David Greene

The Darkroom

Anthropologists tell us that groups of people need social roles so they have something to depend upon amidst the trickeries of uncivilized nature, and that shaky individuals particularly require the security of predictable social roles. But the photographs of David Greene mix up the social roles. They are intended as documents with the didactic message that this kind of “life” or unorthodox behavior should shamelessly reveal its existence.

A bride steps into her stockings but she is actually a man in white lace. A pleasant middle-class living room scene with a begonia plant is really a jolting family portrait: the artist with long stringy hair, his more “acceptable” high school photo, and his bald, smiling, benign grandfather. A bedroom is actually an unlikely collage of fans, dolls, birds, butterflies, porcelain vases, and photos of Adolph Hitler next to Martha Washington. Above all, this sort of kitschy, campy intermixture of the wrong styles and the wrong values tends to echo the “wrongness” of being gay. But as Greene writes in his catalogue essay, the many relationships which currently exist for “non-procreative reasons” do afford an opportunity to articulate the self in many free, unbounded, and individualistic ways.

Yet Greene’s photographs are not merely very conventional; in fact, they are pictures about conventions. They are sensitive arrangements of textures (wavy hair, coarsely woven drapes, feathers, sequined dresses), forms (small bare light bulbs over long successive straight rows of doughnut shelves), tones (dark sweaters in front of bare chests), and compositional lines (a cluster of rigid rectangular mirror frame, poster, and bureau opposite a plump, round person). This “esthetic” does indeed confer an extreme importance upon the person in the photograph. However, these people emerge not as sensitive human beings, but as objects in a still life. There is no sense of time here, no sense that the subjects’ faces might wrinkle or that their fabrics might tear. Greene so expertly, neatly, and carefully presents marginal people and environments that any ambiguity, which could be considered a sign of life, is eliminated. These photos are like flawless packages, like advertisements.

Two photographs contradict this mold, and interestingly both are photographs of women. In one the woman lies flat on her back on a white couch, while the scene is shot from above. Like a little ballerina puppet in a red, red dress she seems to mimic a social role, waiting for the “social role strings” to lift her. Here is a compelling disparity between mechanical doll and thinking human being. Similarly, in another photograph, a sophisticated art collector assumes an impatient, questioning, tentative pose—hands on hips, leaning against a bed, looking curiously out at the photographer—while a sewn and stuffed girly doll sits with its legs spread apart on the bed, suggesting an undeterminable relationship to that collector. Does the collector like the doll? Does the photographer see the doll and the collector as similar?

Greene always stresses that his photographs are taken in the subjects’ homes amidst their own things, or in other environments which they customarily inhabit; nothing is “phonied up” for the picture. And although he may not intend to, he does reveal how much of “reality” is really a prop. Seeing a man look exactly like an advertisement in that revered, American culture magazine American Bride shows that “bride” is exactly that—a look.

This body of work has been exhibited under the title Shameless, complete with its own scarlet-colored exhibition catalogue, but in keeping with that theme, if I were to imagine anything “shameless” about these photographs it would not be that men wear clothes which have not been prescribed by society, or that different people fill the same social roles. On the contrary it would be that many of these pictures show nothing whatsoever but superfluous glitter and facetious prettiness and that Greene seems to claim for men the same exact stultifying role-playing which for women has meant vapid, marginally human lives. Is this “liberated freedom”? No. But as facades these photographs work.

C. L. Morrison