New York

George Platt Lynes

Collected by the Kinsey Institute as documentation of homosexuality, George Platt Lynes’ photographs enjoy a certain notoriety. But in this survey, which located these images in the context of Lynes’ production as a whole, their dated artiness was more conspicuous than the sexuality they were meant to depict. Indeed, it seemed clear that for Lynes homosexuality had more to do with a certain manner of self-presentation than with a certain kind of sexual act. The intimacy of Lynes’ couples (sometimes triples) is in fact undermined by their dramatic positioning and posturing—the scenes seem more like staged performances than spontaneous acts of love. (Despite what Kinsey thought to be Lynes’ daring, discretion was the better part of valor for him, as his nostalgic, virtually sentimental, presentation of these scenes suggests.)

Lynes also dramatizes the body, often with a quasi-tenebrous technique that isolates one part of it—sometimes the genital area, but not always—suggesting that he really does not see his figures as people. In fact, the only real people here are artists—presented in a number of striking portraits—despite all his efforts to turn them into anonymous theatrical presences. Like the actors in his homosexual scenarios, they remain specific, autonomous individuals. They may stage themselves, but they have a self to stage. Lynes seems ultimately more fascinated with them than with the naked body. In effect, they are his alter egos, projections of his wish to have his photographs taken seriously as art, rather than as documentation.

Thus, in a peculiar way, the most interesting, indeed, artistically satisfying and startling works in the exhibition are the fashion photographs that Lynes did for Harper’s Bazaar. The porcelain-precious female dolls, in their virginal white finery and anorexic, noli me tangere bodies, are an amazing stylization of the myth of feminine purity. These fully clothed, weirdly disembodied females—they dissolve into their gowns as much as any gothic figure dissolves into its drapery—ultimately have a more disturbing effect than the tactile nakedness of the bodies of Lynes’ homosexual subjects. Both show that Lynes understood the culture of the illicit as an alternative and antidote to society’s own banality—it desperately turns to what it needs to believe is “unnatural.” Lynes seems to offer safe access to such Otherness, thereby restoring our society’s faith in itself, by giving it a taste of what it thinks is not itself.

Thus Lynes’ quasi-lurid photographs of the “lower depths” as well as his photographs of the higher, sanitized eroticism of fashion—they have their own kind of make-believe luridness—could not exist without the bourgeois vice of looking but not touching, contemplating but not acting. Lynes’ photographs embody such bourgeois detachment and curiosity as much as they embody sexual and artistic involvement. But perhaps they are most important for the paradoxical revelation that their overdramatic, forced character affords: the more one looks at them, the more they seem to reveal the vulnerability of their subjects. (This is something that the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe —the exhibition suggests that Lynes is his predecessor—do not convey, perhaps because they are more self-conscious and sophisticated.) For all the artifices of sexual and social meaning Lynes uses to give his figures aura and style, he reveals their self-presentation as a self-deception. This is the unexpected, understated triumph of his photographic art.

Donald Kuspit