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Easy Reader: Margery, Sheldon Harnick Visit 'The Outdoor Museum'

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Some marriages are more like collaborations than others. Take Sheldon Harnick and Margery Gray Harnick. He's the renowned show-business figure who wrote the lyrics for, among other musical comedies, Fiorello! and Tenderloin. When she was still a performer, she sang and danced in both. Which could be considered a collaboration of sorts.

(Harnick's better known musical comedy collaborator was composer Jerry Bock, of course.)

But now that the Harnicks have been hitched for quite some time, they've collaborated much more closely and lovingly on The Outdoor Museum (Not Your Usual Images of New York) -- for which she supplied the photographs and he provided the accompanying introductory poetic flights of fancy.

The idea behind the coffee-table tome is to tribute New York City as a sprawling site which may boast of being home to several actual museums but is -- more than those institutions imply -- a five-borough living-and-breathing museum. To prove the beauty and power of the City's abundant and omnipresent visual displays, classy shutterbug Harnick includes 11 photo-essays, and by the time she's snapped her last pic, she's solidly made her point.

As a photographer, Gray believes in the vivid present -- in vivid presences. The colors she captures are knife-edge bright -- and irresistible -- whether she's pointing her camera at graffiti that could pass for the work of Jackson Pollack or Jean-Michel Basquiat, at the homeless in doorways or on subway trains or peering into swanky store windows, at a swan preening, at reflections of buildings in other buildings or in puddles, at fireworks, or at sections of sky and edifices predominantly white-blue-black.

Although the volume's subtitle promises the unexpected image, that's not quite what the contents deliver. Like every artist, Harnick has her obvious influences, including at least one -- Ruth Orkin -- whom hubby Sheldon invokes in a poem. With her photograph of a man regarding Fernando Botero's nude male in the Time Warner lobby, Harnick even alludes to Orkin's picture of a woman examining a statue of an equally robust (and nude) female. Others from whom she's obviously learned include Eugene Atget, Berenice Abbott and Lisette Model, For just one instance of her using Model as a model, check the latter's "Reflections, New York, 1939-1945." There's even a head-on view of John Augustus Roebling's Brooklyn Bridge that could have been clicked for posterity by anyone in the last 125 years.

That Harnick cribs from her predecessors -- as they had often cribbed from theirs -- doesn't mean her "not your usual images" aren't indelible in their own right. The photographs of commonplace outdoor objects that could pass for sculpture installations are eye-catching -- although mixing them with genuine public art works confuses the intention. The portraits of buildings reflected in nearby glass-walled buildings instantly become metaphors for evanescence. The swan studies are as strikingly composed as many of the Bock melodies on which her husband set his impeccable lyrics.

Lyricist Harnick's lead-in pieces are mostly charming and, perhaps needless to mention, frequently rhymed -- but not as tightly as they might be were he going to have them set to music. (He reads them on an accompanying CD.) The final two poems fall below his usual high standards -- one called "This Alien Race," preceding a section featuring photographs of mannequins, and one called "Landmarks," preceding photographs of not necessarily world-famous sites (e. g, a dysfunctional public telephone booth, a saxophonist near Central Park's Bethesda Fountain).

The other nine intros are Harnick at, or near, his best. Here are two wry pieces from the forward to "7 Subway Haiku":

If your train pulls in
just as you arrive, this does
not mean God loves you.

Those flamboyant scrawls
spray-painted on subway walls...
are those our Lascaux?