PRINT December 1988


HAW ANYONE DWELT ON the peculiar thing about kissing? Here’s an intimate human act carried out between two partners whose lips are certainly puckered but whose eyes are also closed. The dictionaries fail to notice this detail, as if it were trivial, and inessential to the main action. However, at the moment they approach to kiss each other, in respect, greeting, departure, love, or comfort—those familiar social gestures—our fellow beings ritually blind themselves. As their mouths touch, rendering them speechless, they restrict their sensory input, becoming vulnerable to each other in all but their tactile contact. This is odd.

Imagine, now, a photographic exhibition devoted to the theme “. . . a kiss is just a kiss,” in token of the nostalgic song we all remember. The visual possibilities are juicy but they depend on who organizes the show—I, for one, would not care to linger over any result arranged, say, by Hallmark cards. But it’s quite another matter when the event took place at an art gallery, the Twining, New York, on behalf of the Momentum AIDS Outreach Program of Saint Peter’s Church, New York, in the form of a benefit auction to succor victims of the plague of the late 20th century. Many amorous images were anthologized from disparate points of view and historical moments, illustrating droll or seductive episodes, but they are all presently altered for us by the feeling tones generated in the epoch of AIDS.

It’s as if a body of work had its temperature taken and the reading was found to be somewhat high. This is almost literally the case with Laurence Salzmann’s Randy’s Embrace, n.d., where two naked men embracing each other are enveloped by steam, as in a Turkish bath. Considering the opprobrium that the culture at large has attached to bath-house male sex, this tableau is provocative, the more so as the men’s erections touch together to steal the show. The scene has a Dantesque sweetness utterly proscribed in Hallmark America. But the inclusiveness of the show was given another dimension by the realities of an experience in which Eros and Thanatos now swim toward each other in the flesh, as they often have in poetry. Because such realities have been horrendously neglected in public-health policy and by mainstream consciousness, “. . . a kiss is just a kiss” might have been imagined a protest show. Though its organizers would have been happy to raise consciousness—as was the intent of some recent exhibitions devoted to those with AIDS—this event was designed to raise money (through the market value of artworks), but it did so with a charm that could have celebrated the capacities of human love only with a certain dissonance.

With just a few exceptions, most of them rather awkward profiles, photographs of kisses are obliged to favor one participant of the act over the other. Two individuals face closely in opposite directions, and the camera can only be trained in one. We know far less about the spiritedness of the person whose face is averted or concealed than of the one whose face is exposed to pictorial view: one of the kissers has a distinct performance advantage. But the more I think about it, the more I’m drawn to the other, as the expressive center of gravity. As soon as the viewer heeds the one who is borne down upon, to be clinched, groped, harnessed, or swaddled, the tone of the picture becomes uncertain. Look at the nurse who is almost swept off her feet by the sailor whom Alfred Eisenstaedt photographed in Times Square on VJ Day. I will not deny that she had reason to be as jubilant as he, and that the scene encouraged such demonstrations as theirs, but did she at that moment have any choice in the matter?

An issue is raised as soon as one reflects about what attentions were volunteered, coerced, suffered, or even paid for. . . as one sees, for instance, in another picture of a military subject, this time by René Burri, where a bored-looking Japanese woman hugs a black GI seen from behind. I would like very much to have known whether there had come over his features any realization that he was short-changed at that moment. Such a fantasy confesses to an interest in story content that a kiss picture will tease but rarely satisfy; yet there definitely are stories to be told, even among these strangers in public places. The recipient of apparent affection may well have been responding eagerly and freely, but if his or her expression is withheld, the content of the scene is equivocal. Pictures where this happens set up a kind of binary structure that is compromised by the limited vantage. The one visible face does not finally have the upper hand, but rather initiates a narrative, about which others—outsiders—come to their own judgment. With whom, under these conditions, will they tend to identify?

Of course the active agent in all these proceedings, as far as we’re concerned, is the photographer. In the case of the picture with the Japanese woman, Burri asks us to join him in his superior knowledge. It’s not that he encourages us to side with her, but to be aligned with him, as he points out in the relationship a discrepancy of which the male subject is perhaps unaware. Here is a device familiar enough in movies, where the direction allows viewers to get ahead of a character. But it is poignant to see intimations of it managed in what is after all a quickly observed “street” photograph.

Eventually, the idea of there being only an innocent couple, only two people involved, has to be modified. For the itinerant eye drawn to the embrace introduces a new situational tangent, casting three participants for the scene rather than two. To use a phrase from surveillance, we “triangulate” our target. If ever viewers tend to forget the voyeuristic covenant in much photographic culture, this particular subject-category of kisses will remind them of it. Access is here given to physically compressive behavior that was not meant to be snooped upon or disparaged by strangers, even if it was carried out freely in the open. To be made witnesses of a kiss or embrace at close range is generally to be given a spectacle whose good cheer, tenderness, or erotic vitality intimates a positive value from which all beholders are instantly excluded. Such personal binding brings home the fact that we the watchers are not at that moment in the same kind of solidarity with anyone—are not being attended to, comforted, or fussed over in like measure.

One need go no further than this to perceive the envious framework within which promotional culture and consumerism are founded. In our ubiquitous advertising imagery, we have to deal every day with the cheap deceit that folks can think of nothing better to do than smile benignly upon each other, kiss and fondle to show how happy the possession or use of a product has made them. Precisely because such pictures as the Burri unmask an embrace and disarm envy, they earn a reputation for candor, appearing to us as truth-telling reports in the world of grown-ups. But to confuse the cynicism that media fictions ordinarily produce with an objective attitude is to risk denying a real element in our own makeup, namely that we often do thrill when couples make out. The trouble is that three’s a crowd, and whoever heard of affairs getting simpler or more stable when they turn into ménages à trois?

A number of the most famous “triples” pictures in the history of photography were absent from the Twining show. I missed Brassaï's Lovers, Place d’Italie, 1932, Lisette Model’s Sailor and Girl, Sammy’s Bar, New York, ca. 1940 (an embrace, really, not a kiss), and Bill Brandt’s At Charlie Brown’s, 1930s. The last actually depicts a third figure, a man who gazes off unconcernedly while sitting next to entangled lovers in a sordid pub. Contrasting their total absorption with the outsider’s noninvolvement, Brandt increases tension by raising the suspicion that the scene has been posed. . . for us. The same staginess weighs down Model’s lugubrious lovebirds, who could not reasonably have ignored her brash invasion of their immediate private territory. Even Brassaï's amused, coquettish seducers seem to be rehearsing their barroom courtship, and saucily counting upon our appreciation. The point about these examples is not that the photographer or model is untrustworthy in furnishing certain information—even if it was solicited rather than happened upon—but that the tableau is embedded in a novelistic or cinematic environment, of a distinctly noirish tone. We viewers are invited to savor this atmosphere, but as we do so we are also reminded of the fact that kissing in public places can be ostentatious, a rhetorical display seemingly elaborated so as to dissociate its performers from the loveless and the solitary.

The presence of this latter, unprivileged state of mind indeed charges a number of images not altogether identifiable as either street photographs or narrative scenarios. I think of Louis Stettner’s Ferry Cross, Holland, ca. 1960, as a kind of iambic image, in which the beat falls not on the oblivious passenger up front in the car, but on the background, out-of-focus lovers to the right. In the iconography of modern lovemaking, the car holds such an honored place as to be taken for cliché. For wandering photographers, it is the erotic locale par excellence, a pocket of togetherness that is neither clandestine nor totally accessible. The camera in this instance acts like a heat-seeking rocket. A sprinkling of pictures in the show brings out this theme with nice variations, but one among them vectors in upon it with real combustion. Elliott Erwitt’s California, 1955, poses the question: How does it feel to be in the back of a car whose front-seat passengers are smooching away before the most hackneyed dusk that can be imagined? To be sure, one sees only their reflection in the side-view mirror, but it is enough to condense an improbable bliss. Everything that would distract from the effect of puerile illustration seems deliberately cut away from this image, and yet it could have been grabbed spontaneously, a thought made all the more plausible by Erwitt’s repute as a keen opportunist. If the picture hovers between these two possibilities—with a kind of exhibitionistic discreetness—it’s to the benefit of a voyeurism that informs the whole genre.

Actually, our contemporary taste might prefer to imagine the Erwitt as a setup. Because so much of ’80s pop culture recalls that of the ’50s (let alone its retro politics), the Wrigley’s Spearmint spirit of this wholesome-looking couple gratifies our contempt for the phony. It is in any case remarkable how fittingly these pictures of kisses symptomize cultural attitudes of their periods. Even with the ’30s photo by Brassaï, the appetites of voyeurism were well implied, and they have gotten progressively disinhibited as time wore on. By the mid ’70s Larry Clark could photograph a backseat teenage couple, naked, tongues extended, hands on each other’s sex, and make them speak not only for a onetime hippy subculture that has gone raunchy and punk, but also for a document that is more explosive than fiction, because it consummates a view that fiction only proposes. By no imaginative stretch can these youngsters be thought of as models. They have simply opened their lives to Clark and made him their confidante. With this relationship inferred, the pornographic aspect of the photograph is humanized (though an exploitive possibility is not dismissed). The vantage is abrupt and the lovers are precocious. They suggest—and this is part of Clark’s realism—that the act of looking upon them is more our problem than theirs. What a telling comparison could be made between the image by Clark and that of Erwitt, pictures that sum up the sanitized hype and the unreflective license in the sexual mores of their respective eras. But in the Twining show they were not compared, because there was bigger game afoot.

It was a stroke of insight into our ’80s dilemma that Clark’s picture was juxtaposed with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s quite different Cardinal Pacelli at Montmartre, Paris, 1938. This junction inevitably brought to mind the failure of a church—in the age of the plague—to enact its compassionate teachings for fear of undermining its established prohibitions on the matter of sex. The prelate’s hand is kissed amidst a sea of devotional faces. The fervor of this human act now looks archaic, almost chilly, given the present trauma. But the image was a cool point enveloped in a much warmer environment of often delicious unseemliness. Statues were kissed with amazing ardor (Josef Koudelka), or they went about it themselves (Bill Dane). With slobbering gusto, a cow tongued a wary handler (Garry Winogrand); a naked woman is up to something strange with a dog (Arthur Freed). There were kisses among the down and out and, for good measure, among the extremely affluent. Private parts were approached in some old porn stereoscope cards. A couple mimed their affection in a fair-booth photo stand that imitated an old biplane. Another couple in a car generated such heat as almost to steam out the field of vision. Faces melted into each other and bodies blurred. What prodigies of libido were infused through this gallery of impulse, dependency, affection, and narcissism!

The overall effect, however, was neither prurient, despite the unconsented views of many photographers, nor ribald, for all their carnal emphases. Were it based on curatorial permissiveness, the show would in the end have been found only titillating or sentimental. But neither of these objectives were in step with its sobering context. Some of the joys displayed are currently at risk, so that we tend to look back, not just on them but on all the others, as precious phenomena. The encompassing panorama of “. . . a kiss is just a kiss” was, as a result, conservationist in tone without being polemical in aim. Here were pictured ways that people react to each other, decorously or with abandon, but always intimately. We came upon the actors in these scenes in flagrante delicto, yet so isolated by the photograph as to leave us with little information about them, or none whatsoever. Regardless of the evidence it gave of past cultural sensibilities, the show had hardly any historical value. What it focused on, rather, was an often blinded subject that could not help revealing an irrepressible need. The medium of photography gives us a startling leverage into this world of passion and its casualties, which renews itself again and again.

Max Kozloff is a photographer and critic who lives in New York. His latest book, The Privileged Eye , was published by the University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“. . . a kiss is just a kiss” was organized in part by Bruce Velick, of San Francisco, in part by the Kiss Committee, New York.