New York

Charles Henri Ford, Self-Portrait with Mirror, 1937, gelatin silver print, 12 × 12".

Charles Henri Ford, Self-Portrait with Mirror, 1937, gelatin silver print, 12 × 12".

Charles Henri Ford

“Love and Jump Back” at Mitchell Algus Gallery, curated by photographer and writer Allen Frame, is an exhibition of photographs by poet, editor, and bricoleur Charles Henri Ford (1908–2002). The show takes its name from the working title of Ford’s 1933 novel, The Young and the Evil, which he coauthored with critic Parker Tyler. This banned chronicle of “mucilage [and] malaise”—to use writer Claude McKay’s memorable phrasing—at the queer fringes of New York’s Greenwich Village between the world wars is today recognized by many as the first gay novel in American letters. Ford, however, was better known in his lifetime as the impresario of a deterritorialized and loosely conceived Surrealism through his editorship of View magazine, which brought the work of Leonora Carrington, Joseph Cornell, Allen Ginsberg, Marshall McLuhan, Isamu Noguchi, and myriad others to its pages during its seven-year run in the 1940s.

“In the end,” Ford wrote to Tyler in 1958, “everything is a question of personality.” Charismatic, ambitious, and formidably social, Ford lived for ninety-four years, soaking up the drawing-room modernism of Gertrude Stein’s 27, rue de Fleurus and the amphetamine-laced production line of Andy Warhol’s Factory. The abundance of photographic portraits on view here—their subjects ranging from a weathered, snifter-brandishing W. H. Auden to a baby-faced Paul Bowles, from a beret-sporting beatnik Ted Joans to an imperious, fur-swaddled Leonor Fini—offers a collective rendering of a glamorized bohemia and a tantalizing, if partial, directory of an acephalous avant-garde oozing across geographic boundaries, disciplinary silos, and stiff “historical” and “neo-” periodizations.

In one picture, James Van Der Zee, portraitist nonpareil of the Harlem Renaissance, cuts a cool figure in front of a pulpy billboard advertising the 1938 boxing picture Spirit of Youth—a rags-to-riches yarn inspired by the life of heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who is also the film’s star. In another, William Burroughs demonically haunts a palm reader’s storefront. Elsewhere, Yves Tanguy pruriently wiggles his finger inside a glory hole cut through a wooden fence. Also, professional eccentric and part-time undertaker Robert Heber-Percy lazes in a wainscoted room with tragic playboy and philanthropist Peter Watson, who balances a cigarette between his fingers and wears a wolf mask rakishly pulled up above his young, weary eyes. Ford’s intimate companions—including Djuna Barnes, whose Nightwood (1936) he transcribed during a rendezvous in Tangier, Morocco, and Andrea Tagliabue, a kouros-like Italian actor whose bit part in Marcel Carné’s juvenile-delinquency drama Terrain Vague (1960) led to Ford’s gig as the movie’s still photographer—also make appearances. But the most prominent character in the show is Pavel Tchelitchew, a Surrealist painter of faded renown and Ford’s romantic partner for more than twenty years. In one snapshot from the 1930s, his cropped head and torso are crowned by gnarled tree branches prefiguring the sylvan hallucination of his Hide-and-Seek, 1940–42, considered for decades the most popular painting in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Ford’s street photographs of 1930s Italy, heavily influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson and infused with a stirring combination of rustic innocence and fascist menace, provide a welcome break from the parade of famous faces. So does the visage-obscuring Self-Portrait with Mirror, 1937, in which a naked and reclining Ford assumes the rearward attitude of Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, his penis reflected in a looking glass with a gilded frame. Yet the currents underlying “Love and Jump Back” have less to do with sex per se than with an anxious connectivity, a flickering celebrity, and an almost defensive sophistication—responses to a moment in time when aesthetic “enchantment,” as Ford himself intimated in a 1966 volume of collage poems, was increasingly “for sale.” To acknowledge this fact isn’t to disparage Ford’s photography as superficial. To the contrary: A few years later, Marxist critic John Berger would make plain what Ford intuited: “Glamour” is the affect of a “society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped halfway.” Till we arrive, we’ll be under its compensatory spell.