PRINT January 2004

Susan Kismaric

John Coplans chose to devote his intense energy to photography later in life, when he was sixty. Because he was a decisive man, his late start may have helped him focus on his subject quickly. The first portraits he made (mostly of friends) were intriguing because of their unblinking clarity, but it wasn’t until he discovered the possibilities available from making pictures of his own body that he found his true subject. It was a brilliant choice that offered him an infinite number of opportunities. His images drew not only on his vast knowledge of the history of photography but on painting and sculpture as well—everything from Egyptian hieroglyphics, ancient Greek friezes, and the classical nude to the blunt photographs of Weegee—plus his full awareness of contemporary abstraction and performance art. The fact that John’s subject was an aged man’s naked body (unsparingly described) wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but that didn’t stop him or deflect the appreciation of people who were moved by the work. Made over the course of almost twenty-five years, the photographs reflect many aspects of his personality, especially his wit and humor, but equally apparent are the tenacity, intelligence, and passion with which he pursued and realized his ideas. Shockingly, no one had ever made such pictures.

True to John’s character, the photographs are original and challenging, a provocation to conventional thinking, and, again, unblinking and relentless. On a grander scale, the work became a metaphor—John’s body became a metaphor—for a fully lived life. The endless permutations of his flesh, its folds, creases, hair, wounds, sagging postures and parts, became, in full-scale photos, larger than life—as John himself was.

Susan Kismaric is curator in the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.