New York


This recent exhibition of the “PaJaMa Photographs,” a collaborative venture of the three painters Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret (née Hoenig) French, suggests that their painterly work drew upon a wealth of knowledge gathered with Margaret French’s Leica over the course of a decade. They also suggest that contemporary ideas about art have changed in the years since the pictures were taken: these intimate and informal works, with their slightly surreal compositions, their youthful, often nude subjects, and their recurringly narcissistic, homo-erotic themes, now seem precursors to the work of photographers equally dedicated to stylish, narcissistic, homoerotic dream-imagery: Jack Pierson, say, or Bruce Weber (who, in fact, saluted the PaJaMa photographs in a 1995 photo essay for L’Uomo Vogue). Unlike these contemporary photographers, however, the PaJaMa Group were not creating these images for public consumption; the photos were simply distributed to friends, and the negatives have long since been lost.

Thus the show consisted entirely of vintage prints—an uneven body of work, and understandably so, since they were taken anonymously by the three artists (hence the acronym “PaJaMa”: Pa for Paul, Ja for Jared, Ma for Margaret). Some are textural and compositional studies: Paul Cadmus and Margaret French, Provincetown, c. 1945, by Jared French gives us two hooded figures sitting on sand dune, facing away from the light down a hill; the horizontal light shows the striations on the sand, and creates a jagged line where the dune falls away into shadow. Strongly composed and nearly abstract, it’s far from titillating or “souvenirish,” giving almost no sense of the personalities of the subjects. Fidelma Cadmus, Fire Island, 1939, is, by comparison, a glamour photograph, composed with Fidelma (Cadmus’ sister and, incidentally, the wife of Lincoln Kirstein) on the left, hair streaming, and behind her on the right, dune and sky. But most of the images suggest they are posed studies, possibly precursors to paintings. They are, at the very least, compositions similar to those Jared French—and to a lesser extent both Margaret French and Paul Cadmus—favored in paintings.

The surreal compositions (nudes posed disjunctively around pieces of driftwood, disembodied heads atop a sand dune, etc.) seem the most dated of the lot, but are in a way the most enjoyable; they’re the products of a sensibility that is decidedly not of our own moment, and that is, despite its apparent seriousness, also great fun. Still, the less formally posed works seem more vital—for example, George Tooker, Jared French and Monroe Wheeler, Provincetown, 1947, which features the three nude men lounging beside a piece of driftwood on a flat beach with sea breaking in the background. The apparent case with which this image was created lends it a particular sort of grace missing from the more artfully arranged images.

Although the photographs have their own surreal narratives, the individuals in each have stories of their own, so much so that the exhibition begs biographical explication; unfortunately, the biographies have yet to be written. Only these casual images remain, posing more questions than they answer, seducing the viewer through mystery, affectation, and above all, youthful joie de vivre.

Justin Spring