Il rapporto tra l'alfabetismo e l'analfabetismo è costante, ma al giorno d'oggi gli analfabeti sanno leggere. Eugenio Montale

settembre 28, 2012

Naked, sexy, gay. The Afterlife of George Platt Lynes

A FEW YEARS AGO I came across one of the last photographs taken by George Platt Lynes. It was of a French soldier on a street in Paris from October, 1955. I went searching for this photograph recently among the published monographs of his work, but couldn’t find it. The image has been clear in my memory for some time: I remember it as focused on the soldier’s handsome face. Relaxed, he leans against a stone wall. It is remarkably unlike most of Lynes’ photographs from the last twenty years of his life.
In the 1930’s and 40’s, George Platt Lynes was the best-known fashion and portrait photographer in the U.S. He was also producing an abundance of male nudes that he circulated among friends and occasionally published in the Swiss homosexual magazine Der Kreis under the pseudonyms Roberto Rolf and Robert Orville. Over time, the male nudes became his most valuable artistic endeavor. The photographs we have come to associate with Lynes are often his highly staged studio images, which he crafted with exacting control over the smallest detail. These images display his inventive use of diffused lighting that seems to come from everywhere and yet from nowhere. Idealized and perfected, bodies and faces are wrapped in light and shadows, their contours defined with precision by the spaces around them. What struck me about the photograph of the soldier was that it had an intimacy more akin to a photo album than to a studio image.
As the shutter clicked on his beloved Rolleiflex that October afternoon, Lynes knew he was dying. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer in May, 1955, just a few weeks after his 48th birthday. The rest of the year was in many respects a free fall to his death. He had gone through tiring radium treatments during the early summer. “I’m taking 20-odd kinds of pills,” he wrote to his friend Samuel Steward that summer while resting at his family’s home in Egremont, Massachusetts. “There are terrible pains in my chest, as if an elephant were sitting on me.” With his debts mounting, he spent those last few months destroying negatives of his fashion and portrait work. But his male nudes were saved from this fate. What he could barter away to cover outstanding debt, he did. He continued to sell works to his friend Alfred Kinsey, who purchased nearly 600 prints and negatives. In September, he traveled to Paris, the place that had enchanted him three decades earlier when, barely eighteen years old, he’d first encountered the expatriate community there, befriending Gertrude Stein for a friendship that would last for some years. Lynes referred to this final trip as his “sentimental journey.” His hair, prematurely gray for most of his adult life, was dyed black for the trip. His voice was raspy. On his return to New York in November he entered the hospital again. He smoked in his room, not caring about the nurses’ complaints. He would be dead by December.
The funeral, held at St. George’s Church in Stuyvesant Square, New York, was crowded with friends and lovers—many of whom he had photographed. He was buried in the family plot in Woodlawn cemetery near his father, whose own early death in 1932 had forced Lynes to turn his interest in photography into a serious livelihood. The New York Times published a three-sentence obituary, which described him as a “professional photographer whose work has appeared in Vogue, Life and Harper’s Bazaar.” The New York Herald Tribune offered a slightly longer comment and included a photograph of Lynes. Unfortunately the editors used a photo of Joseph B. Platt, a Hollywood set designer who wouldn’t be dead for another thirteen years.
This particular case of mistaken identity symbolizes a continuing feature of his legacy. In reading through the known archive of his life and work, we confront an artist whose photography shaped him as much as he shaped it. At some point I started to wonder, when did we begin to imagine George Platt Lynes?
OVER THE LAST FIFTY YEARS, Lynes has moved from obscure fashion photographer to celebrated pioneer of homoerotic photography. Who would have imagined at the time of his death that Lynes would be resurrected to such a status? Perhaps the one person who did was Lynes himself. His final acts of editing his legacy—the destruction of most of his commercial prints and negatives—speaks to his concern about how we, generations later, would come to regard his work.
An extensive show of his celebrity portraits was mounted by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1960 by his longtime friend Lincoln Kirstein. “His portraits are his greatest work,” Kirstein wrote in the exhibition catalogue. Through his social circle in New York, Paris, and in the late-1940’s Hollywood, Lynes photographed most of the celebrity figures from the world of film, literature, and the arts, everyone from Lilian Gish to Edward Hopper, Burt Lancaster, Colette, Igor Stravinsky, and Gertrude Stein. But by the late 1960’s and 70’s, there was little interest in Lynes’ work from either galleries or collectors. Occasionally his photographs found their way into group shows, notably a few exhibits on the male nude in the mid-70’s. In 1973, Kirstein published The New York City Ballet: Photographs by Martha Swope and George Platt Lynes, which showcased his innovative way of capturing dancers while in movement. It wasn’t until 1981, however, with Jack Woody’s publication of George Platt Lynes: Photographs 1931—1955, that Lynes’ resuscitation truly began. Through the 80’s, interest in his work was part of a larger reclaiming of a gay and lesbian history. His male nudes in particular offered a historical context and an influential vision for young gay artists such as Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber, and Robert Mapplethorpe.
When New York’s Grey Art Gallery mounted “George Platt Lynes: Photographs from the Kinsey Institute” in 1992, his portraits and male nudes found a new audience in a new era. It was, of course, just two years since conservative senators and activists had vilified Andras Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe and other recipients of federal funds for work that they deemed “deviant” and “pornographic.” While the Grey exhibit displayed a range of Lynes’ work, the thrust of the exhibit was his male nudes. Critics described it as fabulous, campy, and pornographic. A few years later, David Leddick, who has done the most to promote Lynes’ work, published a substantial monograph of his work with the German publisher Taschen. Leddick’s Naked Men: Pioneering Male Nudes (1997) situates Lynes within a constellation of male images from the 1930’s to the 50’s. Lynes’ photographs have also been included in larger studies such as Allen Ellenzweig’s The Homoerotic Photograph (1992) and, most recently, Jonathan Weinberg’s Male Desire: The Homoerotic in American Art (2004).
Lynes was part of a close group of artistic friends that included Paul Cadmus, Jared French, Bernard Perlin, Pavel Tchelitchev, Glenway Wescott, and Monroe Wheeler. With writer Wescott and Museum of Modern Art curator Wheeler, Lynes formed an intimate relationship that lasted nearly fifteen years until the early 1940’s. Their lives together have been documented in the published journals of Wescott, Continual Lessons (1990), and in Jerry Roscoe’s biography, Glenway Wescott Personally (2002). Anatole Pohorilenko’s When We Were Three (1998) takes us along on their expatriate travels between the world wars, offering a rich album of their social and personal lives. The biographical sketch that accompanied a recent (2004) exhibition of Lynes’ work at the John Stevenson Gallery in New York City, “George Platt Lynes: Known and Unknown,” recounts Lynes’ artistic development and highlights his innovations in photographic techniques. In Intimate Companions: A Triography of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus, Lincoln Kirstein and their Circle (2000), David Leddick creatively imagines the professional and social milieu of Lynes and his circle.
These publications have revived Lynes’ work, shaping a reputation that’s increasingly defined by his homoerotic male nude images. Lynes would most likely be pleased. Still, we have yet to make sense of the legacy he imagined for himself. His destruction of much of his commercial work—which is what he was known for during his lifetime—and his preservation of the male nudes suggests that he was trying to preserve a particular way of looking at his favorite subject. “The act of one man looking at another man’s body is fraught,” writes Weinberg, “even when it is sanctioned by the museum or the tradition of academic training.” Indeed, it is this gaze, this way of looking, that is uniquely situated within the historical moment of the 1930’s and 40’s. As Ellenzweig has noted, the birth of a discernable homosexual type in the late 19th century parallels the popularity and accessibility of photography. (Kodak introduced its portable cameras with rolled film cartridges in 1888.)
While the history of photography is well documented, we also need to consider the history of looking—and in particular a history of the homoerotic gaze. This is what intrigues and seduces me about Lynes’ photographs. In his male nudes, we get more than a staged, homoerotic image. His photographs declare that this gaze, this intensity of looking at another man’s body, however distanced or lurid or stylized it may be, is something worthy of recording and preserving.
IN 1981, writing for The Advocate, Samuel Steward recounted his first meeting with Lynes some thirty years earlier. He had known of Lynes’ photography through his friend Gertrude Stein. Steward admired Lynes’ photographs of Stein, though he never met the photographer until just four years before Lynes’ death. “I was hardly prepared for the trim, white-haired figure with black eyebrows who opened the door,” he remembers. “The early photographs of George Lynes, which were all that I had seen, showed him to be in his twenties, not his forties. Oddly, I kept looking over his shoulder, up the single flight of darkened stairs, as if I were searching for the real George Lynes—but the confusion was only momentary, and I finally realized this was he.”
Finding the real George Lynes proved exceedingly difficult. Steward’s recollection reveals how the aura of Lynes’ photographs distorted his initial encounter with the man himself. Wrote fashion photographer Bruce Weber: “I always believed that Lynes photographed a lot of men who knew how to fix a car, but the difference was that he made them look as if they had gone to Yale.” Lynes’ experiments with lighting and composition gave his images an idealized quality. For him, photography was far from a simple act of documentation. Rather, it was about turning the mundane into the beautiful, of making the beautiful ideal. It was privileging a way of looking, immortalizing the act as much as the subject. Eventually, this experience blurred the line between photographer and camera. “I’m the damned soul of my (damned) camera,” he wrote to Bernard Perlin in 1954, adding, “and God, how it hates me sometimes. And I think I’d be a poor thing without it.”
One of his earliest self-portraits is a collage of photographs that he created for his lover Monroe Wheeler. Using photographs from his recent travels to France, Lynes cut them into fragments of arms, legs, torsos, heads. These fragments surround a smoky portrait of Lynes. Influenced by European surrealist æsthetics (though he disliked being called a surrealist), the collage alludes to his youthful interest in self-representation. The result is a work that’s both erotic and innocent, playful and seductive, butch and effete, open and mysterious. Later in his career, he continued to explore the ways in which the camera can transform the naked bodies of his subjects. Seldom overtly sexual, his photographs of naked men have little to do with nakedness itself. Indeed, Lynes’ camera transforms the male body from something to be photographed and desired to something more distant, something to be looked at and pondered. His images arrest me precisely because they’re concerned with preserving the act of looking rather than the act of touching.
In the late 1940’s and 50’s, Alfred Kinsey collected Lynes’ photographs as part of his obsessive research on human sexuality. He valued them for how they documented the homosexual æsthetic. The history of using photographs to record and study sexual deviants started before Kinsey. Indeed, as Lynes was busily photographing male nudes during the 30’s, Dr. George Henry was gathering case studies from homosexual subjects in New York City. Published in 1941, Sex Variants was an extensive and sympathetic study of homosexuals. Part of Henry’s research included detailed anatomical measurements, x-rays, and photographs. The camera proved a useful tool for reading the body’s supposed signs of sexual deviance.
Theses days, we often read Lynes’ male nudes as a sexual fantasy of the photographer. His re-emergence in the 80’s was in part due to the glimpse his images offered into an erotic, homosexual past. Jack Woody, who also was promoting Robert Mapple-thorpe’s work in the early 80’s and may have introduced Mapplethorpe to Lynes’ photographs, suggested that the male nudes reflected the limits of gay life in the 1940’s and 50’s. His images, Woody writes, hold “elements of individual isolation, sexual conflict, and erotic tensions.” For many commentators, the nudes have been described as a fantastical foray into an idealized world that Lynes crafted in response to the harsh reality of gay life at the time.
In another vein, his nudes have become symbols of the gay past. Commenting on the Grey Art Gallery exhibit in 1993, New York Times critic Charles Hagen noted that a number of his nudes suggest “stereotypes of gay pornography,” and dismissed them as not quite inventive, concluding that the “show is more interesting for what it suggests about Lynes’ life as a gay artist in the 1940’s and 1950’s than it is as art.” Indeed, when the curators at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, California, mounted “In a Different Light: Visual Culture, Sexual Identity and Queer Practices” in the winter of 1996, not one photograph of Lynes was included. Apparently, Lynes’ nudes were too idealized, too “gay,” for a show that was more engaged with exploring queer visual culture beyond “identity politics.” When, I wondered, did Lynes become so gay?
In a letter from 1946, when Lynes was living in Los Angeles and surrounded by the aura of Hollywood, he wrote: “there’s a picture of me in a recent Life, along with Lana Turner etc., at Cobina Wright’s party. ... But I’m so lost in the murky background that I doubt if even you could find me.” Too often in trying to capture George Platt Lynes, we miss him completely. Like staring up the darkened stairs, we search for the person in the photograph, when it was the act of looking at the photograph that mattered all along. 
By James Polchin - http://www.glreview.com
teaches writing at New York University. He is completing a book on the life and afterlife of George Platt Lynes.

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