San Francisco

George Platt Lynes

Stephen Wirtz Gallery

The early years of George Platt Lynes’ career read like a Hollywood film script. Gifted and financially secure, he was privately educated and well-traveled. In the ’20s Lynes went to Paris, where he became acquainted with Man Ray and with Gertrude Stein and the writers and artists of her circle; by the middle of the ’30s he had established himself in New York, and, though not yet 30, had achieved success in the commercial and fashion photography fields and had exhibited his art photography at the Julien Levy Gallery and at the Museum of Modern Art. His achievements, however, were balanced by problems: the death, in World War II, of George Tichenor (with whom Lynes was deeply involved), the frustration of failing to exhibit his male nudes for fear of damaging his commercial career, an unsuccessful three-year stint in Hollywood, and, finally, financial difficulties and cancer.

Before he died in 1955, at the age of 48, Lynes destroyed much of his work—concentrating especially on the male nudes and celebrity portraits he thought might prove too revealing. This exhibition was culled from surviving and largely unknown pieces, but includes some commercial and dance photographs that seem directly influenced by Lynes’ personal photography. Though this show was neither as expansive nor as varied as the recently published monograph of his work (George Platt Lynes, Photographs 1931–1955, Twelvetrees Press), it more effectively located the nexus of Lynes’ various styles, and consequently imparted a clearer sense of the photographer’s esthetic and artistic development.

Lynes’ active imagination took many forms: studio tableaus—in one photograph a model undresses another while a third lies naked on the bed watching; mythological setups—a male cyclops with a glass eye; and, in the late ’40s Hollywood period, very spare, elegant studies of nudes in interior settings. Lynes’ creativity is equaled by his technical virtuosity: his use of light imbues his models with an almost translucent plasticity, and infuses the studio space with ambiguity and drama. Eroticism is implicit but rarely overt; sexuality is communicated through the elegance or handsomeness of the models, and through the sensualities of light and form. Lynes’ eroticism is one of expectation; his images are constructed on (emotional) anticipation and physical separateness rather than on explicit depiction or actual contact.

The photographer’s surrealist orientation is most obvious in the mythological tableaus from the late ’30s and in the dance pictures he created for George Balanchine. Lynes’ most potent images, however, are not those with kitschy, surrealism-as-fashion-inspired props and mise-en-scènes, but rather the simply lit interiors with their subtleties of formal composition and construction. In his dual explorations of surrealistic and formalist modes, Lynes emerges as the predecessor to what might be considered the two poles of a contemporary homoerotic esthetic in photography: the mythic narratives of Duane Michals and the studio formalism of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Lynes’ pictures, or at least what remains of them, form a rather melancholy oeuvre. In the early work distance and sexual anticipation appear playful; in the later, they communicate pathos. A 1943 portrait of Marsden Hartley shows the painter in a rumpled suit, seated, staring into space. In the background, against the rear wall of the studio, stands a young man, discernible yet remote, inaccessible. Though only 36 when he made this photograph, Lynes seems to have understood the painter’s personal frustrations, and perhaps saw in Hartley’s tragic life a premonition of what his own experience would become.

Hal Fischer