly a valu­able idea. Since the late 90s, each issue had been stored on a flop­py disc, with no real dig­i­tal asset man­age­ment sys­tem. Hav­ing archived the title, she moved onto more job-invent­ing, fol­low­ing Julie Anne Quay, Vs then-man­ag­ing edi­tor, to VFILES, a new store, social media plat­form, and free-to-the-pub­lic online fash­ion archive. 

The sto­ry is long, but the short of it is this: VFILES had a lofty vision – pre-Insta­gram – to cre­ate an edu­ca­tion­al and ever-expand­ing dig­i­tal ref­er­ence library of fash­ion sub­cul­tures, pho­tog­ra­phers, styl­ists and mod­els. Many of the images dig­i­tized by Igol and her team had nev­er been online before; a wealth orig­i­nat­ed in the exhaus­tive trove of Michael Gal­lagher, whose store, Gallagher’s Paper Col­lectibles near Union Square, was once the city’s go-to resource for icon­ic, for­got­ten fash­ion pictures.

Steven Meisel, every fash­ion who’s who, would go into that book­store to look through and get inspi­ra­tion,” Igol says. But the own­er fell on hard times, closed his shop and moved it all to a house upstate. Julie Anne, smart as she is, offered him a lump sum to take it all. I remem­ber this huge truck arriv­ing at VFILES one day with the most incred­i­ble mate­r­i­al. We’re talk­ing 60s Harper’s Bazaars with Ver­usch­ka [von Lehn­dorff, the Ger­man mod­el] on the cov­er, signed some­thing like Michael, I’ll love you for­ev­er. Ver­usch­ka.’ And there’d be rat poop on top of it. It was won­der­ful and very sad. I had this man’s whole life work. These were the life source for so many Ital­ian Vogue sto­ries. These mag­a­zines touched the hands of every­one – Bruce Weber, Peter Lindbergh.”

For years, until the project end­ed up being half-aban­doned in favor of VFILES’ then-bal­loon­ing store, Igol and a small team (includ­ing her best friend, the design­er Chelsea Fair­less of @everyoutfitonsatc, and the mod­el-turned-actor Hari Nef) would painstak­ing­ly scan and upload as VFILES’ pages of the world’s great­est glossies, per­haps the only peo­ple who had opened them in years.

Like Igol, Harst’s career begin­nings had some­thing of an out­law­ish, unwieldy qual­i­ty to them: he is a per­son who seeks out new ways of nav­i­gat­ing con­nec­tions, between pub­lish­ers, sub­jects, gen­res. While Igol trades most­ly in icon­ic images from the 70s to 90s, regard­less of per­fec­tion in phys­i­cal qual­i­ty,’ he is con­cerned with books as arte­facts unto themselves.

Much of his life has been spent in book­stores, var­i­ous­ly serv­ing as a cus­tomer, staffer and founder of his own. As a kid, his free time was eat­en up at the sec­ond­hand Half Price Books in Texas (“every book was half the price it was sold at when that par­tic­u­lar edi­tion released”), buy­ing up sci­ence fic­tion paper­backs as though the world might soon run out of them.

You go into the world, put some books out there, and you realise your best cus­tomers know more about them than you do” – Nel­son Harst

I soon real­ized that the cheap­er a copy was, the more orig­i­nal it was too,” he says. You’d see the same book, with the same cov­er, be priced at 60 cents, 75 cents, $1.25. And of course, the more expen­sive copies were the lat­er print­ings of the book. I always want­ed the cheap, orig­i­nal copy – I became obsessed with get­ting as much bang for my buck as pos­si­ble. Pret­ty soon, I was buy­ing way more books than I had any inten­tion of read­ing. I loved the way cer­tain cov­ers looked, would real­ize they were all from the same pub­lish­er, or same groups of pub­lish­ers, con­trolled by anoth­er. I’d dis­cov­er eras when a par­tic­u­lar pub­lish­er was cool.”

When Harst relo­cat­ed to New York – after a long stint work­ing at dif­fer­ent book­stores in Seat­tle – he was ship­ping books cheap­ly across the world as an Ama­zon deal­er with a cou­ple of friends (“We would buy and sell eas­i­ly 1,000 books a day”). But the con­tent tend­ed on the side of mass and gener­ic – there were a lot of text­books, he recalls – and Harst’s own taste is more obscure.

He was also enam­oured by per­son­al con­nec­tions forged with buy­ers that didn’t quite trans­late (at all) on Ama­zon. That’s how he end­ed up prop­ping up some fold-out tables on Howard Street (strate­gi­cal­ly around a smat­ter­ing of stu­dios and bou­tiques), pil­ing them with obscure fash­ion and design books, and let­ting his own taste, Igol’s, and the peo­ple who turned up, deter­mine his inven­to­ry – be it pho­tog­ra­ph­er Mario Sor­ren­ti or cur­rent Revlon cre­ative direc­tor Ruba Abu-Nimah.

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Ruba was one of my biggest cus­tomers. She bought a bunch of copies of Wet mag­a­zine and Screw. She – and every­one else – would tell me what they liked, and if I hadn’t heard of it, I’d go look it up. And that’s how I learned to be a book deal­er. You go into the world, put some books out there, and you realise your best cus­tomers know more about them than you do. And so you just start learn­ing again, going back and learn­ing more.”

Harst’s employ­er, a major con­tem­po­rary artist, has amassed a prodi­gious, insti­tu­tion-rival­ing col­lec­tion of coun­ter­cul­ture Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture released between the years of 1949 and 1984: the peri­od in which mod­ernism began to fall apart, like wet cake. What [this per­son] wants most from an acqui­si­tion is the copy that dreams, the copy that shouldn’t exist,” Harst says. It’s about a real­ly beau­ti­ful, first edi­tion copy of a book – but it’s more about the per­son who owned it. [They like] to get a copy that was owned by some­one inter­est­ing, prefer­ably one per­son­al­ly inscribed to them by the author.”

For their own mean­der­ing, ad-hoc col­lec­tions – which are often, they men­tion, under­scored by the enor­mous cre­ative black hole engen­dered by the AIDS cri­sis – Igol and Harst have their own deal­ers, peo­ple who under­stand the nuances of their respec­tive tastes.

There is a guy, for instance, in Ams­ter­dam, who alerts them to holo­grams of inter­est. It’s unsur­pris­ing, per­haps, that there are so many deli­cious­ly dis­parate threads – the two first met on a project called the Bidoun Library’ based on ten­ta­tive the­mat­ic con­nec­tions to the Mid­dle East.

It was a crazi­ly curat­ed selec­tion of books,” says Harst. For instance, the staff would go and buy every book they could find that includ­ed the word Arab’ in the title and cost less than a dol­lar. And that would be a shelf of books. We bought every book pub­lished in the Sovi­et Union in Eng­lish about the Mid­dle East, because there’s so many of them. And these cor­po­rate pub­li­ca­tions that came out of Sau­di Ara­bia in the 70s and 80s.”

At one point, it need­ed to be cat­a­loged and added to a data­base – that’s when Igol joined the project. Ever since then, she notes, they’ve found them­selves mov­ing through his­to­ry togeth­er, just show­ing dif­fer­ent aes­thet­ics. You know what I mean?” she looks at Harst. Through images, words and objects.”


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