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Photographer Lisl Steiner: 'Don't Be Possessed by Your Possessions'

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A wise octogenarian once said, "Don't be possessed by your possessions." Actually she said it last weekend, when she invited me to her new "stuff shop," a spot she had rented for a month to try to make a dent in the dispersal of her long-collected ephemera. She had lived in a beautiful house with lots of space, crannies and nooks, window seats, closets and bookcases. Plenty of room for accumulating stuff, creating new collections and storing old ones. There was always room for more.

"When I moved from my big house to smaller quarters, I put my extra things in boxes for storage," said Lisl Steiner, a native Viennese who photographed her way around the world as a freelance photojournalist for Life, Time, Newsweek and The New York Times. Her portfolio includes iconic black-and-white images of Pat and Richard Nixon, Fidel Castro, Pablo Casals, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and other jazz maestros of the '60s. Along with having an eye for capturing historic moments, Lisl was equally discerning about collecting, which is another way of saying that she has good stuff.

In her newly opened curio shop, there were stacks, crates, tables and shelves of paintings, pottery, porcelain, books, drawings, crystal, knickknacks and bibelots. In one corner was a custom-made wardrobe by an Austrian designer, crinkled espadrilles and well-worn Guccis. Stacked in another corner were boxes of china sets that could feed a cotillion. Strewn to the right was a plethora of perfect cashmere sweaters from Scotland. (Lisl was proud that not one moth had touched them while they were in storage.) There were crystal flower vases and pottery cups, dolls from Europe and artisanal objects from Mexico. Once-cool T-shirts were emblazoned with political messages like "Peace, Love, Flower Power," "No Nukes," and "World Citizen/Citoyen du Monde/Mond Civitano."

"After moving, I thought I'd be putting my things away for six months, and here I am, 16 years later at $400 a month and $60,000 in storage fees," said my friend as she sat in an old chair plunked amidst her stuff, wearing a pair of Clarke's desert boots that have been to Africa five times. "In the old days, people put their stuff in the attic. Now they use storage places."

"One of the favorite times of my life was when I was in my mid-20s," Lisl continued as she recalled a simpler period. "I lived in New York City during the beatnik era and had an apartment behind Washington Square in the West Village, right off of Fifth Avenue. It was a footman's apartment, like where one would imagine Henry James's footman to live."

"I had nothing: just cameras and books," she continued, almost misty-eyed (although perhaps it was from all the dust). "I had a bathtub with eagle-claw feet and a garden in the back. I had salons and would cook dinner in the fireplace for friends. The apartment cost me 90 bucks a month and I lived there for nine years. It was fantastic. It was a time of unburden. I had few things and was free."

"And now I have all this," Lisl said as jetted from memory to present day. "There comes a point where possessions possess you and they're like an anchor around your neck. You forget what you've got. The message I want to pass along is 'Don't be possessed by your possessions.'"

"I feel only disgust in seeing all of this," Steiner admitted as she continued sorting. "I could create 10 art exhibits from all of my collections. At 85, I have so many projects going on, it's revolting. I feel a bit like Virginia Wolfe, when she put on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones and walked in the River Ouse."

"There's an old Austrian phrase: 'The last shirt does not have any pockets,' which means you can't take it with you," she said.

Listen to Lisl: Do not put your things in storage. "It's the scourge of modern society." As you change your closets from winter to spring to summer, take a look at what you love and what you can live without. Haven't worn it in ages? Be scrupulous and pare down. Bequeath things you're iffy about to someone you love or get redemption from the Salvation Army. Make room. Create space. Free yourself from the burden of stuff.

"And one more thing," Lisl continued. (Note to readers: Always indulge an octogenarian.) "I hate giving advice, but since you asked ... tell anyone over 75 to use wheelchairs in airports. It makes it a lot easier to get around. Admit to yourself that you are of age. And if you want to be an elegant elder, use a walking stick."

"Then again," she added, "I don't want to tell people what to do. I only want to make suggestions."