PRINT January 1986



George Platt Lynes, Ballet (Pasadena, Calif.: Twelvetrees Press, 1985), 83 sheet-fed gravures.

At a time when photography and ballet were often both dismissed as minor arts, George Platt Lynes photographed ballet dancers as major gods. To Lynes, the balletomane’s ecstatic cries of “Divine!” were simply the oracular utterance of the truth. The extreme stylization of ballet—from the predilection for mythical subjects to the ritual application of eye shadow—enabled Lynes’ flair for artifice to masquerade as straight reportage, mitigating somewhat the obsessive quality that delights admirers of Lynes’ surrealist “art” photographs of classical myths. These gods command their own stages; Lynes’ obsession with their appearance is at least equaled by their own.

In ballet, as Lynes remarked, “the beauty of the individual dancer is a part of one’s pleasure,” and for him it was clearly the main part. We may all undress dancers with our eyes, but Lynes did it literally and clicked the shutter. He was fascinated by the body in a role, not by the body in motion; Lynes rejected a strobe light precisely because it enabled him to photograph “nothing that anyone at a performance, with the naked eyes, has ever seen . . . We do sometimes see dancers at rest; we never see their leaps and pirouettes immobilized.”

But though posed still as statues and illuminated as sculpted objects, these images of Apollo, Orpheus, and Billy the Kid have nothing “timeless” about them. The promotion of classical ballet in America in the ’30s and ’40s, most notably by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, was the ornament in American ambition to seize cultural hegemony from Europe. Isadora Duncan had rendered homage to Europe as a symbol of America dancing; Balanchine got Americans up on their toes. Lynes had the vision to see that epoch in mythic terms; his vision is nobly served by this book’s amplitude of scale and impeccable production. Four pictures from 1951, toward the end of the book, capture the apotheosis of the enterprise: in La Valse, dancing Europe flirts with death, topples into the volcano; turn the page and Apollo leads the muses toward the new land.

Herbert Muschamp