Archive for the 'photographic series' Category

26
Nov
22

Exhibition: ‘Baldwin Lee’ at Joseph Bellows Gallery, La Jolla, California

Exhibition dates: 22nd October – 10th December 2022

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Vicksburg, Mississippi' 1983

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Vicksburg, Mississippi
1983
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

 

“The work of two contemporary photographers, Bill Brandt of England and the American, Walker Evans, have influenced me. When I first looked at Walker Evans’ photographs, I thought of something Malraux wrote: “To transform destiny into awareness.” One is embarrassed to want so much for oneself. But, how else are you going to justify your failure and your effort?”

.
Robert Frank, ‘U.S. Camera Annual’, 1958, p. 115

 

 

In terms of training as a photographer, Baldwin Lee couldn’t have done much better than study with those two photographic greats, Minor White and Walker Evans. His work is suffused with their glow, especially the influence of Walker Evans. Lee’s works continues that wonderful tradition of documenting with frankness, things that are placed before the lens. In his photographs of “Black Americans: at home, at work, and at play, in the street, and among nature”, Lee responds with understanding and a “a sensitive eye for both poverty and dignity” to the plight of the lower echelons of American society, in work that “exposes the violence of poverty inherited from the plantation-economy past.” And though his photographs he tries to transform the destiny (of a race) into awareness (of their plight).

“In 1983, Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) left his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his 4 × 5 view camera and set out on the first of a series of road trips to photograph the American South.” Lee received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1984, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1984 and 1987 to continue his project until the end of the decade. The resultant photographs show “attentiveness to the composure of his subjects that is echoed masterfully in the composition of his shots” … “Lee’s graceful pictures from this project perfectly balance the photographer’s presence and the subject’s will, honouring both through the resulting, beautifully printed 16 x 20-inch black-and-white photographs.”

At their best, Lee’s photographs (such as Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1983 above) have an incisive presence which illuminates the human condition through a revelation of spirit, the spirit of a people with the strength to survive and flourish against the forces of tyranny, discrimination and oppression. The proud stare of the child, the placement in of his hands, his large belt buckle, and the attitude of the father make this photograph a masterpiece of observation and composition. Other powerful photographs such as New Orleans, Louisiana (1984, below), Columbia, South Carolina (1984, below), Valdosta, Georgia (1984, below) and Valdosta, Georgia (1986, below) intimately capture the inter-generational strength that courses through generations of survivors – survivors of life, of hardship, of disenfranchisement. And then we must place those portraits in a historical context for their wider import to be understood: Vicksburg, Mississippi and its political and racial unrest after the Civil War; Montgomery, Alabama and the bus boycott that changed a nation; Mobile, Alabama and its race riots during the Second World War and the desegregation of the school system in 1964. And so it still goes…

Other photographs, such as Montgomery, Alabama (1984, below), Lula, Mississippi (1984, below), Natchez, Mississippi (1984, below) and Garnett, South Carolina (1985, below) are an extension of the work of Walker Evans. They really have no signature of the individual artist but continue the tradition, the story, of documentary photography in America. In the camera magazines of the mid- 60s to mid- 70s the photographer who was published would also have a small image check-list in the last pages of the magazine with technical information – aperture / developer / paper etc… Instead, for these pages, Minor White would say: “For technical information, the camera was faithfully used.” And one could imagine this artist saying the same thing, for there are no attempts at obfuscation or anything that would alter the intensity of his vision.

Of the remaining photographs in the posting… I have rather ambivalent feelings about them. All of the photographs possess a calmness and quietness to them, have balanced (perhaps too balanced) composition, but some leave me feeling rather cold. It’s almost as if I am looking at a “scene” from reality, rather than reality itself. Much like Edward S. Curtis and his storytelling of the First Nations peoples, that is, the myth that he wanted to tell of a “vanishing race” – some of Lee’s photographs are too staged, to constructed by the photographer that real life gets put in the deep freeze. A good example of this is the photograph Canton, Mississippi (1985, below). Imagine the time it would have taken Lee to set up his large format camera, to check the light, to focus the ground glass, and then to place the figures in such a deliberate arrangement. Did the subjects have a say in how they wanted to be portrayed? With this arrangement, especially the figure at left with her hand in the air, I suspect not… it’s all just so stilted and unmoving, particularly the spacing between the figures. Certainly, in this one particular photograph, the image does not balance photographer’s presence and the subject’s will. It’s a story that the photographer wants to tell in a particular way.

Other photographs teeter either side of this line, between seemingly spontaneous and obviously staged compositions. I don’t believe Vicksburg, Mississippi (1984, below) whereas I do feel Walls, Mississippi (1984, below), mainly because of the to stiff pose of the standing boy in the former and the languid pose and look of the girl in the latter. I believe in the direct stares of the children in Boyle, Mississippi (1985, below) and yet in the photograph below (Columbia, South Carolina 1984, below), that trust is dissolved. It is so difficult with a large format camera to stop the images becoming a facsimile of real life… something that appeals to the direction of the photographer but is a creation of their imagination, not a portrait of the real life of the subjects. In other words, the images do not go into that world with equal drama (usually the feeling is modified by Walker Evans directness), for there is a range of using this “drama” trope.

Here I am not appealing for something close to Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” for that is almost impossible with a large format camera, but rather something more akin to the work of Minor White than that of Walker Evans – more a revelation of spirit rather than a humanist “family of man”. As with any portrait, whether it is in the objective but slightly surreal portraits by August Sander or the dynamic exposures by Diane Arbus, it is the ability of the photographer to reveal the Self behind the mask that creates memorable portraits.

This is why Lee’s photograph Vicksburg, Mississippi 1983 stands head and shoulders above all the other photographs in this posting. The portrait challenges our preconceptions of what is it to live this life, to be Black in America, and with fierce resolve that echoes down through the generations, it says, we will survive and flourish… for we are whole and free.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

.
PS. Sometimes we say something about an image which is “after the case” of its place in the world. Knowing the boundaries of when this stops and starts is the big challenge…

.
Many thankx to Joseph Bellows Gallery for allowing me to publish the photograph in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Vicksburg, Mississippi' 1983

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Vicksburg, Mississippi
1983
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Vicksburg, Mississippi' 1984

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Vicksburg, Mississippi
1984
Gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Vicksburg, Mississippi' 1984

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Vicksburg, Mississippi
1984
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

 

Vicksburg, Mississippi

Civil War

During the American Civil War, the city finally surrendered during the Siege of Vicksburg, after which the Union Army gained control of the entire Mississippi River. The 47-day siege was intended to starve the city into submission. Its location atop a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River proved otherwise impregnable to assault by federal troops. The surrender of Vicksburg by Confederate General John C. Pemberton on July 4, 1863, together with the defeat of General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg the day before, has historically marked the turning point of the Civil War in the Union’s favour.

From the surrender of Vicksburg until the end of the war in 1865, the area was under Union military occupation. The Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, was based at his family plantation at Brierfield, just south of the city.

 

Political and racial unrest after Civil War

In the first few years after the Civil War, white Confederate veterans developed the Ku Klux Klan, beginning in Tennessee; it had chapters throughout the South and attacked freedmen and their supporters. It was suppressed about 1870. By the mid-1870s, new white paramilitary groups had arisen in the Deep South, including the Red Shirts [white supremacist paramilitary terrorist groups that were active in the late 19th century] in Mississippi, as whites struggled to regain political and social power over the black majority. Elections were marked by violence and fraud as white Democrats worked to suppress black Republican voting.

In August 1874, a black sheriff, Peter Crosby, was elected in Vicksburg. Letters by a white planter, Batchelor, detail the preparations of whites for what he described as a “race war,” including acquisition of the newest guns, Winchester 16 mm. On December 7, 1874, white men disrupted a black Republican meeting celebrating Crosby’s victory and held him in custody before running him out of town. He advised blacks from rural areas to return home; along the way, some were attacked by armed whites. During the next several days, armed white mobs swept through black areas, killing other men at home or out in the fields. Sources differ as to total fatalities, with 29-50 blacks and 2 whites reported dead at the time. Twenty-first-century historian Emilye Crosby estimates that 300 blacks were killed in the city and the surrounding area of Claiborne County, Mississippi. The Red Shirts were active in Vicksburg and other Mississippi areas, and black pleas to the federal government for protection were not met.

At the request of Republican Governor Adelbert Ames, who had left the state during the violence, President Ulysses S. Grant sent federal troops to Vicksburg in January 1875. In addition, a congressional committee investigated what was called the “Vicksburg Riot” at the time (and reported as the “Vicksburg Massacre” by northern newspapers.) They took testimony from both black and white residents, as reported by the New York Times, but no one was ever prosecuted for the deaths. The Red Shirts and other white insurgents suppressed Republican voting by both whites and blacks; smaller-scale riots were staged in the state up to the 1875 elections, at which time white Democrats regained control of a majority of seats in the state legislature.

Under new constitutions, amendments and laws passed between 1890 in Mississippi and 1908 in the remaining southern states, white Democrats disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites by creating barriers to voter registration, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. They passed laws imposing Jim Crow [laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern United States] and racial segregation of public facilities.

 

20th century to present

The exclusion of most blacks from the political system lasted for decades until after Congressional passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s. Lynchings of blacks and other forms of white racial terrorism against them continued to occur in Vicksburg after the start of the 20th century. In May 1903, for instance, two black men charged with murdering a planter were taken from jail by a mob of 200 farmers and lynched before they could go to trial. In May 1919, as many as a thousand white men broke down three sets of steel doors to abduct, hang, burn and shoot a black prisoner, Lloyd Clay, who was falsely accused of raping a white woman. From 1877 to 1950 in Warren County, 14 African Americans were lynched by whites, most in the decades near the turn of the century…

Particularly after World War II, in which many blacks served, returning veterans began to be active in the civil rights movement, wanting to have full citizenship after fighting in the war. In Mississippi, activists in the Vicksburg Movement became prominent during the 1960s.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Montgomery, Alabama' 1984

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Montgomery, Alabama
1984
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

 

Montgomery, Alabama

In the post-World War II era, returning African-American veterans were among those who became active in pushing to regain their civil rights in the South: to be allowed to vote and participate in politics, to freely use public places, to end segregation. According to the historian David Beito of the University of Alabama, African Americans in Montgomery “nurtured the modern civil rights movement.” African Americans comprised most of the customers on the city buses, but were forced to give up seats and even stand in order to make room for whites. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott. Martin Luther King Jr., then the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and E.D. Nixon, a local civil rights advocate, founded the Montgomery Improvement Association to organise the boycott. In June 1956, the US District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson ruled that Montgomery’s bus racial segregation was unconstitutional. After the US Supreme Court upheld the ruling in November, the city desegregated the bus system, and the boycott was ended.

In separate action, integrated teams of Freedom Riders rode South on interstate buses. In violation of federal law and the constitution, bus companies had for decades acceded to state laws and required passengers to occupy segregated seating in Southern states. Opponents of the push for integration organised mob violence at stops along the Freedom Ride. In Montgomery, there was police collaboration when a white mob attacked Freedom Riders at the Greyhound Bus Station in May 1961. Outraged national reaction resulted in the enforcement of desegregation of interstate public transportation.

Martin Luther King Jr. returned to Montgomery in 1965. Local civil rights leaders in Selma had been protesting Jim Crow laws and practices that raised barriers to blacks registering to vote. Following the shooting of a man after a civil rights rally, the leaders decided to march to Montgomery to petition Governor George Wallace to allow free voter registration. The violence they encountered from county and state highway police outraged the country. The federal government ordered National Guard and troops to protect the marchers. Thousands more joined the marchers on the way to Montgomery, and an estimated 25,000 marchers entered the capital to press for voting rights. These actions contributed to Congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to authorise federal supervision and enforcement of the rights of African Americans and other minorities to vote.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Montgomery bus boycott

The Montgomery bus boycott was a political and social protest campaign against the policy of racial segregation on the public transit system of Montgomery, Alabama. It was a foundational event in the civil rights movement in the United States. The campaign lasted from December 5, 1955 – the Monday after Rosa Parks, an African-American woman, was arrested for her refusal to surrender her seat to a white person – to December 20, 1956, when the federal ruling Browder v. Gayle took effect, and led to a United States Supreme Court decision that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws that segregated buses were unconstitutional. …

 

Background

Before the bus boycott, Jim Crow laws mandated the racial segregation of the Montgomery Bus Line. As a result of this segregation, African Americans were not hired as drivers, were forced to ride in the back of the bus, and were frequently ordered to surrender their seats to white people even though black passengers made up 75% of the bus system’s riders. Many bus drivers treated their black passengers poorly beyond the law: African-Americans were assaulted, shortchanged, and left stranded after paying their fares.

The year before the bus boycott began, the Supreme Court decided unanimously, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional. The reaction by the white population of the Deep South was “noisy and stubborn”. Many white bus drivers joined the White Citizens’ Council as a result of the decision.

Although it is often framed as the start of the civil rights movement, the boycott occurred at the end of many black communities’ struggles in the South to protect black women, such as Recy Taylor, from racial violence. The boycott also took place within a larger statewide and national movement for civil rights, including court cases such as Morgan v. Virginia, the earlier Baton Rouge bus boycott, and the arrest of Claudette Colvin for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. …

 

History

Under the system of segregation used on Montgomery buses, the ten front seats were reserved for white people at all times. The ten back seats were supposed to be reserved for black people at all times. The middle section of the bus consisted of sixteen unreserved seats for white and black people on a segregated basis.[22] White people filled the middle seats from the front to back, and black people filled seats from the back to front until the bus was full. If other black people boarded the bus, they were required to stand. If another white person boarded the bus, then everyone in the black row nearest the front had to get up and stand so that a new row for white people could be created; it was illegal for white and black people to sit next to each other. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white person, she was sitting in the first row of the middle section.

Often when boarding the buses, black people were required to pay at the front, get off, and reenter the bus through a separate door at the back. Occasionally, bus drivers would drive away before black passengers were able to reboard. National City Lines owned the Montgomery Bus Line at the time of the Montgomery bus boycott. Under the leadership of Walter Reuther, the United Auto Workers donated almost $5,000 (equivalent to $51,000 in 2021) to the boycott’s organising committee.

 

Boycott

See the full details of the bus boycott on the Wikipedia website

 

Aftermath

White backlash against the court victory was quick, brutal, and, in the short term, effective. Two days after the inauguration of desegregated seating, someone fired a shotgun through the front door of Martin Luther King’s home. A day later, on Christmas Eve, white men attacked a black teenager as she exited a bus. Four days after that, two buses were fired upon by snipers. In one sniper incident, a pregnant woman was shot in both legs. On January 10, 1957, bombs destroyed five black churches and the home of Reverend Robert S. Graetz, one of the few white Montgomerians who had publicly sided with the MIA.

The City suspended bus service for several weeks on account of the violence. According to legal historian Randall Kennedy, “When the violence subsided and service was restored, many black Montgomerians enjoyed their newly recognised right only abstractly … In practically every other setting, Montgomery remained overwhelmingly segregated …” On January 23, a group of Klansmen (who would later be charged for the bombings) lynched a black man, Willie Edwards, on the pretext that he was dating a white woman.

The city’s elite moved to strengthen segregation in other areas, and in March 1957 passed an ordinance making it “unlawful for white and colored persons to play together, or, in company with each other … in any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, pool, billiards, softball, basketball, baseball, football, golf, track, and at swimming pools, beaches, lakes or ponds or any other game or games or athletic contests, either indoors or outdoors.”

Later in the year, Montgomery police charged seven Klansmen with the bombings, but all of the defendants were acquitted. About the same time, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled against Martin Luther King’s appeal of his “illegal boycott” conviction. Rosa Parks left Montgomery due to death threats and employment blacklisting. According to Charles Silberman, “by 1963, most Negroes in Montgomery had returned to the old custom of riding in the back of the bus.”

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Shreveport, Louisiana' 1985

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Shreveport, Louisiana
1985
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Walls, Mississippi' 1984

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Walls, Mississippi
1984
Gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Lula, Mississippi' 1984

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Lula, Mississippi
1984
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Lula, Mississippi' 1984

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Lula, Mississippi
1984
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Helena, Arkansas' 1986

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Helena, Arkansas
1986
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Natchez, Mississippi' 1984

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Natchez, Mississippi
1984
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

 

Joseph Bellows Gallery is pleased to announce its upcoming exhibition, Baldwin Lee. The exhibition will open with a reception for the artist on Saturday, the 22nd of October, from 4 – 6pm, and continue through December 10th. This will be the second solo exhibition of the photographer’s work presented by Joseph Bellows Gallery. The gallery first showcased Lee’s epic project online, from April 18th – June 26, 2020.

The upcoming show will present a remarkable selection of vintage prints from this critically acclaimed and highly celebrated body of work taken within Black communities in the South, that began in 1983, and continued throughout that decade. The resulting collection of images from this seven-year period contains nearly ten thousand black-and-white negatives taken with a 4 x 5-inch view camera. Lee’s graceful pictures from this project perfectly balance the photographer’s presence and the subject’s will, honouring both through the resulting, beautifully printed 16 x 20-inch black-and-white photographs. The esteemed photography curator Joshua Chuang has noted that, “The pictures stand apart, not because they are depictions of Black subjects by a first-generation Chinese-American, but because they were made by a photographer of rare perception and instinct.”

Baldwin Lee studied photography with Minor White at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in 1972. Lee then continued his education at Yale University, where he studied with Walker Evans. He received a Master of Fine Arts in 1975. After school, Lee began teaching photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and then at Yale, while creating his own photographs, which at the time were rooted in the exploration of the contemporary built environment. Lee’s later work from the early to late-1980s entitled, Black Americans in the South (from which this exhibition is drawn), is a compelling and empathic portrait that represents its subjects within their rural environments, expressing the joys of childhood, the gravity of adult life, and the places in between. Images from Lee’s Southern work were featured in Aperture Magazine, Issue 115, ‘New Southern Photography: Between Myth and Reality’ (1989), and now form the newly published monograph, Baldwin Lee (Hunters Point Press, 2022).

Lee’s work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Chrysler Museum of Art, the Knoxville Museum of Art, the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia. His photographs are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the University of Kentucky Art Museum, the Yale University Art Gallery, The Morgan Library, and the Museum of the City of New York. He has been honoured with fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation (1984) and the National Endowment for the Arts (1984 and 1990).

Text from the Joseph Bellows Gallery website [Online] Cited 28/10/2022

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Boyle, Mississippi' 1985

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Boyle, Mississippi
1985
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Columbia, South Carolina' 1984

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Columbia, South Carolina
1984
Gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Rosedale, Mississippi' 1985

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Rosedale, Mississippi
1985
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Monroe, Louisiana' 1985

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Monroe, Louisiana
1985
Gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Mobile, Alabama' 1983

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Mobile, Alabama
1983
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

 

Mobile, Alabama

20th century

The turn of the 20th century brought the Progressive Era to Mobile. The economic structure developed with new industries, generating new jobs and attracting a significant increase in population.[50] The population increased from around 40,000 in 1900 to 60,000 by 1920. During this time the city received $3 million in federal grants for harbour improvements to deepen the shipping channels. During and after World War I, manufacturing became increasingly vital to Mobile’s economic health, with shipbuilding and steel production being two of the most important industries.

During this time, social justice and race relations in Mobile worsened, however. The state passed a new constitution in 1901 that disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites; and the white Democratic-dominated legislature passed other discriminatory legislation. In 1902, the city government passed Mobile’s first racial segregation ordinance, segregating the city streetcars. It legislated what had been informal practice, enforced by convention. Mobile’s African-American population responded to this with a two-month boycott, but the law was not repealed. After this, Mobile’s de facto segregation was increasingly replaced with legislated segregation as whites imposed Jim Crow laws to maintain supremacy.

In 1911 the city adopted a commission form of government, which had three members elected by at-large voting. Considered to be progressive, as it would reduce the power of ward bosses, this change resulted in the elite white majority strengthening its power, as only the majority could gain election of at-large candidates. In addition, poor whites and blacks had already been disenfranchised. Mobile was one of the last cities to retain this form of government, which prevented smaller groups from electing candidates of their choice. But Alabama’s white yeomanry had historically favoured single-member districts in order to elect candidates of their choice. …

A race riot broke out in May 1943 of whites against blacks. ADDSCO management had long maintained segregated conditions at the shipyards, although the Roosevelt administration had ordered defence contractors to integrate facilities. That year ADDSCO promoted 12 blacks to positions as welders, previously reserved for whites; and whites objected to the change by rioting on May 24. The mayor appealed to the governor to call in the National Guard to restore order, but it was weeks before officials allowed African Americans to return to work, keeping them away for their safety.

In the late 1940s, the transition to the postwar economy was hard for the city, as thousands of jobs were lost at the shipyards with the decline in the defence industry. Eventually the city’s social structure began to become more liberal. Replacing shipbuilding as a primary economic force, the paper and chemical industries began to expand. No longer needed for defence, most of the old military bases were converted to civilian uses. Following the war, in which many African Americans had served, veterans and their supporters stepped up activism to gain enforcement of their constitutional rights and social justice, especially in the Jim Crow South. During the 1950s the City of Mobile integrated its police force and Spring Hill College accepted students of all races. Unlike in the rest of the state, by the early 1960s the city buses and lunch counters voluntarily desegregated. …

In 1963, three African-American students brought a case against the Mobile County School Board for being denied admission to Murphy High School. This was nearly a decade after the United States Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. The federal district court ordered that the three students be admitted to Murphy for the 1964 school year, leading to the desegregation of Mobile County’s school system.

The civil rights movement gained congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, eventually ending legal segregation and regaining effective suffrage for African Americans. But whites in the state had more than one way to reduce African Americans’ voting power. Maintaining the city commission form of government with at-large voting resulted in all positions being elected by the white majority, as African Americans could not command a majority for their candidates in the informally segregated city. …

Mobile’s city commission form of government was challenged and finally overturned in 1982 in City of Mobile v. Bolden, which was remanded by the United States Supreme Court to the district court. Finding that the city had adopted a commission form of government in 1911 and at-large positions with discriminatory intent, the court proposed that the three members of the city commission should be elected from single-member districts, likely ending their division of executive functions among them. Mobile’s state legislative delegation in 1985 finally enacted a mayor-council form of government, with seven members elected from single-member districts. This was approved by voters. As white conservatives increasingly entered the Republican Party in the late 20th century, African-American residents of the city have elected members of the Democratic Party as their candidates of choice. Since the change to single-member districts, more women and African Americans were elected to the council than under the at-large system.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'New Orleans, Louisiana' 1984

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
New Orleans, Louisiana
1984
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Canton, Mississippi' 1985

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Canton, Mississippi
1985
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Plain Dealing, Louisiana' 1985

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Plain Dealing, Louisiana
1985
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Plain Dealing is a town in Bossier Parish, Louisiana, United States. The population was 893 in 2020.

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Columbia, South Carolina' 1984

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Columbia, South Carolina
1984
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Quitman, Georgia' 1984

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Quitman, Georgia
1984
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Quitman is a city in and the county seat of Brooks County, Georgia, United States. The population was 3,850 at the 2010 census.

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Valdosta, Georgia' 1984

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Valdosta, Georgia
1984
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

 

Valdosta, Georgia

Valdosta is a city in and the county seat of Lowndes County, Georgia, United States. As of 2019, Valdosta had an estimated population of 56,457.

On May 16, 1918, a white planter named Hampton Smith was shot and killed at his house near Morven, Georgia, by a black farm worker named Sidney Johnson who was routinely mistreated by Smith. Johnson also shot Smith’s wife but she later recovered. Johnson hid for several days in Valdosta without discovery. Lynch mobs formed in Valdosta ransacking Lowndes and Brooks counties for a week looking for Johnson and his alleged accomplices. These mobs lynched at least 13 African Americans, among them Mary Turner and her unborn eight-month-old baby who was cut from her body and murdered. Mary Turner’s husband Hazel Turner was also lynched the day before.

Sidney Johnson was turned in by an acquaintance, and on May 22 Police Chief Calvin Dampier led a shootout at the Valdosta house where he was hiding. Following his death, a crowd of more than 700 castrated Johnson’s body, then dragged it behind a vehicle down Patterson Street and all the way to Morven, Georgia, near the site of Smith’s murder. There the body of Johnson was hanged and burned on a tree. That afternoon, Governor Hugh Dorsey ordered the state militia to be dispatched to Valdosta to halt the lynch mobs, but they arrived too late for many victims. Dorsey later denounced the lynchings, but none of the participants were ever prosecuted.

Following the violence, more than 500 African Americans fled from Lowndes and Brooks counties to escape such oppressive conditions and violence. From 1880 to 1930, Brooks County had the highest number of lynchings in the state of Georgia. By 1922 local chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been revived starting in 1915, were holding rallies openly in Valdosta.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Valdosta, Georgia' 1986

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Valdosta, Georgia
1986
Vintage gelatin silver print
20 x 16 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Garnett, South Carolina' 1985

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Garnett, South Carolina
1985
Vintage gelatin silver print
20 x 16 inches

 

 

In 1983, Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) left his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his 4 × 5 view camera and set out on the first of a series of road trips to photograph the American South. The subject of his pictures were Black Americans: at home, at work, and at play, in the street, and among nature. This project would consume Lee – a first-generation Chinese American – for the remainder of that decade, and it would forever transform his perception of his country, its people, and himself. The resulting archive from this seven-year period contains nearly ten thousand black-and-white negatives. This monograph, Baldwin Lee, presents a selection of eighty-eight images edited by the photographer Barney Kulok, accompanied by an interview with Lee by the curator Jessica Bell Brown and an essay by the writer Casey Gerald. Arriving almost four decades after Lee began his journey, this publication reveals the artist’s unique commitment to picturing life in America and, in turn, one of the most piercing and poignant bodies of work of its time.

“A new book – the first-ever collection of [Baldwin] Lee’s work – and a solo exhibition in New York make the case that he is one of the great overlooked luminaries of American picture-making. It’s not often that a body of photography is hoisted up from obscurity and straight into the canon.”

~ Chris Wiley, The New Yorker

“The warmth and soulfulness of his work is not the result of intellectual effort; it’s grounded in understanding, a combination of intensity and restraint, and, surely, a shared sense of otherness.”

~ Vince Aletti, Photograph Magazine

“… Walker Evans was one of Lee’s teachers. Like Evans, Lee has a sensitive eye for both poverty and dignity. But Lee’s southern exposure wasn’t overwhelmingly white, as it was in Evans’s classic “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Quite the contrary, Lee is a witness to those at the bottom of U.S. stratification, and their refusal to swallow that status. … The work is political, because it exposes the violence of poverty inherited from the plantation-economy past. But it is most of all attentiveness to the composure of his subjects that is echoed masterfully in the composition of his shots. …We are a motley assortment of people in the United States. Our relations are not tidy, not in their beauty, nor in their disastrous disaffection and cruelty. ”

~ Imani Perry, The Atlantic

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Untitled' 1983-1989

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Untitled
1983-1989
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Untitled' 1983-1989

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Untitled
1983-1989
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Untitled' 1983-1989

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Untitled
1983-1989
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Untitled' 1983-1989

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Untitled
1983-1989
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Untitled' 1983-1989

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Untitled
1983-1989
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Untitled' 1983-1989

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Untitled
1983-1989
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Untitled' 1983-1989

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Untitled
1983-1989
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Untitled' 1983-1989

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Untitled
1983-1989
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Untitled' 1983-1989

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Untitled
1983-1989
Vintage gelatin silver print
16 x 20 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Untitled' 1983-1989

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Untitled
1983-1989
Vintage gelatin silver print
20 x 16 inches

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951) 'Untitled' 1983-1989

 

Baldwin Lee (Chinese-American, b. 1951)
Untitled
1983-1989
Vintage gelatin silver print
20 x 16 inches

 

 

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Phone: 858 456 5620

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23
Nov
22

Text: “Bench Press” chapter from Marcus Bunyan’s PhD research ‘Pressing the Flesh: Sex, Body Image and the Gay Male’, RMIT University, Melbourne, 2001

November 2022

 

Eugen Sandow (German, 1867-1925) 'Instructions for the use of Sandow's spring grip dumb-bells' Between 1900 and 1909 (detail)

 

Eugen Sandow (German, 1867-1925)
Instructions for the use of Sandow’s spring grip dumb-bells (detail)
Between 1900 and 1909
(23 pages): illustrations; 18 cm
National Library of Australia, Canberra viewed 10 November 2022

 

 

Since the demise of my old website, my PhD research Pressing the Flesh: Sex, Body Image and the Gay Male (RMIT University, Melbourne, 2001) has no longer been available online.

I have now republished the second of twelve chapters, “Bench Press”, so that it is available to read. More chapters will be added as I get time. I hope the text is of some interest…

Dr Marcus Bunyan November 2022

 

 

“Bench Press” chapter from Marcus Bunyan’s PhD research Pressing the Flesh: Sex, Body Image and the Gay Male RMIT University, Melbourne, 2001

Through plain language English (not academic speak) the text of this chapter investigates the development of gym culture, its ‘masculinity’1, ‘lifestyle’, and the images used to represent it. The text also examines the positive and negative effects of this culture on the individual and collective lives and bodies of gay men.

NB. This chapter should be read in conjunction with the Historical Pressings and Re-Pressentation chapters for a fuller overview of the development of the muscular male body. This chapter also contains descriptions of sexual activity.

 

Keywords

The Cult of Muscularity, male bodies, queer bodies, bodybuilding, gym culture, masculinity, images of masculinity, development of gym culture, gay men and gym culture, muscular mesomorph, gay lifestyle

 

Sections

  • The Cult of Muscularity
  • The Body and the Social Environment
  • Science, Photography and the Body
  • Before / after photographs
  • Power and the Muscular Body
  • The Phallic Armoured Body
  • Muscle Gods, Hot Jocks, and Gay Desire

Word count 5,000

 

 

Bench Press

 

The Cult of Muscularity

 

“… muscularity is a key term in appraising men’s bodies … this comes from men themselves. Muscularity is the sign of power – natural, achieved, phallic.”

.
Richard Dyer 2

 

 

Eugen Sandow (German, 1867-1925) 'Instructions for the use of Sandow's spring grip dumb-bells' Between 1900 and 1909 (detail)

 

Eugen Sandow (German, 1867-1925)
Instructions for the use of Sandow’s spring grip dumb-bells (detail)
Between 1900 and 1909
(23 pages): illustrations; 18 cm
National Library of Australia, Canberra viewed 10 November 2022

 

 

‘The Cult of Muscularity’ was formed in the last decade of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century in a reaction to the perceived effeminisation of heterosexual masculinity. Sporting and war heroes became national icons. Muscle proved the ‘masculinity’ of men, fit for power, fit to dominate women and less powerful men. The ‘ideal’ of the perfect masculine body can be linked to a concern for the position and power of men in an industrialised world.3

The position of the active, heroic hetero-male was under attack from the passivity of industrialisation, from the expansion of women’s rights and their ability to become breadwinners, and through the naming of deviant sexualities that were seen as a threat to the stability of society. By naming deviant sexualities they became visible to the general public for the fist time, creating apprehension in the minds of men gazing upon the bodies of other men lest they be thought of as ‘pansies’. (Remember that it was in this decade the trials of Oscar Wilde had taken place in England after he was accused of being a sodomite by The Marquis of Queensbury. It is perhaps no coincidence that the rules that governed boxing, a very masculine sport in which a man could become a popular hero, were named after his accuser. By all accounts he was a brute of a man who despised and beat his son Lord Alfred Douglas and sought revenge on his partner, Oscar Wilde, for their sexual adventures).

Muscles became the sign of heterosexual power, prowess, and virility. A man had control over his body and his physical world. His appearance affected how he interacted with this world, how he saw himself, and was seen by others, and how closely he matched the male physical ‘ideal’ impacted on his own levels of self-esteem. The gymnasium became a meeting point for exercise, for health, for male bonding, and to show off your undoubted ‘masculinity’.

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Untitled [Gym group possibly German/Prussian]' c. 1890-1910

 

Anonymous photographer
Untitled [Gym group possibly German/Prussian]
c. 1890-1910
Silver gelatin photograph
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Ultimately, going to the gym has more to do with fitting a certain ‘ideal’ image of ‘masculinity’, that of the muscular mesomorph, than it has to do with getting fit. Aerobic activity such as swimming or running are much more effective ways of getting fit. But what gym work does much better than aerobic activity is that it builds muscle mass. And for a man that wants to be recognised for his physical presence, having more muscle is the epitome of the ‘ideal’.

In a patriarchal society, in other words in a society where men have power over women and other men, to have a masculine body was / is seen as the opposite of being feminine or gay – it emphasises the difference between the position of men and women / gays in society. They are seen as inferior whilst a mesomorphic body confirms ‘real’ men in positions of power over others. No wonder homosexuals found muscular working class men (‘rough trade’) so enticing a sexual fantasy in the early part of this century, and still do to this day.

Still, in being named by the majority limp-wristed ‘nancies’ and by accepting that label now historically ourselves, we forget that not all gay men were pansies with effeminate mannerisms, even in those times.

In contemporary society the division between straight and gay ‘masculine’ bodies has diminished. At dance parties it is now difficult to tell which is the gay body and which is the straight. In seeking acceptance and assimilation into the general society gay men have moulded their bodies on the ‘ideal’ of the muscular mesomorphic model. Both gay and straight men are likely to be striving after the same muscular mesomorphic ideal so much so that they may both become homogenised into a non-feminine, paradoxical asexual masculinity, where very little sexuality exudes from any-body at all!

 

Siegmund Klein – 'Strength & Health' (March 1933) Vol. 1 No. 4

 

Siegmund Klein – Strength & Health (March 1933) Vol. 1 No. 4

 

 

The Body and the Social Environment

The development of ‘The Cult of Muscularity’ may also have parallels in other social environments which were evolving at the turn of the century. For example, I think that the construction of the muscular mesomorphic body can be linked to the appearance of the first skyscrapers in cities in the United States of America. Skyscrapers were a way increasing visibility and surface area within the limited space of a crowded city. One of the benefits of owning a skyscraper like the Chrysler Building in New York, with its increased surface area, was that it got the company noticed. The same can be said of the muscular body. Living and interacting in the city, the body itself is inscribed by social interaction with its environment, its systems of regulation and its memories and historicities (his-tor-i-city, ‘tor’ being a large hill or formation of rocks).

Like a skyscraper, the muscular body has more surface area, is more visible, attracts more attention to its owner and is more admired. The owner of this body is desired because of his external appearance which may give him a feeling of superiority and power over others. However, this body image may also lead to low self-esteem and heightened body dissatisfaction in the owner (causing anxiety and insecurity in his identity) as he constantly strives to maintain and enhance his body to fulfil expectations he has of himself.

Of course, body image is never a static concept as the power of muscular images of the male body resides in their perceived value as a commodity. This value is re-enforced through social moral values, through fluid personal interactions, and through the desire of self and others for this type of body image; it is a hierarchical system of valuation. It relies on what type of body is seen as socially desirable and ‘beautiful’ in a collective sense, even though physical attractiveness is very much a personal choice.

In the four photographs from the 1930s (below) we can see a range of ethnic men portrayed, all seeking the attainment of what was, for them, the perfection of the muscular human form. Indian, Chinese, Black American and Phillipino are all represented. Compare this to today’s cast of body types from a gay muscle fitness video (soft core pornography video aimed squarely at the gay market) and you can see how the broad inclusion of different ethnic types has been tailored to the demographics of its particular buying public (‘masculine’ white gay male).

Today what is desirable in a masculine body seems to be even more limited in its stereotyping than was the case in the 1930s. Then, at least, there was a diversified range of ethnicity. Now, within the ‘lifestyle’ health and fitness magazines, the paradigm for the desirable male body is predominantly the tanned, toned, muscular white male. Thankfully, professional buff, body-builders do still come in all colours!

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Anselus T. Del Rosario' c. 1930

 

Anonymous photographer
Anselus T. Del Rosario
c. 1930
in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 78
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

“There is something unusual about the back of this young Phillipino, Anselus T. Del Rosario. The pose is rather original and offers suggestion to others.”

 

Anonymous photographers. 'Three bodybuilders' c. 1930

 

(left to right)

Anonymous photographer
Cheah Chin Poh
c. 1930
in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 261
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

Anonymous photographer
Prof. C. C. Shah
c. 1930
in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 261
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

Anonymous photographer
Wesley Williams
c. 1930
in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 154
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Science, Photography and the Body

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras the knowledge of science, such as the science of physical fitness for example, allowed the body to become an object that was subject to technical expertise. Physical fitness was taken up by governments and their armies to enforce standards of fitness for recruits, the medical examination ensuring suitability for service and the fitness regime ensuring that all bodies were interchangeable and replaceable in the event of death on the battlefield. The body became a site of intervention; it became malleable and plastic, subject to the demands of the self and State. This trend continues at an unabated pace today especially within the personal sphere; in the ‘miracles’ of steroid enhancement, plastic surgery, implants and liposuction all there to help you attain the ‘perfect’ body. Now ALL bodies can start to look alike, interchangeable one with another.

Photography, also a relatively new science in that era (photography is both an art and a science), confirmed the ‘truth’ of the power of the muscular body through documentary evidence. The camera acted to legitimise the concerns of men over their body image through relationship of power to the practice of representation. Surveillance of the self became a major factor in the construction of your social identity. Through photographs you could judge for yourself whether you measured up to the ‘ideals’ put forward as valuable by society. Therefore images of muscular mesomorphs can and do affect the self-esteem of individuals through a powerful semiotic system that is embedded in the idealised body factually re-presented in a photograph.

This power is validated because people know the key to interpret the coded ‘sign’ language through which photographs, and indeed all images, speak. In neglecting to acknowledge alternative significations present within this semiotically coded power structure there is the opportunity for one dominant image to be chosen selectively over other types of less ‘valuable’ body images, eventually leading to the possible loss of the key to decode the desirability of ‘other’ body images.

The problem with dominant images that promote the masculinity and power of the muscular mesomorphic body is that they portray one supposed objective truth which is impossible, for there can be can many changing ‘truths’ (viewed from many subjective and objective positions).4 Personally, I believe we should see things not solely as they are from an objective point of view and not purely from an appeal to an “actively struggled for” subjectivity (as argued for by David Smail), but perhaps emerging from a knowledge of the fluid nature of truth, an ever changing combination of many variable truths. Being true to ourselves does not require a one-eyed point of view for we must try to see things from many different points of view to appreciate that there are many shifting, non-final subjective, objective and variable ‘truths’ in life.

Images can be a fabrication just as easily as they are supposed to speak the language of an objective ‘truth’. For example, in the 1870s Dr. Barnardo had photographs taken that showed rough, dirty, and dishevelled children arriving at his homes, and then paired them with photographs of the same children bright as a new pin, happy and working in the homes afterwards. These photographs were used to sell the story of children saved from poverty and oppression and happy in the homes; they appeared on cards which were sold to raise money to support the work of these homes. Dr. Barnardo was taken to court when one such pair of photographs was found to be a fabrication, an ‘artistic fiction’.5

Photographs can be used not only as a tool of observation but as a commodity, to advertise, support and sell the existence of a regime of power that controls the body, in the case of Dr. Barnardo the body of the child. In this way the body of the child becomes a commodity too.

 

Before / after photographs

Anonymous photographer. 'M. J. Poncela' c. 1930

 

Anonymous photographer
M. J. Poncela
c. 1930
in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 211
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

Anonymous photographer. 'George Renzi, Jr.' c. 1930

 

Anonymous photographer
George Renzi, Jr.
c. 1930
in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 210
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Untitled' c. 1952

 

Anonymous photographer
Untitled
c. 1952
‘Before photo/after photo, 35 day Johnson bodybuilding program advertisement’, in Rader, Peary (ed.,). Iron Man. Vol. 12. Dec-Feb. 1952, No. 4. Alliance, Nebraska: Iron Man Publishing Co., 1952, pp. 26-27.
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

Anonymous photographer. 'The New Theory of Evolution (Unretouched photographs taken over a period of less than 12 weeks)' 1998

 

Anonymous photographer
The New Theory of Evolution (Unretouched photographs taken over a period of less than 12 weeks)
1998
Experimental and Applied Sciences advertisement, 1998, in Low, Cheh N. (ed.,). Exercise for Men Only. New York: Chelo Publishing, December 1998, pp. 2-3.

 

 

The same process of commodification of the body can be seen in the ‘Before and After’ photographs from the 1930’s. The science of physical fitness has always sold product to go with its ideals and the use of before and after photos echoes those of Dr. Barnardo. Here I am looking at my own weak and puny body and then looking at these photographs and advertisements that are telling me: ‘You can have a bigger, better body in only (substitute x amount of time) days or weeks!’ You can attain the perfect male body. But it will cost you. In time, in money, in sacrifices, perhaps in failure. But you desire that body don’t you, you want that body, you want to belong!

The photographs from the 1930s show examples of bodily improvement over a period of one year, a reasonable amount of time given the improvement shown. As the century progressed however, the claims for products became more outlandish and photography was used to bolster these claims. In the 1952 photographs above for example, the photograph is used to authenticate the models physical improvement in just 35 days! Note, however, that in the second photograph the model is standing closer to the camera than in the first one, he has a tan which makes him look healthier, is oiled up, and his hair is bigger to give him more physical presence. He is also engaging the gaze of the viewer, returning his look, which in itself is a more challenging, defiant act.

Nothing much has changed in advertising claims from the 1950s until today. In the unretouched sequence of photographs (above) from 1998 (for a leading supplier of sports nutritional supplements), we are asked to believe a new, super-fast “Theory of Evolution” exists, all achieved in less than 12 weeks.

I am not suggesting for one minute that these photographs actually lie. But they do restructure the ‘truth’. Firstly, the model does not have an ‘ordinary’ body to start with. You only have to look at the legs and arms in all four photographs to realise that this man is probably a bodybuilder who is out of condition and training. In the first photograph he is stooped, unkempt, unshaven, hairy, flat-footed & slovenly. Much the same as the photographs of children arriving at the Dr. Barnardo’s homes in the 1870s. Funny about that. As the sequence progresses he becomes happier, taller, more ‘pumped’ and ‘cut’ till he positively shines like burnished steel, his muscles glowing as he strides on the balls of his feet into the future. His fists become clenched to emphasise his bulging muscles and his manliness.

Hey, its a ‘lifestyle’ thing. Muscular men look after their bodies, have no moral disorders and are happier and more successful!

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Bill Good executing Stretching Exercise course' c. 1930 and 'Bill Good executing Free Motion exercises' c. 1930

 

(left and right)

Anonymous photographer
Bill Good executing Stretching Exercise course
c. 1930
in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. I. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 143
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

Anonymous photographer
Bill Good executing Free Motion exercises
c. 1930
in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. I. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 127
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Power and the Muscular Body

Increasingly, the body was not only able to exercise on its way to muscularity it was also able to exercise the ritual semiotic language of the hyper-masculine body as power over the social body in general. A sociology of the body was constructed based on the interaction with history, memory and context. Men sought to transform their body and the social body through the structures and rituals of power, naming deviants such as homosexuals as ‘other’ and therefore reducing them to an inferior status. It is not surprising that homosexual men are attracted to this power. For a long time they have been subject to persecution & derision, and saw themselves as inferior. Now, with the adoption of hyper-masculine bodies as the epitome of gay male image, gay men seek to be ‘real’ men perhaps even more than straight men. Unfortunately this may reinforce traditional patriarchal stereotypes within the gay community, a community that is supposed to pride itself on equality and diversity. The very things that homosexuals have long fought against, oppression and discrimination, may be confirmed in the exercising of power by the muscular ‘ideal’ within the gay community.

In the conformation of the power of the muscular body I suggest that gay men may have adopted a mask to cover their own insecurities in order to seek acceptance for themselves into the gay and general population. This mask has become more than just a facade for some gay men, it has become their reality. The owner of a body that measures up to the ideal may seek acceptance of him- self in the perfection of his own reflection. What he sees in this reflection is, perhaps, not his ‘true’ self but a mask that is put on, a pre-formed surface that reflects the values of the society from which it emanates, perhaps a surface that is only skin deep inscribed by his social enculturation and assimilation. Once put on this mask is very difficult to take off; how many times do we see the words “straight acting” in newspaper advertisements in the gay press describing what is sexually offered and wanted, as though being str8-acting enables our gay masculinity and makes us ‘real’ men? I believe it is no longer an ironic act for gay men to try and fulfil the straight hyper-masculine ideal, not a ‘camp’ ironic comment as it used to be, but a deadly serious endeavour. This has important repercussions for the psyche of all gay men and I discuss these repercussions later in this chapter and also in the (S)ex-press chapter.

As can be seen from the photographs within this text, there has been a development of the complete ‘look’ of the body over the last century. Beautiful muscles compliment a beautiful ‘lifestyle’6 and an equally beautiful tan. Appearance and the power of that appearance is now of the essence. The appearance of this ideal ‘lifestyle’ is available to everyone of us, regardless of social status or age, how rich or poor we are as gay men – yeah, right!

 

Raymond Vino. 'Steve Downs' 1998

 

Raymond Vino
Steve Downs
1998
in Low, Cheh N. (ed.,). Exercise for Men Only. New York: Chelo Publishing, December 1998, p. 103.

 

Bob Jones (American) 'Short Mens Class', 'Untitled', 'Untitled' 1952

 

(top to bottom)

Bob Jones (American)
Short Mens Class
Untitled
Untitled
1952
in Rader, Peary (ed.,). Iron Man. Vol. 12. Dec-Feb. 1952, No. 4. Alliance, Nebraska: Iron Man Publishing Co., 1952, p. 8
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

Now aren’t there some good looking men amongst this lot! I wonder how many of them were gay? Not an effeminate man to be seen here, you can bet your life. These are all ‘real’ he-men: strong, masculine and ruggedly virile examples of manhood. There is still a range of ethnicities present in these 1950s photographs, from Brazilians to Afro-Americans & men of Asian origin but there is not a hairy man amongst them. They probably shaved for the event, a very feminine thing for a man to do! These photographs also serve to illustrate another point: that although body shape might be slightly different when compared to each other, overall the bodies seem to form a homogenised whole, forms which seem to have been pressed from the same mould (‘template man’).

 

 

We observe the billboards with the fashionable ‘lifestyle’ Calvin Klein underwear ads, featuring some truly amazing bodies. We desire these bodies in all their airbrushed glory, ‘simulations’ of an ideal world where bodies are perfect, not all sorts of shapes and sizes as in the real world.

We lust after the perfect idealisation of the muscular body and the projected power that this ‘ideal’ body image and its lifestyle proposes. This perfection is never obtainable, of course, because we can always have bigger muscles, a better tan, more fashionable clothes, etc. … The ‘ideal’ is like a carrot on a stick, always just beyond our reach, like an ever receding dream.

 

Anonymous. 'Untitled [Posing straps]' 1952

 

Anonymous
Untitled [Posing straps]
1952
Athletic Model Guild advertisement, in Rader, Peary (ed.,). Iron Man. Vol. 12. Dec-Feb. 1952, No. 4. Alliance, Nebraska: Iron Man Publishing Co., 1952, p. 50.
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

The Phallic Armoured Body

In much of the imagery of the muscular male the body becomes a substitute for the undisclosed and hidden power of the penis. The body becomes a huge phallus, hard and rigid, strong, erect, and powerful. The muscular body acts as a phallic symbol, surrounding itself with an implied sexual mystique, the physical embodiment of the male phallic power. But the penis can never live up to these expectations.7 After all the penis is just an appendage of limp flesh and looks faintly ridiculous most of the time!

Thus, the muscular body becomes a form of dominance display; hard, bulging muscles embodying the mystical potency and virility implied in its phallic construction. Gay men are attracted to the fantasy of a powerful phallus. They too want to be powerful. In some sections of the gay community (especially the ‘Muscle Marys’ as they are known) the muscular body is seen as the epitome of physical attractiveness. This body type has a powerful image, as much for the supposed power of its hidden penis as anything else. A big body can stand as a metaphor for the power of a big dick, something which some gay men seem obsessed with. Muscular gay men are often derided by other gay men by saying that ‘he must have a big body because he can’t have a big dick’, or if a gay man is obviously on steroids then his balls, ‘will have shrivelled up like walnuts and he will have no sex drive’.

I wonder whether this a truth or are some gay men just jealous?

The body as phallus has also become an armoured body, supposedly able to protect its occupant from the anxieties and stress of modern life. This body
allows the occupant to control his environment through his body, not allowing any transgressive pleasures / messy secretions / intimacy / love to interject into his controlled armoured existence – no a(r)mour, no love. The body surface becomes an impervious barrier, all orifices closed to seepage across its boundaries. Hard, shiny and smooth nothing can penetrate this perfect projectile. This is especially significant with the onset of the HIV/AIDS virus. A big body was and is perhaps still seen as a healthy body, muscles becoming a sign and symbol of health within the gay community.

“Burn off more than you can chew” (below) is a contemporary advertisement that I believe illustrates the linkage between the phallic smooth, white muscular mesomorphic body and product. Advertising helps encourage the body to become a consumer of the product and postulates the body as a perfect product for consumption itself, at one and the same time. The model with the 6-pak looks longingly at the phallic, erect, penis shaped bar (a ‘bar’ in gay slang is a stiff cock), eats the bar to burn fat, to become ‘ripped’, so other men can gaze at and desire the perfection of his body as a product they wish to consume themselves by having sex with him. His body, his (chocolate) bar becomes a metaphor for the mythological power of his bulging (just) hidden penis.

 

Iron Man

1950s bodybuilders

 

(left to right)

Douglas (photographer)
“Vic Seipke of the N.E.YMCA of Detroit. Height 5’9″. 186 pounds, neck 18, chest 48, arm 17, waist 29, thigh 25, calf 16, ankle 9 and a half. Won Mr. Michigan, 3rd in Mr. Mid-America 7th in Mr. America.”
1952
in Rader, Peary (ed.,). Iron Man. Vol. 12. Dec-Feb. 1952, No. 4. Alliance, Nebraska: Iron Man Publishing Co., 1952, p. 23.
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

Anonymous photographer. “Bill Pearl, another pupil of the Stern gym is 21 and at a height of 5’9″ weighs 209, with a 17″ neck, 47″ chest, 32″ waist, 18″ arm, 8″ wrist, 25 and a half thigh and 16″ calf.”
1952,
in Rader, Peary (ed.,). Iron Man. Vol. 12. Dec-Feb. 1952, No. 4. Alliance, Nebraska: Iron Man Publishing Co., 1952, p. 22.
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

Bob Jones (photographer). “Jim Park, Mr. World”
1952, in Rader, Peary (ed.,). Iron Man. Vol. 12. Dec-Feb. 1952, No. 4. Alliance, Nebraska: Iron Man Publishing Co., 1952, p. 7.
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

Fritshe (photographer)
“Mike Barrilli, a pupil of Fritshe, won the Jr. Mr. Atlantic title in 1950. At 20 years of age he is 5’6″ tall and weighs 160 pounds of perfectly proportioned muscle.”
1952
in Rader, Peary (ed.,). Iron Man. Vol. 12. Dec-Feb. 1952, No. 4. Alliance, Nebraska: Iron Man Publishing Co., 1952, p. 21.
Courtesy: Marcus Bunyan

 

Anonymous photographer/designer. "Burn off more than you can chew" c. 1999

 

Anonymous photographer/designer
“Burn off more than you can chew”
c. 1999
Aussie Bodies advertisement in Clifton, Paul and Gennari, Isabelle (eds.,). Midsumma Festival 2000 guide. Melbourne: Midsumma Festival, 1999.

 

Body Builders

 

(left to right)

Carl Hensel
Untitled
Nd
in Dutton, Kenneth. The Perfectible Body. London: Cassell, 1995, p. 193

Anonymous photographer
Bob Paris
Nd
in Dutton, Kenneth. The Perfectible Body. London: Cassell, 1995, p. 248

 

 

Muscle Gods, Hot Jocks, and Gay Desire

 

“It was my dream to get a body … I would see all of those guys with their muscles and I wanted to be one of them … It’s not even like I want to really even hang out with the muscle gods, I mean, after I do get into bed with one, it usually is a letdown. Beyond the sex, which is sometimes really dull, I’m usually saying to myself, why did you obsess over getting this guy? We never have anything in common. They’re usually so involved in their bodies – and it really is an all-consuming project to be a muscle god, and work out, like, all the time – that they don’t have any interests beyond talking about the gym and the scene. But that’s the thing about it. It’s the private club, the world of the muscle gods, and you don’t want to be excluded from it …”

.
Mark, 44 year-old New Yorker quoted in Signorile, Michelangelo. Life Outside. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997, p. 168.

 

In the relationship between gay men and going to the gym to muscle up a sense of belonging to the group is an important factor. Often having been persecuted in early life gay men want to belong to a team, and if belonging to the team that is seen as the most desirable means getting a bigger body then so be it, they will do anything to get that body. Gay men can become muscle gods too!

In the above photograph by Carl Hensel we can see one of these muscle gods, his body pumped up like a hooded cobra about to strike. The importance of his genital area is reduced thanks to the smallness of his posing pouch. In serious bodybuilding reducing the eroticism of the body is important in containing the possibility of homoerotic attraction when men view other men’s bodies. The supposed lack of homoeroticism in bodybuilding is upset when one of the fold, for example Bob Paris (above right), openly declares himself to be gay.

Men do lust after and desire other men’s bodies in any context.

This desire has been commodified in contemporary muscular male imagery. The ‘hot jock’ stereotype has been legitimised as a site of lust and desire. The advertisement below comes from a magazine entitled Exercise for Men Only, a publication aimed primarily at ‘lifestyle’ straight and gay men. These images are not aimed at women. They reveal, as the ad says, “Every shape of their Stunning, Young, Muscular Bodies,” and appeal to men who admire, come along and “feel the heat” of these types of physique. This is soft porn of the entire body a la 1990s style, clothed in the justification of beautiful, artistic cinematography much as the photographers of the 1950s used the devise of association with classical ‘ideals’ to justify the publication of their images. Note how in this advertisement all the bodies conform to the stereotypical ‘ideal’ of the muscular, buff, tanned, white male.

To a great extent this ‘ideal’ has been promulgated and propagated by the imagery used in American gay porn videos since the early 1980s. The imagery of Muscleforce (below) is a good example, linking as it does muscle and power within an eroticism of homosexual lust and desire.

For more detailed information about the development of the imagery of gay pornography in the media please visit the gay male pornography section in the In-Press chapter.

Dr Marcus Bunyan 2001

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Muscle Heatwave' Vista Video advertisement, c. 1998

 

Anonymous photographer
Muscle Heatwave
Vista Video advertisement, c. 1998
in Low, Cheh N. (ed.,). Exercise for Men Only. New York: Chelo Publishing, December 1998, p. 47.

 

Join Eight Muscular Young Fitness Stars in this Steamy Sequel to “Muscles in Paradise”
Exciting Sequences and Remarkable Photography reveal every shape of their Stunning, Young, Muscular Bodies
Come Along… Live the Adventure and Feel the Heat!
(Includes Beautiful Artistic Cinematography of the ENTIRE Male body)

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Muscleforce' c. 1996

 

Anonymous photographer
Muscleforce
c. 1996
Cover of Fox Studios pornography video

 

 

Footnotes

  1. Throughout my PhD and project notes (including the development of interview questions, the analysis of data, and the development of evolving theory), I have used the quotation below as the basis for my definition of the term ‘masculinity’.
    “The category of “masculinity” should be seen as always ambivalent, always complicated, always dependent on the exigencies [meaning: necessary conditions and requirements] of personal and institutional power … [masculinity is] an interplay of emotional and intellectual factors – an interplay that directly implicates women as well as men, and is mediated by other social factors, including race, sexuality, nationality, and class … Far from being just about men, the idea of masculinity engages, inflects, and shapes everyone.”
    Berger, Maurice, Wallis, Brian and Watson, Simon (eds.,). Constructing Masculinity. New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 3-7. Introduction.
  2. Dyer, Richard. Only Entertainment. London: Routledge, 1992, p. 114, quoted in Stratton, Jon. The Desirable Body. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996, p. 195.
  3. See Gorn, Elliott. The Manly Art. London: Robson Books, 1986.
  4. “Where objective knowing is passive, subjective knowing is active – rather than giving allegiance to a set of methodological rules which are designed to deliver up truth through some kind of automatic process [in this case the image], the subjective knower takes a personal risk in entering into the meaning of the phenomena to be known…
    Those who have some time for the validity of subjective experience but intellectual qualms about any kind of ‘truth’ which is not ‘objective’, are apt to solve their problem by appealing to some kind of relativity. For example, it might be felt that we all have our own versions of the truth about which we must tolerantly agree to differ. While in some ways this kind of approach represents an advance on the brute domination of ‘objective truth’, it in fact undercuts and betrays the reality of the world given to our subjectivity. Subjective truth has to be actively struggled for: we need the courage to differ until we can agree.
    Though the truth is not just a matter of personal perspective, neither is it fixed and certain, objectively ‘out there’ and independent of human knowing. ‘The truth’ changes according to, among other things, developments and alterations in our values and understandings … the ‘non-finality’ of truth is not to be confused with a simple relativity of ‘truths’.”
    Smail, David. Illusion and Reality: The Meaning of Anxiety. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1984, pp. 152-153.
  5. See Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988, p. 85.
  6. ‘Lifestyle’ was a term conceived by the Viennese psychiatrist Alfred Adler in the 1920s in order to describe the attitudes that inform a person’s experience of life. By the 1960s style, fashion and consumerism had overlaid its original meaning and now a ‘lifestyle’ is perhaps a style of life based on your ability to have, compete and move in valued social circles. It has become a combination of both materialism and psychiatry. Much as ‘homosexuality’ was medically named as a deviancy in the 1870s in order to control that deviancy through treatment and regulation, ‘lifestyle’ has links to the medical profession which names its [lifestyles that is] effects on the identity of the self.
    “Lifestyle refers to a relatively integrated set of practices chosen by an individual in order to give material form to a particular narrative of self-identity. The more tradition loses its ability to provide people with a secure and stable sense of self, the more individuals have to negotiate lifestyle choices, and attach importance to these choices.”
    Schilling, Chris. The Body and Social Theory. London: Sage Publications, 1993, pp. 181-183.
  7. “The penis can never live up to the mystique implied by the phallus. Hence the excessive, even hysterical quality of so much male imagery. The clenched fists, the bulging muscles, the hardened jaws, the proliferation of phallic symbols – they are all straining after what can hardly ever be achieved, the embodiment of the phallic physique.” (My italics).
    Dyer, R. Only Entertainment. London: Routledge, 1992, p. 116, quoted in Stratton, Jon. The Desirable Body. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996, p. 195.

 

 

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12
Nov
22

Exhibition: ‘Samuel Fosso: The Man with a Thousand Faces’ at The Walther Collection, Neu-Ulm, Burlafingen, Germany

Exhibition dates: 29th May – 20th November 2022

Curators: Clothilde Morette, Iheanyi Onwuegbucha, and Clara Stratmann

 

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) '70's Lifestyle' 1974-1978 

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
70’s Lifestyle
1974-1978

 

 

“Samuel Fosso was only 13 years old when he started his own photography studio in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, in September 1975. The previous year, he had carried out a five-month-long apprenticeship with a local photographer, thanks to the support of his uncle’s wife… [his uncle] bought him a large camera in Cameroon and agreed to open a photography studio for him. Fosso named it Studio Photo National, to reflect how the Central African Republic had gained independence from France in 1960.” (Press release)

In the evening, his commercial work complete, he would finish off a Kodak roll by taking staged self-portraits. Can you imagine being a precocious 13 year-old, running your own commercial studio, and then at the end of the day creating sets and costumes and taking on roles to reflect his interest in African and Black American style. As a young man he is finding his own identity through pose and play. “Using the camera as a mirror, he takes on and explores various roles. It’s a game of trying on identities that is familiar to teenagers in particular the world over, a game we play in an attempt to find ourselves, or rather to construct an individual identity.”1 It’s not just playing dress ups or charades: the photographs are an exciting investigation into the desire to find oneself, as an artist and as a human being. Whom am I, who can I be in this life?

Fast forward 20 years or so, and “Tati, the French, low-budget department store, commissioned Fosso, as well as the eminent Malian photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, to make a group of self-portraits recreating the African photo-studio environment. Upon learning that Keïta and Sidibé had already made their pictures in black-and-white, Fosso asked if he could make his in colour. His goal was to take a new direction in his work and capture a different mood from the images associated with African photography.” (press release) Fosso’s goal was to register a different mood of the African imagination, and not the images that were already associated with African photography.

This is where it takes the courage of your own convictions, an inherent sense of your creativity as an artist, and respect for yourself as a human being … to strike out and do something different from everyone else, to recognise the chance of taking a different path, to use your imagination to create something fresh and new. Fosso understood this was a crossroads in his life. He could carry on down the same path as Keïta and Sidibé or he could take a chance and strike out on his own, to create “a unique and long-term photographic project that critically and playfully examines identity, sexuality, gender, and African self-representation” through “self-portraiture and performative photography, transforming his body and envisioning compelling variations of postcolonial African identities.”

Fosso was on his way. More insightful series followed which reflect the artist’s personal and artistic trajectory and global politics, which oscillate between personal introspection and collective narratives: reenacting historical photos of pan-African liberation and civil rights movement leaders and celebrities, performing an imaginary Black Pope, embodying Mao Zedong in the series Emperor of Africa which highlights the neo-colonial relationship between China and debt-ridden African countries, and posing as members of the French colonial military sporting uniforms from the First and Second World War.

“By centering himself in performative photographic processes, Fosso’s ideas transcend mere self-representation or self-reflection to encompass explorations of what Okwui Enwezor called “self-constituted theatre of postcolonial identity.” In this “theatre,” there is a manifestation of the paradox of guise and masking, where Fosso does not attempt to recreate an individual but the idea of that person as “characters in a larger human drama.”” (press release)

By placing himself at the centre of the theatre of postcolonial identity, and at the centre of (sometimes tragic) human dramas, the artist acts (it being theatre), and performs as a prosopopoeia (Greek) which is a rhetorical device (one which conveys a meaning with the goal of persuading the viewer towards considering a topic from a perspective), in which the artist communicates to the audience by speaking as another person. The term literally derives from the Greek roots prósopon “face, person”, and poiéin “to make, to do;”. Prosopopoeiae are used mostly to give another perspective on the action being described.2

Fosso is both himself and the Black Pope; Fosso is himself and he is also the Chairman. Indeed, Fosso offers a complex conceptual framework in order / in disorder, to understand alternative histories of postcolonial identity. What if there was a Black Pope? What if the Chinese bankroll the finances of African governments and then make them subservient to the will of the Chinese government? How are the privileges of colonial occupation and disenfranchisement being played out on Black bodies and Black cultures even to this day?

Through his different personas the artist allows himself to perform what would otherwise be hidden from view, crossing the threshold between reality and fiction. Crossing such a threshold through performative photography and ritual, “makes possible the emergence of a space of play which asserts that the world does not express a determinate and final order but is infinitely open to the emergence of new… forms of self-organization”3

New forms of identity that critique colonial and world histories. In this sense, Fosso is saying that African creativity and representation matters.

“So, when you ask me why I privilege my self-portraits, I believe the answer is rooted in the condition of my life and the meaning of self-representation.”

Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

  1. Anonymous. Press release from the exhibition Ladies and Gentlemen: The Camera as a Mirror at the Moderna Museet, Malmö, Sweden, February – April 2012. Press release
  2. See Anonymous. “Prosopopoeia,” on the Wikipedia website Nd [Online] Cited 12/11/2022
  3. Massie, Pascal. “Masks and the Space of Play,” in Research in Phenomenology Vol. 48, No. 1 (Feb 2018), p. 119. Abstract. Brill publishers.

.
Many thankx to The Walther Collection for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. All images Courtesy of The Walther Collection.

 

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) '70's Lifestyle' 1974-1978 

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
70’s Lifestyle
1974-1978

 

 

“My initial encounter with photographic images outside of the Central African Republic was purely through pictures in magazines, brought by young American Peace Corps volunteers who came to the Central African Republic to visit Pygmies. I was especially excited by the images of the African Americans and their sense of style. I was also very much taken with the style of the popular singer and musician Prince Nico Mbarga, who was very hot around West Africa in 1976 and 1977 with his record Sweet Mother. I wanted to replicate these two stylistic approaches in the studio with me, posing as a model.”

Text from the Samuel Fosso website / more images from the series can be found on the website

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) '70's Lifestyle' 1974-1978 

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
70’s Lifestyle
1974-1978

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) '70's Lifestyle' 1974-1978 

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
70’s Lifestyle
1974-1978

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) '70's Lifestyle' 1974-1978 

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
70’s Lifestyle
1974-1978

 

 

Samuel Fosso was only 13 years old when he started his own photography studio in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, in September 1975. The previous year, he had carried out a five-month-long apprenticeship with a local photographer, thanks to the support of his uncle’s wife. Acknowledging his nephew’s precocious talent, Fosso’s uncle, a cobbler with whom he was living, bought him a large camera in Cameroon and agreed to open a photography studio for him. Fosso named it Studio Photo National, to reflect how the Central African Republic had gained independence from France in 1960.

Besides photographing families and friends and taking people’s passport photos, he captured popular occasions, weddings, baptisms and ceremonies. In the evening, his commercial work complete, he would finish off a Kodak roll by taking staged self-portraits. “If I hadn’t finished the film, I used the last two or three for my own account, and I benefited from that to make my own works,” says Fosso when we meet at the home of his long-standing agent, Jean-Marc Patras, in Paris.

There were two other reasons why Fosso became impassioned about photography. One was that he desperately wanted to send photographs of himself to his grandmother in Nigeria. “Whenever I would make my self-portraits, I would send one picture to my grandmother to reassure her that everything was going well for me and keep one for myself,” Fosso says. The other reason is linked to his early infancy. Born in 1962 in Kumba, south-western Cameroon, to Nigerian parents of Igbo ethnicity, Fosso was born partly paralysed. His mother took him to Nigeria – where his grandfather was a ‘native doctor’, or ‘priest healer’ – to be cured, so he could walk normally. He remained there with his grandparents during the Biafran War, during which time his mother died. After the war ended, his uncle collected him and the pair returned to Cameroon for one year before moving to Bangui.

Fosso had missed out on the tradition of being photographed as a three-month-old baby due to his health condition. In an interview with the late Okwui Enwezor (the influential Nigerian-born curator, for a forthcoming Steidl monographic book, Samuel Fosso: Autoportrait), Fosso recounts: “Even though my mother believed I was a normal child, despite the fact that I was paralysed, there was still no photograph commissioned, even after one year, because my father did not see the need to waste money on a paralysed child. So, when you ask me why I privilege my self-portraits, I believe the answer is rooted in the condition of my life and the meaning of self-representation.”

As if to compensate for what had been denied to him, Fosso began asserting his identity and marking his presence, existence and vitality for life by experimenting with self-portraiture, nurturing the freedom this offered. It is a selection of these seminal photographs, titled Autoportrait/Self-portrait from 70s Lifestyle (1975-1978), made between the ages of 13-16… They show the young, slim-framed Fosso striking poses in front of theatrical backdrops and wearing elegant outfits made by a local tailor with fabrics he had purchased. In one image, Fosso – dressed in a white shirt, dark flared trousers and patterned jacket – is bowing slightly, a smile across his face, as if imagining that he is about to meet someone. In others, he has gloved hands on his hips, sporting just a pair of underpants, or he dons tasselled trousers and high-heeled boots.

For inspiration for his looks, Fosso would peruse catalogues, magazines and album covers. “I used American magazines, especially photos of black musicians like James Brown, and showed the magazine pictures to the tailor,” he recalls. “During the colonial years, [African] ministers were obliged to wear a suit and tie, so I chose to make seven photos of me wearing suits like the French. I would also design the décor.” Providing an insight into Fosso’s studio, the photographs show a large picture of Bangui on the wall and several curtains being used for backgrounds. They also offer a social commentary about modern life in Bangui during the post-independence years. Coincidentally, Fosso was making these works at the same time as Cindy Sherman was developing her Murder Mystery series (1976) and Bus Riders (1976) in New Jersey before her iconic Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980). In a similar vein, Fosso was becoming his own director and character, developing his form of self-expression.

Anna Sansom. “Me, Myself & I,” on the 1854 photography website 3 May 2020 [Online] Cited 23/10/2022

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) '70's Lifestyle' 1974-1978

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
70’s Lifestyle
1974-1978

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) '70's Lifestyle' 1974-1978 

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
70’s Lifestyle
1974-1978

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'La femme américaine libérée des années 70' (The Liberated American Woman of the 1970s) 1997

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
La femme américaine libérée des années 70 (The Liberated American Woman of the 1970s)
1997
From the series Tati

 

 

“That’s how my Tati series (1997) began, because I did not want to go back to the black-and-white style as Keïta and Sidibé had done for their Tati commissions. Since there were three African photographers, I wanted my project to register a different mood of the African imagination, and not the images that were already associated with African photography. My goal was to take a new direction in my work.”

Text from the Samuel Fosso website / more images from the series can be found on the website

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'Le Rocker' (The Rocker) 1997

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
Le Rocker (The Rocker)
1997
From the series Tati

 

 

Three years later, Tati, the French, low-budget department store, commissioned Fosso, as well as the eminent Malian photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, to make a group of self-portraits recreating the African photo-studio environment. Upon learning that Keïta and Sidibé had already made their pictures in black-and-white, Fosso asked if he could make his in colour. His goal was to take a new direction in his work and capture a different mood from the images associated with African photography.

In each photograph in the Tati (1997) series, Fosso changes like a chameleon, masquerading as various figures, exploring issues around gender and stereotypes. His image titled The Chief (the one who sold Africa to the colonists), above, which was printed on the cover of the catalogue of the travelling exhibition, Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent (2004-2007), questions the role of African chiefs in the slave trade. Fosso also transforms himself into a liberated woman, wearing brightly coloured trousers, high heels and a Panama hat, a bourgeois woman in a sequinned top holding a white fur, and to a sailor.

How did people react to these pictures? “People asked if I was homosexual and why I wanted to disguise myself as a woman; wearing women’s clothes was taboo,” he replies. “Now the mentality is changing a bit. Now people are asking why I wanted to do it. I thought of doing something about how black Americans were liberated in the 1960s and 70s, and the liberated woman.”

Anna Sansom. “Me, Myself & I,” on the 1854 photography website 3 May 2020 [Online] Cited 23/10/2022

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'The Chief (who sold Africa to the Colonists)' 1997

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
The Chief (who sold Africa to the Colonists)
1997
From the series Tati

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'The Golfer' 1997

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
The Golfer
1997
From the series Tati

 

 

Conceptual Framework

The Walther Collection presents a retrospective exhibition of photographic works by Samuel Fosso (b. 1962), one of the most renowned contemporary African artists working today. Spanning his five-decade career, Samuel Fosso: The Man with a Thousand Faces revisits bodies of work that explore issues central to the contemporary art scene. The exhibition retraces a career that oscillates between personal introspection and collective narratives through major series and lesser-known works from his youth.

Since the mid-1970s, Samuel Fosso has dedicated his artistic practice to self-portraiture and performative photography, transforming his body and envisioning compelling variations of postcolonial African identities. His early studio experiments and later series created innovative imagery that questioned ethnographic views of Africa as well as the economic imperatives of studio portraiture. Samuel Fosso: The Man with a Thousand Faces is presented across two galleries of The Walther Collection’s White Cube, bringing together a selection of works from all the artist’s series: early studio photography from the 1970s to 1990s is exhibited in the upper gallery and later works reflecting the artist’s personal and artistic trajectory and global politics are shown in the main gallery space.

Fosso’s work reflects the shifts that occurred in the history of photography in Africa when Africans began to turn the camera onto themselves and began to visualise and embody postcolonial perspectives. In 1975, at the age of thirteen, Fosso opened his Studio Photo Nationale in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. By day he photographed paying clientele, highlighting their fashion and individual styles, depicting them in sometimes exuberant poses. At night, he focused the camera on himself. Fosso’s expressive black-and-white self-portraits from the 1970s reference West African popular culture, formulating a unique and long-term photographic project that critically and playfully examines identity, sexuality, gender, and African self-representation.

Another significant theme that runs through Fosso’s oeuvre is fashion as a powerful tool for expression, transformation, and image-making. In his words, ‘clothes help me tell the character’s story and share their own emotions… but most of all the clothes help me understand them.’ Several of his series examine how self-styling and (manipulation of) the mass media have shaped the representation of social and political ideals and selves.

While the series Tati (1997) investigates the transformative power of fashion through satirical representation, other photo essays such as Mémoire d’un ami (2000) explore themes of memory and ritual. Reconstructing a night in 1997, when the artist’s friend and neighbour was murdered by armed militia in Bangui, Fosso reflects on global socio-political issues through his photographic performance with astonishing vulnerability.

For the series African Spirits (2008), Fosso reenacted historical photos of pan-African liberation and civil rights movement leaders and celebrities, examining the power of iconography. The African and African-American figures represented in the series, like Angela Davis, Malcom X or Haile Selassie, are instantly recognisable through their iconic fashion and adopted poses, their masterful utilisation of self-styling imbuing them with undeniable power to create social and political impact.

Five years later, Fosso embodies Mao Zedong in the series Emperor of Africa (2013), manifesting the relationship between style and image again in a powerful project of political portraits, while at the same time highlighting the neo-colonial relationship between China and debt-ridden African countries.

The selection of two diptychs from the series ALLONZENFANS (2013) depicts Fosso’s intervention into the fraught history of France’s relationship with its former colonies. Fosso poses as members of the military sporting uniforms from the First and Second World War, alternating between a stern-looking soldier at attention and a smiling soldier at ease, drafted for the French regiments. Like African Spirits and Emperor of Africa, ALLONZENFANS illustrates the artist’s ongoing engagement with specific episodes of Africa’s and Europe’s history.

With the Black Pope (2017), Fosso confronts politics of religion between Europe and Africa, addressing the fact that, despite high populations of Roman Catholics on the continent, there has never been a pope of African heritage. While African Catholics hoped that this would be corrected during the 2013 conclave without success, Fosso’s evocative body of work created four years later, teases our imagination, and invites us to consider the improbable event of an African on the papal seat.

By presenting a wide spectrum of Fosso’s work, this comprehensive retrospective offers generous insight into how the artist’s practice deviates sharply from West African studio photography traditions established by Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé during the 1950s and 1960s – from his early work examining postcolonial African society’s burgeoning desires to his later conceptual work which explores the way photographs travel the world and change meaning over time. By centering himself in performative photographic processes, Fosso’s ideas transcend mere self-representation or self-reflection to encompass explorations of what Okwui Enwezor called “self-constituted theatre of postcolonial identity.” In this “theatre,” there is a manifestation of the paradox of guise and masking, where Fosso does not attempt to recreate an individual but the idea of that person as “characters in a larger human drama.”

Samuel Fosso was born in Kumba, Cameroon, in 1962 and raised in Nigeria. He fled the Biafran War as an adolescent, and in 1972 was taken in by his uncle in Bangui in the Central African Republic. After learning about photography from a neighbour, he set up his own photo studio at the age of 13.

Fosso was awarded the Afrique en Création prize in 1995 and was the recipient of the prestigious Prince Claus Award in 2001. His self-portraits are represented in the collections of international museums such as Tate Gallery in London, Centre Pompidou and musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris. In 2017, a solo exhibition of his work was held at the National Portrait Gallery in London. In 2020, the monograph Autoportrait, the first comprehensive survey of Fosso’s photographs was published by Steidl and The Walther Collection. Samuel Fosso lives and works between Nigeria and France.

 

Publications

On the occasion of the retrospective Samuel Fosso at MEP in 2021, Steidl has published a French edition of Autoportrait, the first comprehensive survey of Samuel Fosso’s oeuvre – originally co-published by The Walther Collection in 2020 – with essays and research by leading scholars and writers. Edited by Okwui Enwezor, it includes contributions by Quentin Bajac, Simon Baker, Yves Chatap, Elvira Dyangani Ose, Chika Okeke-Agulu, Oluremi C. Onabanjo, Jean Marc Patras, Terry Smith, Claire Staebler, James Thomas, and Artur Walther, as well as an in-depth conversation between Samuel Fosso and Okwui Enwezor.

SIXSIXSIX consists of 666 large-format Polaroid self-portraits, produced in an intensive process by Samuel Fosso with a small team in his Paris studio in 2015 and 2016. Shot against the same rich, coloured backdrop, these striking photographs depart from Fosso’s earlier self-portraits through their understated and stripped-back approach. Fosso’s challenge was to create 666 self-portraits each with a different bodily expression, reminding us of the link between his performances and photography. The publication opens with a conversation between Fosso and curator and critic Hans Ulrich Obrist.

 

About the Exhibition

Samuel Fosso: The Man with a Thousand Faces is a touring exhibition organised by the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (Paris) in collaboration with The Walther Collection (Neu-Ulm) and Huis Marseille (Amsterdam), with the support of Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne.

Text from The Walther Collection website

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'Mémoire d'un ami' 2000

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
Mémoire d’un ami
2000

 

 

“When I work, it’s always a performance that I choose to undertake. It’s not a subject or an object; it’s one more human being. I link my body to this figure, because I want to translate its history.”

Text from the Samuel Fosso website / more images from the series can be found on the website

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'Mémoire d'un ami' 2000

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
Mémoire d’un ami
2000

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'Mémoire d'un ami' 2000

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
Mémoire d’un ami
2000

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'Mémoire d'un ami' 2000

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
Mémoire d’un ami
2000

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'Mémoire d'un ami' 2000

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
Mémoire d’un ami
2000

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'Self-Portrait (Martin Luther King, Jr.)' 2008

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
Self-Portrait (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
2008
From the series African Spirits

 

 

“I see slavery as connected to all these questions of freedom, liberation, colonialism, and power. To me, slavery was the source, and I wanted to deal with it in a really deep way. My goal was to restage key images and figures in this history from King during the American civil rights movement to Kwame Nkrumah, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Aimé Césaire during the independence and liberation of Africa. To my mind, all these struggles had one thing in common, and that is the history of slavery. And these figures were committed to the idea of freedom for black people in order to reclaim their culture and human dignity. This was the underlying concept of African Spirits.

Text from the Samuel Fosso website / more images from the series can be found on the website

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'Self-Portrait (Angela Davis)' 2008

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
Self-Portrait (Angela Davis)
2008
From the series African Spirits

 

 

Fosso’s quest to pay homage to historical, political figures that had fought for black civil rights became more precise in his black-and-white series, African Spirits (2008), produced in Patras’ former gallery in Paris. Marking a decisive shift in direction, each photograph is based on a specific image of one of Fosso’s heroes that he faithfully reinterpreted, casting himself as a different character each time. This involved creating elaborate backdrops, hiring costumes and imitating facial expressions. In one, Fosso interprets Martin Luther King Jr’s mugshot following King’s arrest in Alabama in 1956 for his leadership role in the Montgomery bus boycott. Others see him assuming the identities of African-Americans such as Muhammad Ali and the political activist Angela Davis (above), African leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire, who co-founded the Négritude movement to restore the cultural identity of black Africans, and Keïta.

Anna Sansom. “Me, Myself & I,” on the 1854 photography website 3 May 2020 [Online] Cited 23/10/2022

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'Self-Portrait (Muhammad Ali)' 2008

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
Self-Portrait (Muhammad Ali)
2008
From the series African Spirits

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'Self-Portrait (Malcolm X)' 2008

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
Self-Portrait (Malcolm X)
2008
From the series African Spirits

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'Emperor of Africa' 2013

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
Emperor of Africa
2013
From the series Emperor of Africa

 

 

“We cannot accept, because of Chinese money, the destruction of our environment. We must also preserve it for our children and for generations to come. This is what I wanted to say in Lagos, in 2013, on the occasion of my first exhibition in Nigeria, where my series Emperor of Africa was also presented for the first time. In this series, Mao is the emperor of this Africa that the Chinese have come to invade. It is the question of economic independence which arises after that of political independence.”

Text from the Samuel Fosso website / more images from the series can be found on the website

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'Emperor of Africa' 2013

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
Emperor of Africa
2013
From the series Emperor of Africa

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'Emperor of Africa' 2013

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
Emperor of Africa
2013
From the series Emperor of Africa

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'ALLONZENFANS' 2013

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
ALLONZENFANS
2013

 

 

“I want to show the black man’s relationship to the power that oppresses him.”

Text from the Samuel Fosso website / more images from the series can be found on the website

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'ALLONZENFANS' 2013

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
ALLONZENFANS
2013

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'Black Pope' 2017

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
Black Pope
2017

 

 

“Samuel Fosso’s Black Pope explores the way religion and its symbols and objects that are used to create the narrative of a papal figure are so removed from the African context and culture that it almost promotes this idea of whiteness and white supremacy. In the history of the papacy, there has never been a black pope, while today the greatest number of Roman Catholics is actually in Africa.”

Azu Nwagbogu, 2017

Text from the Samuel Fosso website / more images from the series can be found on the website

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'Black Pope' 2017

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
Black Pope
2017

 

 

Next came the series Allonzenfans (2013), in which Fosso reflects upon how France conscripted men from its West African colonies to fight in the First and Second World Wars, followed by Black Pope (2017), above. For the latter, Fosso was awarded the Infinity Art Award 2018 from the International Centre of Photography in New York. At the Rencontres de Bamako in 2017, one enlarged image from the series was presented alongside contact sheets comprising dozens of shots of Fosso enacting the Pope. In total, 70 unique portraits are being produced, according to Patras. In some, Fosso is reading the Bible, praying or holding the papal ferula while standing on a meteorite – an evident pun on Maurizio Cattelan’s sculpture, La Nona Ora (1999), an effigy of Pope John Paul II being crushed by a meteorite. The series alludes to Fosso’s hope that one day the Catholic Church will have a black pope. “I asked myself why there has never been a black pope, but now there’s been a Polish pope [John Paul II], a German pope [Benedict XVI] and now a pope from South America [Francis], so perhaps one day there’ll be a black pope,” Fosso says.

Anna Sansom. “Me, Myself & I,” on the 1854 photography website 3 May 2020 [Online] Cited 23/10/2022

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'Black Pope' 2017

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
Black Pope
2017

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'SIXSIXSIX' 2020

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
SIXSIXSIX
2020
Polaroid

 

 

“It’s neither the body that smiles, nor the body that cries, but a representation of life and all the misfortunes that strike us deep within. In the end, it’s about buried emotions that we ourselves create, and about exorcising my own resentment in the face of this situation.”

Text from the Samuel Fosso website / more images from the series can be found on the website

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'SIXSIXSIX' 2020

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
SIXSIXSIX
2020
Polaroid

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'SIXSIXSIX' 2020

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
SIXSIXSIX
2020
Polaroid

 

 

Fosso’s series, SixSixSix (2015) – presented at the National Portrait Gallery in 2017 – is the subject of a second new Steidl book due later this year. Over three weeks in a Parisian studio, Fosso posed shirtless, sitting on a chair, two or three times a day in front of a crimson backdrop, staring at the camera. This culminated in 666 unique Polaroid images that capture Fosso’s varying emotional states, from glum, sad, angry to happy. The classical framing of each self-portrait depicting Fosso’s face and shoulders, his body almost merging into the background, is identical. What differs is the emanating mood and facial expression, no two images being exactly the same.

The title of the series referring to the evil connotation of the figure 666 in the Bible, the work was made partly in response to the Central African Republic’s civil war from 2012-2014. “My house, studio and photography accessories were completely destroyed,” laments Fosso, who eventually managed to escape the violence and catch a flight to France as he had a French passport. Although his archive has been preserved by Patras and the negatives of his series are with Griffin Editions in New York, Fosso lost some of his early colour photographs when his studio was set alight. “Unhappiness has often struck my path – illness and war in my childhood, then wars and wars,” Fosso says.

Anna Sansom. “Me, Myself & I,” on the 1854 photography website 3 May 2020 [Online] Cited 23/10/2022

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962) 'SIXSIXSIX' 2020

 

Samuel Fosso (Nigerian born Cameroon, b. 1962)
SIXSIXSIX
2020
Polaroid

 

 

The Walther Collection
Reichenauer Strasse 21
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09
Nov
22

Text: “Historical Pressings” chapter from Marcus Bunyan’s PhD research ‘Pressing the Flesh: Sex, Body Image and the Gay Male’, RMIT University, Melbourne, 2001

November 2022

 

Hippolyte Bayard (French, 1801–1887) 'Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man' 1840

 

Hippolyte Bayard (French, 1801-1887)
Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man
1840
Direct Positive Print
Public domain

 

 

Since the demise of my old website, my PhD research Pressing the Flesh: Sex, Body Image and the Gay Male (RMIT University, Melbourne, 2001) has no longer been available online.

I have now republished the first of twelve chapters, “Historical Pressings”, so that it is available to read. More chapters will be added as I get time. I hope the text is of some interest…

Dr Marcus Bunyan November 2022

 

 

“Historical Pressings” chapter from Marcus Bunyan’s PhD research Pressing the Flesh: Sex, Body Image and the Gay Male RMIT University, Melbourne, 2001

Through plain language English (not academic speak) the text of this chapter examines the history of photographic images of the male body, including the male body as desired by gay men, and the portrayal in photography of the gay male body.

NB. This chapter should be read in conjunction with the Bench Press and Re-Pressentation chapters for a fuller overview of the development of the muscular male body. This chapter also contains descriptions of sexual activity.

 

Keywords

male body image, gay beauty myth, history of photographs of the male body, development of bodybuilding, queer body, gay male body, gay male body and HIV/AIDS, HIV/AIDS, photographic images of the male body, male2male sex, ephebe, muscular mesomorph, muscular male body, photography, art, erotic art, physique photography, Kinsey Institute, One Institute, gay pornography magazines, Physique Pictorial, Tom of Finland, cult of muscularity.

 

Sections

  • Beginnings
  • Frederick Holland Day and Baron von Gloeden
  • The Development of Bodybuilding
  • WWI, Nature Worship, The Body and Propaganda
  • Surrealism and the Body: George Platt Lynes
  • 1930s Australian Body Architecture
  • Minor White
  • Physique Culture after WW2 (Tom of Finland, 1950s Australia, Later Physique Culture and gay pornography photographs)
  • Diane Arbus
  • Robert Mapplethorpe
  • Arthur Tress, Bill Henson and Bruce Weber
  • Herb Ritts, Queer Press, Queer body
  • And so it goes…

Word count 10,600

 

 

Historical Pressings

 

Beginnings

Since the invention of the camera people have taken photographs of the male body. The 1840 image by Hippolyte Bayard, Self-portrait as a drowned man (above) is a self-portrait by the photographer depicting his fake suicide, taken in protest at being ignored as one of the inventors of photography. It is interesting because it is one of the earliest known photographic images of the unclothed male body and also a reflection of his self, an act of self-reflexivity. It is not his actual body but a reflection on how he would like to be seen by himself and others. This undercurrent of being seen, of projecting an image of the male body, has gradually been sexualised over the history of photography. The body in a photograph has become a canvas, able to mask or reveal the sexuality, identity and desires of the body and its owner. The male body in photography has become an object of desire for both the male and female viewer. The body is on display, open to the viewers gaze, possibly a desiring gaze. In the latter half of the twentieth century it is the muscular male body in particular that has become eroticised as an object of a desiring male2male gaze. In consumer society the muscular male body now acts as a sexualised marketable asset, used by ourselves and others, by the media and by companies to sell product. How has this sexual image of the muscular male body developed?

Within the history of art there is a profundity of depictions of the nude female form upon which the desiring gaze of the male could linger. With the advent of photography images of the nude male body became an accessible space for men desiring to look upon the bodies of other men. The nude male images featured in the early history of photography are endearing in their supposed lack of artifice. The bodies are of a natural type: everyday, normal run of the mill bodies reveal themselves directly to the camera as can be seen in the anonymous c. 1843 French daguerreotype, “Male Nude Study”.1 Although posed and required to hold the stance for a long period of time in order to expose the mercury plate, the model in this daguerreotype assumes a quiet confidence and comfort in his own body, staring directly at the camera whilst revealing his manhood for all to see. This period sees the first true revealing of the male body since the Renaissance, and the beginning of the eroticising of the male body as a visual ‘spectacle’ in the modern era.

Artists with an inclination towards the beauty of naked men were drawn towards the new medium. The photograph opened up the male body to the desiring gaze of the male viewer. The photograph reflected both reality and deception: the reality that these bodies existed in the flesh and the deception that they could be ‘had’, that the viewer could possess the body by looking, by eroticising, and through purchasing the photograph. Friendship between men was generally accepted up until the 18th century but in Victorian times homosexuality was named and classified as a sexual orientation in the early 1870’s. According to Michel Foucault2 this ‘friendship’ only became a problem with the rise of the powers of the police and the judiciary, who saw it as a deviant act; of course photography, as an instrument of ‘truth’, could prove the criminal activities of homosexuals and lead to their prosecution. When homosexual acts did come to the attention of the police and the medical profession it led to great scandals such as the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde for sodomy.

 

Eadweard Muybridge (English, 1830-1904) 'Nude men wrestling, lock' (plate 345) 1884/1886

 

Eadweard Muybridge (English, 1830-1904)
Nude men wrestling, lock (plate 345)
1884/1886
Public domain

Eadweard Muybridge. Animal locomotion: an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements. 1872-1885 / published under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. Plates. The plates printed by the Photo-Gravure Company. Philadelphia, 1887

 

 

On reflection there seems to have been an explosion of images around the late 1880’s to early 1890’s onwards of what we can now call homoerotic imagery; to contemporary eyes the 1887 photographs of nude wrestlers by Eadweard Muybridge have a distinct air of homo-eroticism about them. To keep such images above moral condemnation and within the bounds of propriety men where photographed in poses that were used for scientific studies (as in the case of the Muybridge photographs), as studies for other artists, or in religious poses. They appealed to the classical Greek ideal of masculinity and therefore avoided the sanctions of a society that was, on the surface, deeply conservative. For a brief moment imagine being a homosexual man in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, gazing for the first time at men in close physical proximity, touching each other in the nude, pressing each others flesh when such behaviour was thought of as subversive and illegal – what erotic desires photographs of the male body must have caused to those that appreciated such delicious pleasures, seeing them for the first time!

 

Frederick Holland Day and Baron von Gloeden

Two of the most famous photographers of the late Victorian and early Edwardian era who used the male body significantly in their work were Frederick Holland Day in America and Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden in Europe. Frederick Holland Day’s photographs of the male body concentrated on mythological and religious subject matter. In these photographs he tried to reveal a transcendence of spirit through an aesthetic vision of androgynous physical perfection. He revelled in the sensuous hedonistic beauty of what he saw as the perfection of the youthful male body. In the 1904 photograph “St. Sebastian,” for example, the young male body is presented for our adoring gaze in the combined ecstasy and agony of suffering. In his mythological photographs Holland Day used the idealism of Ancient Greece as the basis for his directed and staged images. These are not the bodies of muscular men but of youthful boys (ephebes) in their adolescence; they seem to have an ambiguous sexuality. The models genitalia are rarely shown and when they are, the penis is usually hidden in dark shadow, imbuing the photographs with a sexual mystery. The images are suffused with an erotic beauty of the male body never seen before, a photographic reflection of a seductive utopian beauty seen through the desiring eye of a homosexual photographer.

 

Frederick Holland Day (American, 1864-1933) 'Saint Sebastian' c. 1906

 

Frederick Holland Day (American, 1864-1933)
Saint Sebastian
c. 1906
Platinum print

See Frederick Holland Day. “Saint Sebastian.” Platinum print, c. 1906, in Woody, Jack and Crump, James. F. Holland Day: Suffering The Ideal. Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 1995, Plate 53. Courtesy: Library of Congress

 

 

In Europe Wilhelm von Gloeden’s photographs of young ephebes (males between boy and man) have a much more open and confronting sexual presence. Using heavily set Sicilian peasant youths with rough hands and feet von Gloeden turned some of these bodies into heroic images of Grecian legend, usually photographing his nude figures in their entirety. In undertaking research into von Gloedens’ photographs at The Kinsey Institute, I was quite surprised at how little von Gloeden used classical props such as togas and vases in his photographs, relying instead on just the form of the body with perhaps a ribbon in the hair. His photographs depict the penis and the male rump quite openly and he hints at possible erotic sexual encounters between models through their intimate gaze and physical contact.

The photographs were collected by some people for their chaste and idyllic nature but for others, such as homosexual men, there is a subtext of latent homo-eroticism present in the positioning and presentation of the youthful male body. The imagery of the penis and the male rump can be seen as totally innocent, but to homosexual men desire can be aroused by the depiction of such erogenous zones within these photographs.

In both photographers work there is a reliance on the ‘natural’ body. In von Gloeden’s case it is the smooth peasant body with rough hands and feet; in Holland Day’s it is the smooth sinuous body of the adolescent. At the same time in both Europe and America, however, there began to emerge a new form for the body of a man, that of the muscular mesomorph, the V-shaped masculine ‘ideal’ expressed through the image of the bodybuilder, photographed in all his muscular splendour!

 

Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931), Germany 'Two nude men standing in a forest' Taormina, Sicily, 1899

 

Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden (German, 1856-1931)
Two nude men standing in a forest
Taormina, Sicily, 1899
Albumen print

 

 

The Development of Bodybuilding

Frederick Mueller, better known to the world as the Prussian bodybuilder Eugen Sandow, was launched on the public at the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. He was the world’s first true bodybuilder and he had a thick set muscular body with an outstanding back and abdominal muscles.

Bodybuilding came into existence as a result of the perceived effeminization of men brought on by the effects of the industrial revolution – boxing, gymnastics and weightlifting were undertaken to combat slothfulness, lack of exercise and unmanliness. This led to the formation of what Elliott Gorn in his book The Manly Art (Robson Books, 1986) has called ‘The Cult of Muscularity’,4 where the ‘ideal’ of the perfect masculine body can be linked to a concern for the position and power of men in an industrialised world. Sandow promoted himself not as the strongest man in the world but as the man with the most perfect physique, the first time this had ever happened in the history of the male body. He projected an ideal of physical perfection. He used photography of his muscular torso to promote himself and his products such as books, dumbbells and a brand of cocoa. He often performed and was photographed in the nude by leading photographers in Europe and America and was not at all bashful about exposing his naked body to the admiring gaze of both men and women.

His torso appeared on numerous cartes de visite, inspiring other young men to take up bodybuilding and gradually the muscular male body became an object of adulation for middle-class men and boys. The popularity of the image of his perfect body encouraged other men to purchase images of such muscular edifices and allowed them to desire to have a body like Sandow’s themselves. It also allowed homosexual men to eroticise the body of the male through their desiring gaze. But the ‘normal’ standards of heterosexual masculinity had to be defended. A desiring male gaze (men looking at the bodies of other men) could not be allowed to be homosexual; homosexuals were portrayed by the popular press and society as effete and feminine in order to deny the fact that a ‘real’ man could desire other men.5 (See the Femi-nancy Press chapter for more details on how homosexuals were portrayed as feminine). A man had to be a ‘real’ man otherwise he could be queer, an arse bandit!

 

Napoleon Sarony (French, 1821-1896) 'Eugen Sandow' 1893

 

Napoleon Sarony (French, 1821-1896)
Eugen Sandow
1893
Photographic print on cabinet card
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

 

 

Still, photographs of Greco-Roman wrestling continued to offer the opportunity for homosexual men to look upon the muscular bodies of other men in close physical proximity and intimacy. A classical wrestling style and classical props legitimised the subject matter. In static poses, which most photographs were at this time because of the length of the exposure, the genitalia were usually covered with a discreetly placed fig leaf or loin cloth, or the fig leaf / posing pouch were added later by retouching the photograph (as can be seen in the anonymous undated image of two wrestlers, “Otto Arco and Adrian Deraiz”).5 People such as Bernard MacFadden, publisher of Physical Culture, said these images were not at all erotic when viewed by other men. I think I would have found these images very horny (if a little illicit), if I had been a poof back in those days.

The physique of the muscular body had appeal across all class boundaries and bodybuilding was one of the first social activities that could be undertaken by any man no matter what his social position. Bodybuilding reinforced the power of traditional heterosexual behaviour – to be the breadwinner and provider for women, men had to see themselves as strong, tough and masculine. A fit, strong body is a productive body able to do more work through its shear physical bulk and endurance. Unlike the anonymous bodies in the photographs of Holland Day and von Gloeden here the bodies are named as individuals, men proud of their masculine bodies. It is the photographers that are anonymous, as though they are of little consequence in comparison to the flesh that is placed before their lenses.

I suggest that the impression the muscular body made on individual men was also linked to developments in other areas (art, construction and architecture for example), which were themselves influenced by industrialisation and its affect on social structure. In her book Space, Time and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies (Routledge, 1995), Elizabeth Grosz says that the city is an important element in the social production of sexually active bodies. As the cities became further industrialised and the population of cities increased in the Victorian era, space to build new buildings was at a premium. The 1890s saw the building of the first skyscrapers in America, impressive pieces of engineering that towered above the city skyline. Their object was to get more internal volume and external surface area into the same amount of space so that the building held more and was more visible to the human eye. I believe this construction has parallels in the similar development of the muscular male body, a facade with more surface area than other men’s bodies, which makes that man more visible, admired and (secretly) desired.

Further, in art the Futurists believed in the ultimate power of the machine and portrayed both the machine and the body in a blur of speed and motion. In the Age of the Machine the construction of the body became industrialised, the body becoming armoured against the outside world and the difficulty of living in it. The body became a machine, indestructible, superhuman. Within this demanding world men sought to confirm their dominance over women (especially after women achieved the ability to vote), and other men. Domination was affirmed partially through images of the muscular male (as can be seen in the image Charles Atlas and Tony Sansone in “The Slave” below), although viewed through contemporary eyes a definite homo-erotic element is also present.

Charles Atlas and Tony Sansone in “The Slave” also presents us with a man who challenged the fame of Eugen Sandow. His name was Tony Sansone and he emerged as the new hero of bodybuilding around the year 1925. Graced with a perfect physique for a taller man, Sansone was more lithe than the stocky, muscular Sandow and can be seen to represent a classical heroic Grecian body, perfect in it’s form. He had Valentino like features, perfect bone structure and was very photogenic, always a useful asset when selling a book of photographs of yourself.

 

Grace Salon of Art. 'Charles Atlas and Tony Sansone in "The Slave"' 1930s

 

Grace Salon of Art
Charles Atlas and Tony Sansone in “The Slave”
1930s

 

Edwin F. Townsend (American, 1877-1948) 'Portrait of Tony Sansone' Nd

 

Edwin F. Townsend (American, 1877-1948)
Portrait of Tony Sansone
Nd (1930s)

 

 

WWI, Nature Worship, The Body and Propaganda

The First World War caused a huge amount of devastation to the morale and confidence of the male population of Europe and America. Millions of young men were slaughtered on the killing fields of Flanders and Galipolli as the reality of trench warfare set in. Here it did not matter what kind of body a man had – every body was fodder for the machine guns that constantly ranged the lines of advancing men during an assault. A bullet or nerve gas kills a strong, muscular body just as well as a thin, natural body. The war created anxieties and conflicts in men and undermined their confidence and ability to cope in the world after peace came. During the war images of men were used to reinforce the patriotic message of fighting for your country. After the war the Surrealist and German Expressionist movements made use of photography of the body to depict the dreams, deprivations and abuse that men were suffering as a result of it. In opposition to this avant-garde art and to reinforce the message of the strong, omnipotent male – images of muscular bodies were again used to shore up traditional ‘masculine’ values. They were used to advertise sporting events such as boxing and wrestling matches and sporting heroes appeared on cigarette cards emphasising skills and achievements. These images and events ensured that masculinity was kept at the forefront of human endeavour and social cognisance.

After the devastation of The First World War, the 1920’s saw the development in Germany, America and England of the cult of ‘nature worship’ – a love of the outdoors, the sun and the naturalness of the body that would eventually lead to the formation of the nudist movement. This movement was exploited by governments and integrated into the training regimes of their armies in the search for a fitter more professional soldier. But the nudity aspect was frowned upon because of its homo-erotic overtones: Hitler banned all naturist clubs in Germany in 1933 and the obvious eroticism of training in the nude would not have been overlooked. Physical training had been introduced into the armies and navies of the Western world at the end of the 19th century and as the new century progressed physical fitness was seen as an integral part of the discipline and efficiency of such bodies. As fascist states started to emerge during the latter half of the 1920’s and the beginning of the 1930’s they started making use of the muscular male body as a symbol of physical perfection.

The idealised muscularity of the body was used by the state to encourage its aims. The use of classical images of muscular bodies reflected a nostalgia for the past and an appeal to nationalism. Heroic statues were recreated in stadiums in Italy and Germany, symbols that represented the power, strength and virility of the state and its leaders. In a totalitarian regime the body becomes the property of the state, and is used as a tool in collusion with the state’s moral and political agendas. Propaganda became a major tool of the state. During the decade leading up to the Second World War and during the war itself images of the body were used to help support the policies of the government, to encourage enlistment and bolster the morale of soldiers and public. Such images appealed to the patriotic nature of the population but could still include suspicions of homo-erotic activity, such as in the (probably Russian) poster from 1935 (below).

 

Anonymous photographer. 'The Ball Throwers' c. 1925

 

Anonymous photographer
The Ball Throwers
c. 1925
Army Training
Germany

 

“The training methods of Major Hans Suren, Chief of the German Army School of Physical Exercise in the 1920’s, involved training naked – pursuing ideals of physical perfection which were later promoted by Hitler as a sign of Aryan racial superiority.”

Anonymous photographer. “The Ball Throwers.” Army Training. Germany. c. 1925, in Dutton, Kenneth. The Perfectible Body. London: Cassell, 1995, p. 208

 

Unknown photographer. Josef Thorak "Comradeship" 1937

 

Unknown photographer
Josef Thorak “Comradeship”
1937
German Pavilion at the Paris Exposition Internationale

 

“Comradeship”, at the entrance to the German pavilion at the Paris World Exhibition 1937, by Josef Thorak, who was one of two “official sculptors” of the 3rd Reich. Nazi era statues were often strangely homoerotic.6

Here comradeship should not be confused with friendship which was discussed at the beginning of this chapter.

 

Anonymous artist. 'Propaganda poster' 1935

 

Anonymous artist
Propaganda poster
1935

 

 

Surrealism and the Body: George Platt Lynes

In contrast to the fascistic depictions of the male body used for propaganda, Surrealism (formed in the 1920s) was adapted by several influential gay photographers in the 1930s to express their own artistic interest in the male body. Although Surrealism was heavily anti-feminine and anti-homosexual, these gay male photographers, the Germans Herbert List, Horst P. Horst, and George Hoyningen-Huene and the American George Platt Lynes, made extensive use of the liberation of fantasies that Surrealism offered. Although the open depiction of homosexuality was still not possible in the 1930s there is an intuitive awareness on the part of the photographers and the viewer of the presence of sexual rituals and interactions. There is also the knowledge that there is a ready audience for these photographs, not only in the close circle of friends that surrounded the photographers, but also from gay men that instinctively recognise the homo-erotic quality of these images when shown them. The bodies in the images of the above photographers tend to be of two distinct types, the ephebe and the muscular mesomorphic body.

 

George Platt Lynes. 'A Forgotten Model' c. 1937

 

George Platt Lynes (American, 1907-1955)
A Forgotten Model
c. 1937
Gelatin silver print

 

George Platt Lynes. 'The Sleepwalker' 1935

 

George Platt Lynes (American, 1907-1955)
The Sleepwalker
1935
Gelatin silver print

 

George Platt Lynes (1907-1955) 'Names Withheld' 1952

 

George Platt Lynes (American, 1907-1955)
Names Withheld
1952
Gelatin silver print

 

Herbert List (German, 1903-1975) 'Armor II' 1934

 

Herbert List (German, 1903-1975)
Armor II
1934
Gelatin silver print
15 7/10 × 11 4/5 in (40 × 30cm)

 

Herbert List (German, 1903-1975) 'Young men on Naxos' 1937

 

Herbert List (German, 1903-1975)
Young men on Naxos
1937
Gelatin silver print

 

George Platt Lynes (American, 1907-1955) 'Untitled' 1936

 

George Platt Lynes (American, 1907-1955)
Untitled
1936
Gelatin silver print

 

 

In America George Platt Lynes was working as a fashion photographer. George Platt Lynes had his own studio in New York where he photographed dancers, artists and celebrities amongst others. He undertook a series of mythological photographs on classical themes (which are amazing for their composition which features Surrealist motifs). Privately he photographed male nudes but was reluctant to show them in public for fear of the harm that they could do to his reputation and business with the fashion magazines. Generally his earlier nude photographs concentrate on the idealised youthful body or ‘ephebe’. The 1936 photograph “Untitled” (above) is an exception. Here we gaze upon a smooth, defined muscular torso, the man (too old to be an ephebe) both in agony and ecstasy, his head thrown back, his eyes covered by one of his arms. Sightless he does not see the ‘other’ male hand that encloses his genitals, hiding them but also possibly about to molest them / release them at the same time. (NB. See my research notes on George Platt Lynes photographs in the Collection at the Kinsey Institute).

We can relate this photograph to Fred Holland Day’s photograph of “St. Sebastian” discussed earlier, this image stripped bare of most of the religious iconography of the previous image. The body is displayed for our adoration in all its muscularity, the lighting picking up the definition of diaphragm, ribs and chest, the hand hiding and perhaps, in the future, offering release to a suppressed sexuality. Here an-‘other’ hand is much closer to the origin of male2male sexual desire. Looking at this photograph you can visualise a sexual fantasy, so I imagine that it would have had the same effect on homosexual men when they looked at it in the 1930s.

In the slightly later nude photographs by George Platt Lynes the latent homo-eroticism evident in his earlier work becomes even more apparent.

In his image from 1942 “Untitled” we observe three young men in bare surroundings, likely to be Platt Lynes studio. The faces of the three men are not visible at all, evoking a sexual anonymity (According to David Leddick the models are Charles ‘Tex’ Smutney, Charles ‘Buddy’ Stanley, and Bradbury Ball.7 The image comes from a series of 30 photographs of these three boys undressing and lying on a bed together; please see my notes on Image 483 and others from this series in the Collection at The Kinsey Institute).

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Untitled [Charles 'Tex' Smutney, Charles 'Buddy' Stanley, and Bradbury Ball]' c. 1942

 

George Platt Lynes (American, 1907-1955)
Untitled [Charles ‘Tex’ Smutney, Charles ‘Buddy’ Stanley, and Bradbury Ball]
c. 1942
Gelatin silver print

 

 

On a chair sits a pile of discarded clothes and in the background a man is removing the clothing of another man. The bulge of the man’s penis is quite visible through the material of the underpants. On the bed lies another man, face down, passive, unresisting, head turned away from us, the curve of his arse signalling a site of erotic activity for a gay man. Our gaze is directed to the arse of the man lying on the bed as a site of sexual desire and although nothing is actually happening in the photograph, there is a sexual ‘frisson’ in its composition.

As Lynes became more despondent with his career as a fashion photographer his private photographs of male nudes tended to take on a darker and sharper edge. After a period of residence in Hollywood he returned to New York nearly penniless. His style of photographing the male nude underwent a revision. While the photographs of his European colleagues still relied on the sun drenched bodies of young adolescent males evoking memories of classical beauty and the mythology of Ancient Greece the later nudes of Platt Lynes feature a mixture of youthful ephebes and heavier set bodies which appear to be more sexually knowing. The compositional style of dramatically lit photographs of muscular torsos of older men shot in close up (see the undated image “Untitled,” Frontal Male Nude, for example; see also my notes on this image, Image 144, in the Collection at The Kinsey Institute), were possibly influenced by a number of things – his time in Hollywood with its images of handsome, swash-buckling movie stars with broad chests and magnificent physiques; the images of bodybuilders by physique photographers that George Platt Lynes visited; the fact that his lover George Tichenor had been killed during WWII; and the knowledge that he was penniless and had cancer. There is, I think, a certain perhaps not desperation but sadness and strength in much of his later photographs of the male nude that harnesses the inherent sexual power embedded within their subject matter.

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Untitled (Frontal Male Nude)' nd

 

George Platt Lynes (American, 1907-1955)
Untitled [Frontal Male Nude]
Nd
Gelatin silver print

Platt Lynes, George. “Untitled,” Nd in Ellenzweig, Allen. The Homoerotic Photograph. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, p. 103.
Courtesy: Estate of George Platt Lynes.

 

“The depth and commitment he had in photographing the male nude, from the start of his career to the end, was astonishing. There was absolutely no commercial impulse involved – he couldn’t exhibit it, he couldn’t publish it.”

Allen Ellenzweig. Introduction to George Platt Lynes: The Male Nudes. Rizzoli, 2011.

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Untitled' 1953

 

George Platt Lynes (American, 1907-1955)
Untitled
Date unknown (early 1950s)
Gelatin silver print

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Untitled' 1953

 

George Platt Lynes (American, 1907-1955)
Untitled
1953
Gelatin silver print

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Ted Starkowski (standing, arms behind back)' c. 1950

 

George Platt Lynes (American, 1907-1955)
Ted Starkowski (standing, arms behind back)
c. 1950
Gelatin silver print from a paper negative

 

 

The monumentality of body and form was matched by a new openness in the representation of sexuality. There are intimate photographs of men in what seem to be post-coital revere, in unmade beds, genitalia showing or face down showing their butts off (See my description of Untitled Nude, 1946, in the Collection at The Kinsey Institute). Some of the faces in these later photographs remain hidden, as though disclosure of identity would be detrimental for fear of persecution. The “Untitled,” Frontal Male Nude photograph (above) is very ‘in your face’ for the conservative time from which it emerges, remembering it was the era of witch hunts against communists and subversives (including homosexuals).

This photograph is quite restrained compared to one of the most striking series of GPL’s photographs that I saw at The Kinsey Institute which involves an exploration the male anal area. A photograph from the 1951 series can be found in the book titled George Platt Lynes: Photographs from The Kinsey Institute.8 This image is far less explicit than other images of the same model from the same series that I saw during my research into GPL’s photographs at The Kinsey Institute,9 in particular one which depicts the model with his buttocks in the air pulling his arse cheeks apart (See my description of Images 186-194 in the Collection at The Kinsey Institute). After Lynes found out he had cancer he started to send his photographs to the German homoerotic magazine Der Kries under the pseudonym Roberto Rolf,10 and in the last years of his life he experimented with paper negatives, which made his images of the male body even more grainy and mysterious (See the photograph Ted Starkowski (1950, above), and see my notes on Male Nude 1951, in the Collection at The Kinsey Institute).

Personally I believe that Lynes understood, intimately, the different physical body types that gay men find desirable and used them in his photographs. He visited Lon of New York (a photographer of beefcake men) in his studio and purchased photographs of bodybuilders for himself, as did the German photographer George Hoyningen-Huene, another artist who was gay. It is likely that these images of bodybuilders did influence his later compositional style of images of men; it is also possible that he detected the emergence of this iconic male body type as a potent sexual symbol, one that that was becoming more visible and sexually available to gay men.

 

Max Dupain. 'Sunbaker' 1937

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911-1992)
Sunbaker
1937
Gelatin silver print

 

 

1930s Australian Body Architecture

Around the time that George Platt Lynes was photographing his earlier male nudes Max Dupain took what is seen to be an archetypal photograph of the Australian way of life. Called Sunbaker (1937, above), the photograph expresses the bronzed form of man lying prone on the ground, the man pressing his flesh into the warm sand as the sun beats down on a hot summers day. His hand touches the earth and his head rests, egg-like, on his arm. His shoulders remind me of the outline of Uluru (or Ayres Rock) in the centre of Australia, sculptural, almost cathedral like in their geometry and outline, soaring into the sky. Here the male body is a massive edifice, towering above the eye line, his body wet from the sea expressing the essence of Australian beach culture. In this photograph can be seen evidence of an Australian tradition of photographing hunky lifesavers and surfies to the delight of a gay audience which reached a peak in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, although I’m not sure that Max Dupain would have realised the homoerotic overtones of the photograph at the time.

 

Minor White

Another photographer haunted by his sexuality was the American Minor White. Disturbed by having been in battle in the Second World War and seeing some of his best male friends killed, White’s early photographs of men (in their uniforms) depict the suffering and anguish that the mental and physical stress of war can cause. He was even more upset than most because he was battling his own inner sexual demons at the same time, his shame and disgust at being a homosexual and attracted to men, a difficulty compounded by his religious upbringing. In his photographs White both denied his attraction to men and expressed it. His photographs of the male body are suffused with both sexual mystery and a celebration of his sexuality despite his bouts of guilt. After the war he started to use the normal everyday bodies of his friends to form sequences of photographs, sometimes using the body as a metaphor for the landscape and vice versa. Based on a religious theme the 1948 photograph Tom Murphy (San Francisco) (1948, below) from The Temptation of Saint Anthony is Mirrors, 1948, presents us with a dismembered hairy body front on, the hands clutching and caressing the body at the same time, the lower hand hovering near the exposed genitalia. As in the photographs of Platt Lynes we see the agony and ecstasy of a homo-erotic desire wrapped up in a religious or mythological theme.

 

Minor White (American, 1908-1976) 'Tom Murphy (San Francisco)' 1948

 

Minor White (American, 1908-1976)
Tom Murphy (San Francisco)
1948
From The Temptation of Saint Anthony is Mirrors 1948
Gelatin silver print

 

Minor White (American, 1908–1976) 'Nude Foot, San Francisco' 1947

 

Minor White (American, 1908-1976)
Nude Foot, San Francisco
1947
Gelatin silver print

 

 

Other images (such as Nude Foot 1947, above) seem to have an aura of desire, mysticism, vulnerability and inner spirituality. White photographed when he was in a state of meditation, hoping for a “revelation,” a revealing of spirit in the subsequent negative and finally print. Perhaps this is why the young men in his photographs always seem vulnerable, alone, available, and have an air of mystery – they reflect his inner state of mind, and consequently express feelings about his own sexuality. In reading through my research notes on his photographs at The Minor White Archive, I notice that I found them a very intense, rich and rewarding experience. It was amazing to find Minor White photographs of erect penises dating from the 1940s amongst the archive but even more amazing was the presence that these photographs had for me. The other overriding feeling was one of perhaps loneliness, sadness, anguish(?), for the bodies seemed to be just observed and not partaken of. As with Platt Lynes photographs of men, very few of Minor White’s male portraits were ever exhibited in his lifetime because of his fear of being exposed as a homosexual.

 

Physique Culture after WW2

At the same time that Minor White was exploring anxieties surrounding his sexuality and his war experiences, many other American men were returning home from WWII to America to find that they had to reaffirm the traditional place of the male as the breadwinner within the family unit. Masculinity and a muscular body image was critical in this reaffirmation. Powerful in build and strong in image it was used to counter the threat of newly independent females, females who had taken over the jobs of men while they were away at war. Conversely, many gay men returned home to America after the war knowing that they were not as alone as they had previously thought, having socialised, associated, fought and had sex with others of their kind. There were other gay men out there in the world and the beginnings of contemporary gay society started to be formed. A desire by some gay men for the masculine body image found expression in the publications of body-building books and magazines that continued to be produced within the boundaries of social acceptability after the Second World War.

Photographers such as Russ Warner, Al Urban, Lon of New York (who began their careers in the late 1930’s), Bob Mizer (started Physique Pictorial in 1945), Charles Renslow (started Kris studio in 1954), and Bruce of Los Angeles, sought out models on both sides of the Atlantic (See my notes on the images of some of these photographers held in the Collection at the Kinsey Institute). Models appeared in posing pouches or the negatives were again airbrushed to hide offending genitalia. Some unpublished images from 1942-1950 by Bruce of Los Angeles show an older man sucking off a stiff younger man (See my notes on Images No. 52001-52004 from the link above) but this is the rare exception rather than the rule.

 

Bob Mizer/Athletic Model Guild. 'Irwin Kosewski and Jerry Ross' Nd

 

Bob Mizer (American, 1922-1992) / Athletic Model Guild
Irwin Kosewski and Jerry Ross
Nd

Mizer, Bob/Athletic Model Guild. “Irwin Kosewski and Jerry Ross,” Nd, in Domenique (ed.,). Art in Physique Photography. Vol. 1. Man’s World Publishing Company. Chesham: The Carlton Press, Nd, p. 19.

 

Joe Corey. 'Bill Henry and Bob Baker' Nd

 

Joe Corey
Bill Henry and Bob Baker
Nd

Corey, Joe. “Bill Henry and Bob Baker,” Nd, in Domenique (ed.,). Art in Physique Photography. Vol. 1. Man’s World Publishing Company. Chesham: The Carlton Press, Nd, p. 27.

 

 

Appealing to a closeted homosexual clientele the published images seem, on reflection, to have had a more open, homo-erotic quality to them than earlier physique photographs. This can be observed in the two undated images, “Irwin Kosewski and Jerry Ross,” by Bob Mizer / Athletic Model Guild and “Bill Henry and Bob Baker,” by Joe Carey. The first image carries on the tradition of the Sansone image “The Slave,” but further develops the sado-masochistic overtones; such wrestling photographs became popular just because the models were shown touching each other, which could provide sexual arousal for gay men looking at the photographs.

Some photographs were taken out of doors instead of always in the studio, possibly an expression of a more open attitude to ways of depicting the nude male body. The bodies in the ‘beefcake’ magazines of the 1950’s tend to be bigger than that of the ephebe, even when the models were quite young in some cases. As the name ‘beefcake’ implies, the muscular mesomorphic shape was the attraction of these bodies – perfectly proportioned Adonis’s with bulging pectorals, large biceps, hard as rock abdomens and small waists. The 1950’s saw the beginning of the fixation of gay men with the muscular mesomorph as the ultimate ideal image of a male body. The lithe bodies of young dancers and swimmers now gives way to muscle – a built body, large in its construction, solid and dependable, sculpted like a piece of rock. These bodies are usually smooth and it is difficult to find a hirsute body11 in any of the photographs from the physique magazines of this time. According to Alan Berube in his book, Coming Out Under Fire,

“The post-war growth and commercialization of gay male erotica in the form of mail-order 8 mm films, photographic stills, and physique magazines were developed in part by veterans and drew heavily on World War II uniforms and iconography for erotic imagery.”12

.
Looking through images from the 1940s in the collection at The Kinsey Institute, I did find that uniforms were used as a fetish in some of the explicitly erotic photographs as a form of sexual iconography. These photographs of male2male sex were for private consumption only. I found little evidence of the use of uniforms as sexual iconography in the published photographs of the physique magazines. Here image composition mainly featured classical themes, beach scenes, outdoor and studio settings.

 

Touko Valio Laaksonen (Tom of Finland) (Finnish, 1920-1991) 'Untitled' 1973

 

Touko Valio Laaksonen (Tom of Finland) (Finnish, 1920-1991)
Untitled
1973

 

'Physique Pictorial' Volume 7, Number 1, Spring 1957

 

Physique Pictorial Volume 7, Number 1, Spring 1957. Tom of Finland, Touko Laaksonen (cover)

This issue features the debut American appearance of “Tom, a Finnish artist,” a.k.a. Tom of Finland who produced both the cover illustration of loggers and an interior companion shot.

 

Bob Mizer (American, 1922-1992) / Athletic Model Guild. Cover of 'Physique Pictorial' Vol. 14, No. 2, 1964

 

Bob Mizer (American, 1922-1992) / Athletic Model Guild
Cover of Physique Pictorial Vol. 14, No. 2, 1964
32 pages, black and white illustrations
Illustrated saddle-stapled self-wrappers
21cm x 13cm

 

 

Tom of Finland

Although not a photographer one gay artist who was heavily influenced by the uniforms and muscularity of soldiers he lusted after and had sex with during the war was Touko Laaksonen, known as ‘Tom of Finland’. His images featured hunky, leather clad bikers, sailors, and rough trade ploughing their enlarged, engorged penises up the rears of chunky men in graphic scenes of male2male sex. His images portrayed gay men as the hard-bodied epitome of masculinity, contrary to the nancy boy image of the limp wristed poof that was the stereotype in the hetero / homosexual community up until the 1960s and even later. His early images were again only for private consumption. His first success was a (non-sexual) drawing of a well built male body that he sent to America. It appeared on the cover of the spring 1957 issue of Physique Pictorial (above). Here we see a link between the drawings of Tom of Finland and the construction of a body engineered towards selling to a homosexual market, the male body as marketable commodity. His drawings of muscular men were influenced by the bodies in the beefcake magazines and the bodies of the soldiers he desired. Tom of Finland, in an exaggerated way, portrayed the desirability of this type of body for gay men by emphasising that, for him, gay sex and gay bodies are ultimately ‘masculine’.

 

1950s Australia

Very little of this iconography of the muscular male was available to gay men in Australia throughout the 1950’s. The few publications that became available were likely to have come from America or the United Kingdom. Instead heterosexual photographers such as Max Dupain took images of Australian beach culture such as the 1952 image At Newport, Australia, 1952 (below). Dupain took a series of photographs of this beautiful young man, ‘the lad’ as he calls him,13 climbing out of the pool. Elegant in its structural form ‘the lad’ is oblivious to the camera’s and our gaze. Although the body is toned and tanned this body image is a much more ‘natural’ representation of the male body than the photographs in the physique magazines, with all their posing and preening for the camera.

 

Max Dupain. 'At Newport Baths' 1952

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911-1992)
At Newport, Australia, 1952
1952
Gelatin silver print

Dupain, Max. “At Newport, Australia, 1952.” 1952, in Bilson, Amanda (ed.,). Max Dupain’s Australia. Ringwood: Viking, 1986, p. 157.

 

John Graham. 'Clive Norman' Nd

 

John Graham
Clive Norman
Nd

Graham, John. “Clive Norman,” Nd in Domenique (ed.,). Art in Physique Photography Vol. 1. Man’s World Publishing Company. Chesham: The Carlton Press, Nd, p. 38.

 

John Graham. 'Detail from Parthenon Frieze'. Elgin Marble Friezes, British Museum Nd and Lon of New York in London. 'Jim Stevens' Nd

 

John Graham
Detail from Parthenon Frieze
Elgin Marble Friezes, British Museum
Nd

Lon of New York in London
Jim Stevens
Nd

Graham, John. “Detail from Parthenon Frieze.” Elgin Marble Friezes, British Museum, Nd in Domenique (ed.,). Art in Physique Photography. Vol. 1. Man’s World Publishing Company. Chesham: The Carlton Press, Nd, p. vi.

Lon of New York in London. “Jim Stevens,” Nd in Domenique (ed.,). Art in Physique Photography. Vol. 1. Man’s World Publishing Company. Chesham: The Carlton Press, Nd, p. 13.

 

 

Later Physique Culture and gay pornography photographs

Images of the body in the physique magazines of the 1940s-1960s are invariably smooth, muscular and defined. A perfect example of the type can be seen in the undated image Clive Norman by John Graham (above). The images rely heavily on the iconography of classical Rome and Greece to legitimise their homo-erotic overtones. Use was made of columns, drapery, and sets that presented the male body as the contemporary equivalent of idealised male beauty of ancient times.

As the 1950s turned into the 1960s other stereotypes became available to the photographers – for example the imagery of the marine, the sailor, the biker, the boy on a tropical island, the wrestler, the boxer, the mechanic. The photographs become more raunchy in their depiction of male nudity. In the 1950s, however, classical aspirations were never far from the photographers minds when composing the images as can be seen in the undated photograph Jim Stevens by Lon of New York in London (above) taken from a book called ‘Art in Physique Photography’.14 This book, illustrated with drawings of classical warrior figures by David Angelo, is subtitled: ‘An Album of the world’s finest photographs of the male physique’.

Here we observe a link between art and the body. This connection was used to confirm the social acceptability of physique photographs of the male body while still leaving them open to other alternative readings. One alternative reading was made by gay men who could buy these socially acceptable physique magazines to gaze with desire upon the naked form of the male body. It is interesting to note that with the advent of the first openly gay pornography magazines after the ruling on obscenity by the Supreme Court in America in the late 1960s (See my research notes on this subject from The One Institute),15 classical figures were still used to justify the desiring gaze of the camera and viewer upon the bodies of men. Another reason used by early gay pornography magazines to justify photographs of men having sex together was that the images were only for educational purposes!

Even in the mid 1970s companies such as Colt Studios, which has built a reputation for photographing hunky, very well built masculine men, used classical themes in their photography of muscular young men. Most of the early Colt magazines have photographs of naked young men that are accompanied by photographs and illustrations based on classical themes as can be seen in the image below. In their early magazines quite a proportion of the bodies were hirsute or had moustaches as was popular with the clone image at the time. Later models of the early 1980s tend towards the buff, tanned, stereotypical muscular mesomorph in even greater numbers. Sometimes sexual acts are portrayed in Colt magazines but mainly they are not. It is the “look” of the body and the face that the viewers desiring gaze is directed towards – not the sexual act itself. As the Colt magazine says,

“Our aim in Olympus is to wed the classic elegance of ancient Greece and Rome to the contemporary look of the ’70s. With some models that takes some doing: they may have one or two exceptional features, but the overall picture doesn’t make it … Erron, our current subject, comes closer to the ideal – in his own way … Erron stands 5’10”. He is 22 years old and is the spirit of the free-wheeling, unhampered single stud … And to many the morning after, he is ‘the man that got away’.”16

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Erron' 1973

 

Anonymous photographer
Erron
Olympus from Colt Studios Vol. 1. No 2.
1973

 

 

Erron does attempt to come closer to the ‘ideal’ but not, I think, in his own way for it is an ‘ideal’ based on a stereotypical masculine image from a past culture. Is he doing his own thing or someone else’s thing, based on an image already prescribed from the past?

As social morals relaxed in the age of ‘free love’, physique photographers such as Bob Mizer from Athletic Model Guild produced more openly homo-erotic images. In his work from the 1970s full erections are not prevalent but semi-erect penises do feature, as do revealing “moon” shots from the rear focusing on the arsehole as a site for male libidinal desires. A less closeted, more open expression of homosexual desire can be seen in the photographs of the male body in the 1970s.17 What can also be seen in the images of gay pornography magazines from the mid 1970s onwards is the continued development of the dominant stereotypical ‘ideal’ body image that is present in contemporary gay male society – that of the smooth, white, tanned, muscular mesomorphic body image.

 

Diane Arbus (1923-71) 'Muscle Man in his dressing room with trophy, Brooklyn, N.Y.' 1962

 

Diane Arbus (American, 1923-1971)
Muscle Man in his dressing room with trophy, Brooklyn, N.Y.
1962
Gelatin silver print

 

Diane Arbus (American, 1923-1971) 'Seated man in a bra and stockings, N.Y.C., 1967' 1967

 

Diane Arbus (American, 1923-1971)
Seated man in a bra and stockings, N.Y.C., 1967
1967
Gelatin silver print

 

 

Diane Arbus

In the 1960s and 1970s other photographers were also interested in alternative representations of the male body, notably Diane Arbus. Arbus was renowned for ‘in your face’ photographs of the supposed oddities and freaks of society. She photographed body-builders with their trophies, dwarfs, giants, and all sorts of interesting people she found fascinating because of their sexual orientation, hobbies and fetishes. She photographed gay men, lesbians and transsexuals in their homes and hangouts.

I think the image Seated man in a bra and stockings, N.Y.C., 1967 (above), reveals a different side of masculinity, not conforming to the stereotypical depiction of ‘masculinity’ proposed by the form of the muscular body. Yes, the subject is wary of the camera, hand gripping the chair arm, legs crossed in a protective manner. But I think that the important significance of this photograph lies in the fact that the subject allowed himself to be photographed at all, with his face visible, prepared to reveal this portion of his life to the probing of Arbus’ lens. In the closeted and conservative era of the 1960s (remember this is before Gay Liberation), to allow himself to be photographed in this way would have taken an act of courage, because of the fear of discrimination and persecution including the possible loss of job, home, friends, family and even life if this photograph ever came to the attention of employers, landlords and bigots.

 

Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1946-1989) 'Charles and Jim' 1974

Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1946-1989) 'Charles and Jim' 1974

 

Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1946-1989)
Charles and Jim
1974
Gelatin silver prints

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Charles and Jim, 1974, in Holborn, Mark and Levas, Dimitri. Mapplethorpe Altars. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995, pp. 26-27.

 

Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1946-1989) 'White Sheet' 1974 (detail)

 

Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1946-1989)
White Sheet (detail)
1974
Gelatin silver print

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Detail of White Sheet, 1974, in Holborn, Mark and Levas, Dimitri. Mapplethorpe Altars. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995, p. 74.

 

 

Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe. The name of one of the most controversial photographers of the 20th century. Well known to gay men around the world for his ground breaking depiction of sexuality and the body through his photographs of black men and the sadomasochistic acts within the leather scene in gay community. The exhibiting of his images was only possible after the liberation of sexualities brought about by Stonewall and the start of the fight for Gay Liberation in 1969. Early images, such as three from the sequence of photographs Charles and Jim (1974, above) feature ‘natural’ bodies – hairy, scrawny, thin – in close physical proximity with each other, engaged in gay sex, sucking each others dicks in other photographs from this sequence. There is a tenderness and affection to the whole sequence, as the couple undress, suck, kiss and embrace. Compare the photographs with the photograph by Minor White of Tom Murphy (San Francisco) (1948, above) Gone is the religious agony, loneliness and isolation of a man (the photographer), who fears an open expression of his sexuality, replaced by the gaze and touch of a man comfortable with his sexuality and the object of his desire.

Although Mapplethorpe used the bodies of his friends and himself in the early photographs he was still drawn to images of muscular men that had a definite homoerotic quality to them, as can be seen in the detail of the 1974 work White Sheet. Blatant in its hard muscularity the boys stare at each other, flexing their muscles, one arm around the back of the others neck. This attraction to the perfect muscular body became more obvious in the later work of Mapplethorpe, especially in his depiction of black men and their hard, graphic bodies. Mapplethorpe even used to coat his black models in graphite so that the skin took on a grey lustre, adding to the feeling that the skin was made of marble and was impenetrable. Mapplethorpe’s photographs of black men come from a lineage that can be traced back through Frederick Holland Day (see below) to Herbert List and George Platt Lynes who all photographed black men. In the 1979 image of Bob Love (below), Mapplethorpe worships the body and the penis of Bob Love, placing him on a pedestal reminiscent of those used in the physique magazines of an earlier era.

 

F. Holland Day. 'Ebony and Ivory' 1899

 

F. Holland Day (American, 1864-1933)
Ebony and Ivory
1899

 

Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1946-1989) 'Bob Love' 1979

 

Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1946-1989)
Bob Love
1979
Gelatin silver print

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Bob Love, 1979, in Holborn, Mark and Levas, Dimitri. Mapplethorpe Altars. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995, p. 71.

 

 

Around the same time that Mapplethorpe was photographing the first of his black nudes he was also portraying acts of sexual pleasure in his photographs of the gay S/M scene. In these photographs the bodies are usually shielded from scrutiny by leather and rubber but are more revealing of the intentions and personalities of the people depicted in them, perhaps because Mapplethorpe was taking part in these activities himself as well as just depicting them. There is a sense of connection with the people and the situations that occur before his lens in the S/M photographs. In the photograph of Bob, however, Bob stares out at the viewer in a passive way, revealing nothing of his own personality, directed by the photographer, portrayed like a trophy. I believe this isolation, this objectivity becomes one of the undeniable criticisms of most of Mapplethorpe’s later photographs of the body – they reveal nothing but the clarity of perfect formalised beauty and aesthetic design, sometimes fragmented into surfaces. Mapplethorpe liked to view the body as though cut up into pieces, into different libidinal zones, much as in the reclaimed artefacts of classical sculpture. The viewer is seduced by the sensuous nature of the bodies surfaces, the body objectified for the viewers pleasure. The photographs reveal very little of the inner self of the person being photographed. This surface quality can also be seen in earlier work such as the 1976 photograph of bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger (1976, below).

 

Lorenzo Lotto (Italian, c. 1480 - 1556/1557) 'Young Man Before a White Curtain' c. 1506/1508

 

Lorenzo Lotto (Italian, c. 1480 – 1556/1557)
Young Man Before a White Curtain
c. 1506/1508
Oil on canvas

Lotto, Lorenzo. Young Man Before a White Curtain, Oil on Canvas. c. 1506/1508, in Schneider, Norbert. The Art of the Portrait. Koln: Benedikt Taschen, 1994, p. 66.

 

Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1946-1989) 'Arnold Schwarzenegger' 1976

 

Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1946-1989)
Arnold Schwarzenegger
1976
Gelatin silver print

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1976, in Ellenzweig, Allen. The Homoerotic Photograph. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, p. 139.

 

Diane Arbus (American, 1923-1971) 'A naked man being a woman, N.Y.C.' 1968

 

Diane Arbus (American, 1923-1971)
A naked man being a woman, N.Y.C. 1968
1968
Gelatin silver print

Arbus, Diane. A naked man being a woman, N.Y.C. 1968, 1968, in An Aperture Monograph. Diane Arbus. New York: Millerton, 1972.

 

 

In the photograph Schwarzenegger is placed on bare floorboards with a heavy curtain pulled back to reveal a white wall. We can see connections to an oil painting by the Italian Lorenzo Lotto. According to Norbert Schneider in his book The Art of the Portrait the curtain motif is adapted from devotional painting and was used as a symbolic, majestical backdrop for saints.18 The curtain may be seen as a ‘velum’ to veil whatever was behind it, or by an act of ‘re-velatio’, or pulling aside of the curtain, reveal what is behind. In both the painting and the photograph very little is revealed about the person’s inner self, despite the fact that in Mapplethorpe’s photograph the curtain has been tied back. Schwarzenegger stands before a barren white wall, on bare floorboards. The photograph reveals nothing about his inner self or his state of mind; it is a barren landscape. Nothing is revealed about his personality or identity save that he is a bodybuilder with a body made up of large muscles that has been posed for the camera; his facial expression and look are blank much like the wall behind him. The body becomes a marketable product, the polished surface fetishised in its perfection.

Compare this photograph with the A naked man being a woman, N.Y.C. 1968, by Diane Arbus taken six years earlier (above). Again a figure stands before parted curtains in a room. Here we see an androgynous figure of a man being a woman surrounded by the physical evidence of his/her existence. The body is not muscular but of a ‘natural’ type, one leg slightly bent in quite a feminine gesture, a hand on the hip. Behind the figure is a bed, covered in a blanket. On the chair in front of the curtains and on the bed behind lies discarded clothing and the detritus of human existence. We can also see a suitcase behind the chair leg, an open beer or soft drink can on the floor and what looks like an electrical heater behind the figures legs. We are made aware we are looking at the persons place of living, of sleeping, of the bed where the person sleeps and possibly has sex. Framed by the open curtains the painted face with the plucked eyebrows stares back at us with a much more engaging openness, the body placed within the context of its lived surroundings, unlike the photograph of Schwarzenegger. Much is revealed about the psychological state of the owner and how he lives and what he likes to do. The black and white shading behind the curtains reveals the yin/yang dichotomy, the opposite and the same of his personality far better than the blank white wall that stands behind Mapplethorpe’s portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

 

Arthur Tress (American, b. 1940) 'Superman Fantasy' 1977

 

Arthur Tress (American, b. 1940)
Superman Fantasy
1977
Gelatin silver print

Arthur Tress. Superman Fantasy, 1977, in Ellenzweig, Allen. The Homoerotic Photograph. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, p. 143.

 

Bill Henson (Australian, b. 1955) 'Image No. 9 from an Untitled Sequence 1977' 1977

 

Bill Henson (Australian, b. 1955)
Image No.9 from an Untitled Sequence 1977
1977
Gelatin silver print

Henson, Bill. Image No.9 from an Untitled sequence 1977, 1977, in Henson, Bill. Bill Henson: Photographs 1974-1984. (exhibition catalogue). Melbourne: Deutscher Fine Art, 1989.

 

 

Arthur Tress, Bill Henson and Bruce Weber

Arthur Tress was not a photographer that pandered to the emerging “lifestyle” cult of gay masculinity that was beginning to formulate towards the end of the 1970’s and the early 1980’s. Borrowing elements from both a ‘camp’ aesthetic and Surrealism, his images from this time parodied the inner identity of gay men, prodding and poking beneath the surface of both the gay male psyche and their fantasies. In the 1977 image Superman Fantasy (above), Tress conveys the desire of some gay men for the ‘ideal’ of the superhero, powerful, with muscular body and large penis. But the desiree has a ‘natural’ body and it is his penis that projects between the Superman’s thighs. Superman is only a fantasy, a cut out figure with no relief, and Tress pokes fun at gay men who desire heroic masculine body images to reinforce their own sense masculinity.

At the same time in Australia there emerged the work of the photographer Bill Henson. Again, he did not use stereotypical masculine body images. In an early 1977 sequence of his work (above), we see a young man who looks emaciated (almost like a living skeleton) at rest, a moment of stasis while apparently in the act of masturbating. Here Henson links the sexual act (although never seen in the photographs) with death. Visually Henson represents Georges Bataille’s idea that the ecstasy of an orgasm is like the oblivion of death. The body in sex uses power as part of its attraction and the ultimate expression of power is death; this sequence of photographs links the two ideas together visually. With the explicit medical link between sex and death because of the HIV/AIDS virus these photographs have a powerful resonance within a contemporary social context, the emaciated body now associated in people’s minds with a person dying from AIDS.

Other photographers, notably Bruce Weber, confirmed the constructed ‘ideal’ of the commodified masculine body. Body became product, became part of an overall purchased “lifestyle,” chic, beautiful and available if you have enough money. Working mainly as a fashion photographer with an aspiration to high art, Weber paraded a plethora of stunning white, buff, muscular males before his lens. Advertising companies, such as Calvin Klein swooped on this image of perfect male flesh and played with the ambiguous homo-erotic possibilities inherent within the images. Gay men fell for what they saw as the epitome of ‘masculinity’, a reflection of their own “straight-acting” masculinity. These photographs, with a genetic lineage dating from Sansone and the photographs of sportsmen by German photographer Leni Riefenstahl in the 1930’s, are almost utopian in their aesthetic idealisation of the body.

In his personal work, examples of which can be seen below, Bruce Weber maintains his interest in the perfection of the male form. These men are just All American Jocks, supposedly your everyday boy next door, possessing no sexuality other than a placid, flaccid non-threatening penis, no messy secretions or interactions being attached to the bodies at all. There is no hint of disease or dis-ease among these images or models, even though AIDS was emerging at this time as a major killer of gay men. Perhaps even the possibility of homo/sexuality/identity is denied in the perfection of their form placed, like the Mapplethorpe photograph of Schwarzenegger, against a non-descriptive background, a context-less body in a context-less photograph.

 

Bruce Weber (American, b. 1946) 'Dan Harvey, New York Jets Trainer' 1983

 

Bruce Weber (American, b. 1946)
Dan Harvey, New York Jets Trainer
1983
Gelatin silver print

Weber, Bruce. Dan Harvey, New York Jets Trainer, 1983, 1983, in Cheim, John. Bruce Weber. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1988.

 

Bruce Weber (American, b. 1946) 'Paul Wadina, Santa Barbara California' 1987

 

Bruce Weber (American, b. 1946)
Paul Wadina, Santa Barbara California
1987
Gelatin silver print

Weber, Bruce. Paul Wadina, Santa Barbara, California, 1987, 1987, in Cheim, John. Bruce Weber. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1988.

 

Herb Ritts (American, 1952-2002) 'Fred with Tires' 1984

 

Herb Ritts (American, 1952-2002)
Fred with Tires
1984
Gelatin silver print
24 × 20 in (61 × 50.8cm)

Ritts, Herb. Fred with Tires, 1984, in Ellenzweig, Allen. The Homoerotic Photograph. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, p. 195.

 

 

Herb Ritts, Queer Press, Queer body

Fred with Tires (1984, above) became possibly the archetypal photograph of the male body in the 1980’s and made the world-wide reputation of its commercial photographer, Herb Ritts. Gay men flocked to buy it, including myself. I was drawn by the powerful, perfectly sculpted body, the butchness of his job, the dirty trousers, the boots and the body placed within the social context. At the time I realised that the image of this man was a constructed fantasy, ie., not the ‘real’ thing, and this feeling of having been deceived has grown ever since. His hair is teased up and beautifully styled, the grease is applied to his body just so, his body twisted to just the right degree to accentuate the muscles of the stomach and around the pelvis. You can just imagine the stylist standing off camera ready to readjust the hair if necessary, the assistants with their reflectors playing more light onto the body. This/he is the seduction of a marketable homoeroticsm, the selling of an image as sex, almost camp in its overt appeal to gay archetypal stereotypes. Herb Ritts, whether in his commercial work or in his personal images such as those of the gay bodybuilders Bob Paris and Rod Jackson, has helped increase the acceptance of the openly homo-erotic photograph in a wider sphere but this has been possible only with an increased acceptance of homosexual visibility within the general population. Openly gay bodies such as that of Australian rugby league star Ian Roberts or American diver Greg Luganis can become heroes and role models to young gay men coming out of the closet for the first time, visible evidence that gay men are everywhere in every walk of life. This is great because young gay men do need gay role models to look up to but the bodies they possess only conform to the one type, that of the muscular mesomorph and this reinforces the ideal of a traditional virile masculinity. Yes, the guy in the shower next to you might be a poofter, might be queer for heavens sake, but my God, what a body he’s got!

Herb Ritts photographs are still based on the traditional physique magazine style of the 1950’s as can be seen from the examples below. He also borrows heavily from the work of George Platt Lynes and the idealised perfection of Mapplethorpe. The bodies he uses construct themselves (through going to the gym) as the ‘ideal’ of what men should look like. Seduced by the perfection of his bodies gay men have rushed to the gym since the early 1980’s in an attempt to emulate the ideal that Ritts proposes, to belong to the ‘in’ crowd, to have “the look”. (This idealisation continues to this day in 2022).

From different cultures around the world other artists who are gay have also succumbed to the heroic musculature that is the modern day epitome of the representation of gay masculinity. Although he denies any linkage to the work of ‘Tom of Finland’, Sadao Hasegawa portrays the body as a demigod using traditional Japanese and Western iconography to emphasise his themes of homosexual bondage and ritual (see below). The body in his Shunga (Japanese erotic) paintings and drawings, as in most art and images of the muscular male, becomes a phallus, the armoured body being a metaphor for the hidden power of the penis, signifying the power of mesomorphic men over women and ‘other’ not so well endowed men.

 

Bob Delmonteque (American) 'Glenn Bishop' 1950s

 

Bob Delmonteque (American)
Glenn Bishop
1950s
Gelatin silver print

Delmonteque, Bob. Glenn Bishop, 1950s, in Domenique (ed.,). Art in Physique Photography. Vol. 1. Man’s World Publishing Company. Chesham: The Carlton Press, Nd, p. 8.

 

Herb Ritts (American, 1952-2002) 'Male Nude with Bubble, Los Angeles' 1987

 

Herb Ritts (American, 1952-2002)
Male Nude with Bubble, Los Angeles
1987
Gelatin silver print

Ritts, Herb. Male Nude with Bubble, Los Angeles, 1987, in Ellenzweig, Allen. The Homoerotic Photograph. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, p. 194.

 

Sadao Hasegawa (Japanese, 1945-1999) 'Untitled' 1990

 

Sadao Hasegawa (Japanese, 1945-1999)
Untitled
1990

Hasegawa, Sadao. Untitled, 1990, in Blue Magazine. Sydney: Studio Magazines, April 1997, p. 50.

 

 

But there are still other artists who are gay who challenge the orthodoxy of such stereotypical images, using as their springboard the ‘sensibility’ of queer theory, a theory that critiques perspectives of social and cultural ‘normality’. With the explosion of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the mid 1980’s, numerous artists started to address issues of the body: isolation, disease, death, beauty, gay sex, friendship between men, the inscription of the bodies surface, and the place of gay men in the world in a critical and valuable way. Ted Gott, commenting on Lex Middleton’s 1992 image Gay Beauty Myth (below) in the book Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS observes that the image,

“… reconsiders Bruce Weber’s luscious photography of the naked male body for Calvin Klein’s celebrated underwear advertising campaigns of the early 1980s. The proliferation of Weber / Klein glistening pectorals and smouldering body tone across the billboards of the United States was reaching its crescendo at the same time as the gay male ‘body’ came under threat from a ‘new’ disease not yet identified as HIV/AIDS. In opposing the rippling musculature and perfect visage of an athlete with the fragmented image of a Calvin Klein Y-fronted ‘ordinary’ man, Middleton questions the ‘gay beauty myth’, both as it touches gay men who do not fit the ‘look’ that advertising has decreed applicable to their sexuality, and from the projected perspective of HIV positive gay men who face the reality of the daily decay of their bodies.”

.
Other artists, such as David McDiarmid in his celebrated series of safe sex posters for the AIDS Council of New South Wales (below)) critique the body as site for libidinal and deviant pleasures for both positive and negative gay men as long as this is always undertaken safely. In the example from the series “Some of Us Get Out of It, Some of Us Don’t. All of Us Fuck With a Condom, Every Time,” 1992, we see a brightly coloured body, both positive and negative, filled with parties, drugs and alcohol, spreading the arse cheeks to make the arsehole the site of gay male desire. Note however, that the body still has huge arms, strong legs, and a massive back redolent of the desire of gay men for the muscular mesomorphic body image.

 

Lex Middleton. 'Gay Beauty Myth' 1992

 

Lex Middleton (Australian)
Gay Beauty Myth
1992
Gelatin silver photographs

 

David McDiarmid (Australian, 1952-1995) 'Some of Us Get Out of It, Some of Us Don't. All of Us Fuck With a Condom, Every Time!' 1992

 

David McDiarmid (Australian, 1952-1995)
Some of Us Get Out of It, Some of Us Don’t. All of Us Fuck With a Condom, Every Time!
1992
Colour offset print on paper
67.1 x 44.5cm

AIDS Council of New South Wales / McDiarmid, David (designer). Some of Us Get Out of It, Some of Us Don’t. All of Us Fuck With a Condom, Every Time! 1992, in Gott, Ted (ed.,). Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. Melbourne: Thames and Hudson/NGA, 1994, p. 154.

 

Brenton Heath-Kerr (Australian, 1962-1995) 'Homosapien' 1994

 

Brenton Heath-Kerr (Australian, 1962-1995)
Homosapien
1994
Laminated photomechanical reproductions and cloth

Heath-Kerr, Brenton. “Homosapien,” 1994, in Gott, Ted (ed.,). Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. Melbourne: Thames and Hudson/NGA, 1994, p. 75.

 

 

More revealing (literally) was the work and performance art of Brenton Heath-Kerr. Growing out of his involvement in the dance party scene in Sydney, Australia in 1991, Heath-Kerr’s combination of costume and photography made his creations come to life, and he sought to critique the narcissistic elements of this gay dance culture, such as the Mardi Gras and Sleaze Ball parties. Later work included the figure Homosapiens (1994, above) which observes the workings of the body laid bare by the ravages of HIV/AIDS and comments on the politics of governments who control funding for drugs to treat those who are infected.

Californian photographer Albert J. Winn, in his series My Life until Now (1993, below) does not seek to elicit sympathy for his incurable disease, but positions his having the disease as only a small part of his overall personality and life. Other photographs in the series feature pictures of his lover, his home, old family photographs, and texts reflecting on his childhood, sexuality, and religion. As Albert J. Winn comments,

“The pictures from My Life Until Now are a progression of thinking about identity. Now I am a gay man, a gay man with AIDS, a Jew, a lover, a person who has books on the shelf, etc., not just another naked gay man with another naked gay man, and I tried to load the photograph(s) with information. I feel I am determining my identity by making the choice to show all this stuff.”

.
Personally I believe that integrating your sexuality into your overall identity is the last, most important part of ‘coming out’ as a gay man, and this phenomenon is what Albert J. Winn, in his own way, is commenting on.

One of my favourite artists, now dead, who just happened to be gay and critiqued the social landscape was named David Wojnarowicz. Using an eclectic mix of black and white and colour photography (mainly 35mm), drawing, painting, collage, documenting of performances and sculpture, Wojnarowicz created a commentary on his world, the injustices, the sex, the politics, the brutality, the environments, and the people who inhabited them to name just a little of his subject matter. The Untitled 1988-1989 image from the Sex Series (below) is not a collage but a photomontage, two colour slides reverse printed onto black and white paper to make the negative image. Images from the series feature text, babies, all manner of different sexual persuasions, tornadoes, trains, ships, war images, and cells. Wojnarowicz himself states that,

“By mixing variation of sexual expressions there is an attempt to dismantle the structures formed by category; all are affected by laws and policies. The spherical structures embedded in the series are about examination and or surveillance. Looking through a microscope or looking through a telescope or the monitoring that takes place in looking through the lens of a set of binoculars. Its all about oppression and suppression.”

.
Oppression and suppression are the continuing themes in Wojnarowicz’s 1989 image, Bad Moon Rising (below). Here the wounded body of St. Sebastian, a recurring figure in gay iconography, has been impaled not just by arrows but by a tree, the mythological ‘tree of life’ growing up/down, from/into the ‘earth’ of money, the politics of consumerism and the illness of consumption. Again, in the small vignettes we observe the home, the sex, time, cells and their surveillance.

 

Albert J Winn (American, 1947-2014) 'Drug Related Skin Rashes' 1993

 

Albert J Winn (American, 1947-2014)
Drug Related Skin Rashes
1993
Silver gelatin photograph

Winn, Albert J. Drug Related Skin Rashes, from the series My Life Until Now, 1993, in Gott, Ted (ed.,). Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. Melbourne: Thames and Hudson/NGA, 1994, p. 224.

 

David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) 'Untitled' 1989 From the 'Sex Series (For Marion Scemama)'

 

David Wojnarowicz (American, 1954-1992)
Untitled
1989
From the Sex Series

 

David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) 'Untitled' 1989 From the 'Sex Series (For Marion Scemama)'

 

David Wojnarowicz (American, 1954-1992)
Untitled
1989
From the Sex Series

 

David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) 'Bad Moon Rising' 1989

 

David Wojnarowicz (American, 1954-1992)
Bad Moon Rising
1989
Black and white photographs, acrylic, string, and collage on Masonite

Wojnarowicz, David. Bad Moon Rising, 1989, in Harris, Melissa. Brushfires in the Social Landscape. New York: Aperture Publications, 1994, p. 39.

 

 

And so it goes…

Meanwhile in Australia, the burgeoning cult of body worship was being fuelled by the more traditional homo-erotic photographs from America. This iconography was assimilated by local commercial photographers. They played with the traditions of surf, sand, sun and sea for which Australia is renowned and Dennis Maloney, in particular, concentrated his attention on the surf lifesavers that patrolled the beach during surf carnivals. He photographed the guys with their well built tanned bodies, good looks, swimming costumes pulled up between buttocks, and let the homosexual market for such images do the rest. He also photographed what I would classify as soft-core porn images such as the Untitled 1990 image from the series Sons of Beaches (below), the idyllic man in his reverie, wet bathing costume moulded to the curve of his buttocks, legs spread invitingly in a suggestive homo-erotic sexual position.

This trend of using images of the muscular, smooth male body for both commercial purposes and as the ‘ideal’ of what a gay man should look like continues unabated to this day. Pick up any local gay newspaper or magazine and they are full of adverts for chat lines or escorts that feature this body type. The news photographs from around the clubs also feature nearly naked well built men with their buffed torsos.

Most images on the Internet also feature this particular body type (below), whether they belong to commercial sites or as the images that are chosen, desired and lusted after in the galleries of private home pages. The most alternative photographs of the male body I have found on the Internet occur when they are the personal photographs of their authors, when they picture themselves (below). These images exhibit a massive variety in the shape, size, hirsuteness and colour of gay men, most of whom don’t come anywhere near to the supposed ‘ideal’. And what of the future for the male body? Perhaps you would like to read the Future Press chapter in the CD ROM to get a few ideas.

Dr Marcus Bunyan 2001

 

Denis Maloney (Australian) 'Untitled' c. 1990

 

Denis Maloney (Australian)
Untitled
c. 1990
From the series Sons of Beaches
Colour photograph

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Untitled' 1998

 

Anonymous photographer
Untitled
1998
Image from a commercial Internet web page

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Untitled' 1998

 

Anonymous photographer
Untitled
1998
Image from a commercial Internet web page

 

 

Footnotes

  1. Anonymous (French). “Male Nude Study.” Daguerreotype, c. 1843, in Ewing, William. The Body. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994, p. 65. Courtesy: Stefan Richter, Reutlingen, Germany.
  2. “One of the things that interests me is the problem of friendship … You can find, from the sixteenth century on, texts explicitly criticize friendship as something dangerous. The army, bureaucracy, administration, universities, schools, et cetera – in the modern senses of these words – cannot function with such intense friendships. I think there can be seen a very strong attempt in all these institutions to diminish, or minimize, the affectional relations … One of my hypotheses … is that homosexuality became a problem – that is, sex between men became a problem – in the eighteenth century. We see the rise of it as a problem with the police, within the justice system, and so on. I think the reason it appears as a problem, as a social issue, at this time is that friendship has disappeared. As long as friendship was something important, was socially accepted, nobody realized men had sex together. You couldn’t say that men didn’t have sex together – it just didn’t matter … Once friendship disappeared as a culturally accepted relation, the issue arose, “What is going on between men?” And that’s when the problem appears … I’m sure I’m right, that the disappearance of friendship as a social relation and the declaration of homosexuality as a social / political / medical problem are the same process.” (My emphasis).
    Gallagher, Bob and Wilson, Alexander. “Sex and the Politics of Identity: An Interview with Michel Foucault,” in Thompson, Mark. Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987, pp. 32-34.
  3. The formation of ‘The Cult of Muscularity’ in the last decade of the 19th century was a reaction to the perceived effeminisation of heterosexual masculinity. The position of the active, heroic hetero-male was under attack from the passivity of industrialisation, from the expansion of women’s rights and their ability to become breadwinners, and through the naming of deviant sexualities that were seen as a threat to the stability of society. By naming deviant sexualities they became visible to the general public for the fist time, creating apprehension in the minds of men gazing upon the bodies of other men lest they be thought of as ‘pansies’… Muscles became the sign of heterosexual power, prowess, and virility. A man had control over his body and his physical world. His appearance affected how he interacted with this world, how he saw himself, and was seen by others, and how closely he matched the male physical ‘ideal’ impacted on his own levels of self-esteem. The gymnasium became a meeting point for exercise, for health, for male bonding, and to show off your undoubted ‘masculinity’. Sporting and war heroes became national icons. Muscle proved the ‘masculinity’ of men, fit for power, fit to dominate women and less powerful men. By the 1950s this masculine identity construction was well established in America and many gay men sought to hid their perceived feminine traits, their (homo)sexuality from public view for fear of persecution.
    Bunyan, Marcus. “Bench Press,” in Marcus Bunyan. Pressing the Flesh: Sex, Body Image and the Gay Male. RMIT University, Melbourne, 2001.
  4. “The fear that swept gay men at the height of the McCarthy Era cannot be underestimated. It exploited a prevailing fear in American culture at large of effeminate men and instilled it further, even among gay men. Not only would men, gay and straight, not want to appear effeminate lest someone think they were homosexual, but the profusely masculine pose that straight men adopted in the 1950s had a profound effect on gay men that lasted for generations. Homosexuals are, after all, attracted to men, and if men in a given culture are assuming an even more masculine appearance than previously, thus redefining once again what it means to be a man, homosexuals will perhaps by default become more attracted to that more masculine appearance … The effeminate homosexual continued to become at best someone to avoid, even among a great many gay men themselves.”
    Signorile, Michelangelo. Life Outside: The Signorile Report on Gay Men: Sex, Drugs, Muscles, and the Passages of Life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997, pp. 46-47 quoted in Bunyan, Marcus. Pressing the Flesh: Sex, Body Image and the Gay Male. Melbourne: RMIT University, 2000. Femi-nancy Press chapter, p. 1.
  5. Anonymous. “Otto Arco and Adrian Deraiz.” Nd in Berry, Mark. Physical Improvement. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Milo Publishing Company, 1930, p. 39.
  6. This sculpture tightly adheres to the many criteria of the Nazi aesthetic and therefore contains the visual and thematic aspects of the Nazi aesthetic. The sculpture depicts two men in front, both in an athletic pose. This sculpture depicts the Nazi ideals of masculinity and virility. It does this by depicting an extremely athletic, in-shape fighter. The static image idolized the idealized athletic form as a goal for the rest of the nation. The figure furthers the Nazi state’s anti-Bolshevist stance as it depicts a Nazi ideal of a strong and vigorous German man, in contrast to the degraded figures often portrayed in Bolshevik art, suffering as victims of class oppression.
    Anonymous. “The Nazi Aesthetic: A Vehicle of Nazi Values,” on the Grappling with the Nazi Past website May 8, 2019 [Online] Cited 10/09/2022
  7. Leddick, David. Naked Men: Pioneering Male Nudes 1935-1955. New York: Universe Publishing, 1997, p. 21.
  8. Kinsey Institute and Crump, James. George Platt Lynes: Photographs From the Kinsey Institute. Boston: Bullfinch Press, 1993, Plate 78.
  9. Whole series of studio shots of male butt and arsehole in different positions. Quite explicit. Some close-up, others full body shots with legs in the air. Not his best work but interesting for its era. Very sexually anal or anally sexual! As in GPL’s work, very about form as well. In one photograph a guy spreads his cheeks while bending over from the waist, in another photograph he spreads his cheeks while standing slightly bent forward. These are the most explicit of GPL’s images in the Collection that I saw, though perhaps not the most successful or interesting photographically. 8″ x 10″ contact print.
    See Plate 78 in Kinsey Institute and Crump, James. George Platt Lynes: Photographs From the Kinsey Institute. Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1993, for an image from this series.
  10. Der Kries. No. 1. Zurich: No Publisher, January, 1952. Homosexual magazine. Typical photographs of the era in this magazine. No frontal nudity even up to the later 1965 editions. Lithe young men, drawings and articles, including one on the Kinsey Report in the 1952 first edition (pp. 6-7). Some of the photographs in Der Kries of young European men are similar to German naturist movement photographs (Cat. No. 52423 – Oct, Nov, Dec 1949. Cat. No. 52452 – May, June 1949 showing 5 nude boys outdoors throwing medicine ball in the air with their arms upraised). Also some photographs are similar to von Gloeden’s Italian peasants (Cat. No. 52424 – July 1952. Cat. No. 52425 – August 1960. Cat. No. 52426 – May, Oct 1956: all 4 photographs). The 1949 photographs are possibly taken from earlier German magazines anyway? Discus, javelin, archer, and shot putter images. Mainly nudes. George Platt Lynes contributed to the magazine under the pseudonym Roberto Rolf.
  11. Image No. 52006. Bruce of Los Angeles. Kinsey Institute acquired 1950. Annotation: Tom Matthews, 24 years old. Older man, dark hair. Big pecs, arms, tanned, hairy arms and chest, looking down and away from camera. Nude, limp cut dick. Sitting on a pedestal which is on a raffia mat. Metal chain wrapped around both wrists which are crossed. Lighting seems to be from 2 sources – high right and mid-left. Unusual in that this physique photograph shows an older, hairy man who is nude.
  12. Bérubé, Allan. Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two. New York: The Free Press, 1990, pp. 272-273.
  13. Dupain, Max. Max Dupain’s Australia. Ringwood, Victoria: Viking/Penguin Books Australia, 1986, p. 157.
  14. Domenique (ed.,). Art in Physique Photography Vol. 1. (illus. by David Angelo, designed and produced by Lon of New York in London). Worcester Park, England: Man’s World Publishing Company Ltd., 195?
  15. Album 1501: A Study of Sexual Activity Between Males. Los Angeles: Greyhuff Publishing, 1970.
    Bodies in this magazine are smooth, young toned men, much as in the early photographs of George Platt Lynes. The perform both oral and anal sex on each other in a lounge room lit by strong lights (shadows on walls). Black and white photographs, well shot, magazine is about 5″ wide and 10″ high, well laid out and printed. The magazine is a thin volume and features just the two models in one sex scene of them undressing each other and then having sex. One man wears a Pepsi-Cola T-shirt at first and he also has tattoos one of which says ‘Cheri’. The photographs almost have a private feel to them.
    This is the earliest commercial gay pornography magazine that I have seen that features m2m anal and oral sex and comes after the American Supreme Court ruled on obscenity laws in the late 1960s. Note the progression from physique magazines and models in posing pouches in 1966-1968, then to full erection and stories of anal penetration in Action Line in 1969, to full on photographs of gay sex in this magazine in 1970. Bodies are all smooth, quite solid, toned natural physiques, not as ‘built’ as in earlier physique magazines, but still featuring younger smooth men and not older heavier set men. In their introduction the publishers disclaim any agreement with the content of the magazine and are only publishing it for the freedom of everybody to study the material in the privacy of their own homes. In other words m2m sex is a natural phenomenon and the publication is educational. This was a common ploy in early nudist and pornographic publications to justify the content – to claim that the material was for private educational purposes only.
    Marcus Bunyan. “Research Notes on Physique Magazines and Early Gay Pornography Magazines of the 1960s from the Collection at the One Institute / International Gay and Lesbian Archives, Los Angeles, California, 28/08/1999,” in Marcus Bunyan. Pressing the Flesh: Sex, Body Image and the Gay Male. RMIT University, Melbourne, 2001.
  16. Anonymous quotation in Colt Studios. Olympus from Colt Studios Vol. 1. No 2. Hollywood, California: Colt Studios, 1973, p. 42.
  17. During my research at The One Institute in Los Angeles I investigated the type of body images that appeared in the transitional phase from physique magazines of the mid-late 1960s into the early gay pornography magazines of 1969-1970 in America which occurred after the Supreme Court ruling on obscenity. I wanted to find whether there had been a crossover, a continuation of the muscular mesomorphic body image that was a favourite of the physique photographers into the early pornography magazines. From the evidence of the images in the magazines I would have to say that there was a limited crossover of the bigger muscular bodies but most bodies that appeared in the early gay porn mags were of the youthful, smooth, muscular ephebe-type body image.
    Most of the men featured in the early gay pornography magazines and films have bodies that appear to be quite ‘natural’ in their form. Models are mostly young, smooth, quite solid with toned physiques, not as ‘built’ as in the earlier physique magazines but still well put together. Examining the magazines at the One Institute I found that the bodies of older muscular / hairy men were not well represented. Perhaps this was due to the unavailability of the bigger and older bodybuilders to participate in such activity? In the male bodies of the c. late-1970s Super 8 mm pornography films we can observe the desirable image of the smooth youthful ephebe being presented for our erotic pleasure.
    Marcus Bunyan. “Gay Male Pornography,” in the ‘In-Press’ chapter in Marcus Bunyan. Pressing the Flesh: Sex, Body Image and the Gay Male. RMIT University, Melbourne, 2001.
  18. Schneider, Norbert. The Art of the Portrait. Koln: Benedikt Taschen, 1994, p. 67.
  19. Gott, Ted. “Agony Down Under: Australian Artists Addressing AIDS,” in Gott, Ted. (ed.,). Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. Melbourne: Thames and Hudson/NGA (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra), 1994, p. 4.
  20. Winn, Albert J. quoted in Grover, Jan. “OI: Opportunistic Identification, Open Identification in PWA Portraiture,” in Gott, Ted. (ed.,). Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. Melbourne: Thames and Hudson/NGA (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra), 1994, p. 223.

 

 

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05
Nov
22

Exhibition: ‘Bernd and Hilla Becher’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Exhibition dates: 15th July – 6th November 2022

Curators: Jeff L. Rosenheim, Joyce Frank Menschel Curator, Department of Photographs, assisted by Virginia McBride, Research Associate, Department of Photographs, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

 

Bernd & Hiller Becher exhibition banner

 

Bernd & Hiller Becher exhibition banner

 

 

Ghosts in the machine

In a way that Plato would recognise with his perfect forms (abstract yet perfect, unchanging concepts or ideals that transcend time and space and live on a spiritual plane behind the representation of a physical reality), I feel as though Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) has existed outside of time – a model of directness that was always there – in a timeless way, before the actual concept emerged into consciousness in the 1920s German art tradition.

German photographers Bernd & Hiller Becher (1931-2007; 1934-2015) were devoted to the ideals of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and their work evolved from these older traditions of objective photography as practiced by artists such as August Sander (German, 1876-1964) and Karl Blossfeldt (German, 1865-1932) during the 1920s. The typologies that the Bechers collected – their beautiful, multiple, conceptual, objective, documentary fine art ‘record photographs’ – made them among the most important figures in postwar German photography.

Their teaching at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf in the mid 1970s lead to the formation of the Dusseldorf School of Photography which refers to a group of photographers who studied under the artist duo who also shared (and then modified) their aesthetic – a commitment to controlled objectivity and a documentary orientation. These important next generation artists included people such as Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth. The Bechers influence on contemporary documentary fine art photography continues today.

“The Bechers specialized in the photography of anonymous industrial sites and structures, methodically employing the same neutral perspective in each image, as in Water Towers. The nine nineteenth-century metal water towers are displayed in a grid as a single work, the black-and-white images revealing the differences between objects that had an identical function, and so bestowing an aesthetic value on them.”1

Here a definition of typology may be useful. ‘Typology’ is the study and interpretation of types and symbols, a classification according to a general type, especially in archaeology, psychology, or the social sciences. In this sense, the Becher’s photographs of industrial archetypes displayed in grids are excavations of historical types, representations of both pattern (type, grid) and randomness (interpretation, aesthetics). What does this mean? According to Katherine Hayles, pattern (in this case grids of photographs of the same archetype) cannot exist without its opposite, randomness, enacted through mutation of the code.

“Although mutation disrupts pattern, it also presupposes a morphological standard against which it can be measured and understood as mutation. We have seen that in electronic textuality, the possibility for mutation within the text are enhanced and heightened by long coding chains. We can now understand mutation in more fundamental terms. Mutation is critical because it names the bifurcation point at which the interplay between pattern and randomness causes the system to evolve in a new direction…

Mutation is the catastrophe in the pattern/randomness dialectic… It marks a rupture of pattern so extreme that the expectation of continuous replication can no longer be sustained… The randomness to which mutation testifies is implicit in the very idea of pattern, for only against the background of nonpattern can pattern emerge. Randomness is the contrasting term that allows pattern to be understood as such.”2

The pattern of the Bechers photographs are the grids, the randomness evidenced as we move in to observe individual images within the grid, for every water tower is different and its own form… and then we pull back to compare one image with another, one mutation with another. As we move closer the individual image becomes whole in its own right, but contains within the pictorial frame evidence of the subjects mutation through decay, evidence of an industrial revolution and means of production that is now archaic and arcane. It is as though we are looking at a fractal in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales, but which in fact describe partly random or chaotic phenomena, the seeds of their own mutation. And the possibility for mutation within the text is enhanced and heightened by long coding chains, such as large typologies of objects and large grids of images.

As much as the Bechers objective photographs seek a cool sameness, they undermine their own project by their photographs inherent subversiveness. It’s as though the beauty of their object of desire is being played off against a rage against the machine, a critique of what industrialisation is doing to the divine landscape of the earth.

Of course images are always seen in context which, together with their formal characteristics and conditions, limits the meanings available from them at any one moment. As Annette Kuhn observes, “Meanings do not reside in images, then: they are circulated between representation, spectator and social function.”3 We understand the Bechers images then, through a representation of reality which always and necessarily entails, “the use of the codes and conventions of the available cultural forms of presentation. Such forms restrict and shape what can be said by and / or about any aspect of reality in a given place in a given society at a given time, but if that seems like a limitation on saying, it is also what makes saying possible at all.”4 Richard Dyer continues,

“I accept that one apprehends reality only through representations of reality, through texts, discourse, images; there is no such thing as unmediated access to reality. But because one can see reality only through representation, it does not follow that one does not see reality at all. Partial – selective, incomplete, from a point of view – vision of something is not no vision of it whatsoever.”4

Despite the Bechers attempt to catalogue vast typologies, there is no order without disorder. Their vision, and our vision, is only ever selective, incomplete and from a point of view. Much as they desire an enchantment of the subject so that the object of desire falls under their spell in order to validate its presence, so there is no single determinate meaning to any presentation of their work, for people make sense of images in different ways, according to the cultural codes available to them. “What is re-presented in representation is not directly reality itself but other representations. The analysis of images always needs to see how any given instance is embedded in a network of other instances…”4

The ghosts in the machine of the Bechers networks, those random bits of code that lurk behind a not so perfect representation, group together to form unexpected protocols seen from different points of view. “Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul.” (Asimov)

Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Footnotes

  1. Anonymous. “A Movement in a Moment: The Düsseldorf School,” on the Phaidon website [Online] Cited 01/11/2022
  2. Katherine Hayles. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999, p. 33.
  3. Annette Kuhn. The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985, p. 6.
  4. Richard Dyer. The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations. London: Routledge, 1993, pp. 2-3.

.
Many thankx to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

“I think it’s best to imagine that they cast a doubting eye on earlier aspirations to scientific and technical order. After all, the Bechers hit their stride as artists in the 1960s and early ’70s, at just the moment when any aspiring intellectual was reading Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” which pointed to how the sociology of science (who holds power in labs and who doesn’t) shapes what science tells us. The French philosopher Roland Barthes had killed off the all-powerful author and let the rest of us be the true makers of meaning, even if that left it unstable. European societies were in turmoil as they faced the terrors of the Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof gang, so brilliantly captured in the streaks and smears of Gerhard Richter, that other German giant of postwar art. The Bechers were working in that world of unsettled and unsettling ideas. By parroting the grammar of technical imagery, without actually achieving any technical goals, their photos seem to loosen technology’s moorings. By collecting water towers the way someone else might collect cookie jars, they cut industry down to size… To get the full meaning and impact of the Bechers’ Machine Age black-and-whites, they should really be viewed through the windows of their Information Age orange van.”

.
Blake Gopnik. “Photography’s Delightful Obsessives,” on The New York Times website July 28, 2022 [Online] Cited 20/10/2022

 

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bernd & Hilla Becher' at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Installation view of the exhibition Bernd & Hilla Becher at The Metropolitan Museum of Art showing at centre, Water Tower, Verviers, Belgium 1983, below
Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen/The Met

00 Basic Forms
01 Framework Houses
02 Early Work
03 Industrial Landscapes
04 Zeche Concordia
05 Art and Evolution
06 Typologies

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Water Tower, Verviers, Belgium' 1983

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Water Tower, Verviers, Belgium
1983
Gelatin silver print
Image: 23 7/8 × 19 13/16 in. (60.6 × 50.4cm)
Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1992

 

 

Both as artists and teachers, Bernhard and Hilla Becher are among the most important figures in postwar German photography. For the last thirty years, the artists have examined the dilapidated industrial architecture of Europe and North America, from water towers and blast furnaces to the surrounding workers’ houses. Photographing against a blank sky and without any pictorial tricks or effects, the artists treat these forgotten structures as the exotic specimens of a long-dead species.

 

 

The renowned German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher (1931-2007; 1934-2015) changed the course of late twentieth-century photography. Working as a rare artist couple, they focused on a single subject: the disappearing industrial architecture of Western Europe and North America that fuelled the modern era. Their seemingly objective style recalled nineteenth- and early twentieth-century precedents but also resonated with the serial approach of contemporary Minimalism and Conceptual art. Equally significant, it challenged the perceived gap between documentary and fine-art photography.

Using a large-format view camera, the Bechers methodically recorded blast furnaces, winding towers, grain silos, cooling towers, and gas tanks with precision, elegance, and passion. Their rigorous, standardised practice allowed for comparative analyses of structures that they exhibited in grids of between four and thirty photographs. They described these formal arrangements as “typologies” and the buildings themselves as “anonymous sculpture.”

This posthumous retrospective celebrates the Bechers’ remarkable achievement and is the first ever organised with full access to the artists’ personal collection of working materials and their comprehensive archive.

Text from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) 'Eisernhardter Tiefbau Mine, Eisern, Germany' 1955-1956

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Eisernhardter Tiefbau Mine, Eisern, Germany
1955-1956
Graphite and watercolour on paper
16 5/16 × 16 5/16 in. (41.5 × 41.5cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

The earliest surviving independent works by Bernd Becher are several rare drawings and photocollages of the Eisernhardter Tiefbau Mine, made before the formation of his artistic partnership with Hilla Wobeser in 1959. These include the works presented on this wall and directly opposite. They reveal the artist’s lifelong interest in the accurate description of mining and manufacturing structures familiar to him from his childhood. Here, Bernd takes special care to focus on the mine’s wooden framework features and its idiosyncratic winding tower, which rises above the buildings like an enormous windblown flag.

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) 'Eisernhardter Tiefbau Mine, Eisern, Germany' 1957

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Eisernhardter Tiefbau Mine, Eisern, Germany
1957
Collage of five gelatin silver prints
Sheet: 15 3/4 × 11 3/4 in. (40 × 29.9cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) '[Assemblage of Pipes]' 1964 or later

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
[Assemblage of Pipes]
1964 or later
Gelatin silver prints with graphite
Sheet: 14 3/8 × 13 1/16 in. (36.5 × 33.2cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

This exceptional assemblage includes three razor-cut photographs of blast-furnace pipes braided together into a handsome knot. Part Giorgio de Chirico (one of the artist’s favourite painters), part pretzel, the metaphysical work shows Bernd Becher’s playful sense of humour and appreciation for the complexity and visual wonderment of industrial forms.

 

Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015) '[Mountain Elm Leaf]' 1965

 

Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
[Mountain Elm Leaf]
1965
Gelatin silver print
9 5/16 × 6 15/16 in. (23.7 × 17.7cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

In these studies of tree leaves, Hilla Becher is operating in a long tradition of natural realism that connects her work to that of many earlier German artists, including the photographs of Karl Blossfeldt and the printed botanical and zoological studies of Ernst Haeckel (see display case). What was important to Blossfeldt, Haeckel, and the Bechers was not simple exactitude but a particular type of graphic description and presentation that could reveal the unique, often quirky, and at times humorous structure of any form.

 

Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015) '[Spruce Branch]' 1965

 

Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
[Spruce Branch]
1965
Gelatin silver print
9 7/16 × 7 1/16 in. (24 × 17.9cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne.

 

Hilla Becher (German, 1934–2015) '[Shell, for the German Industrial Exhibition, Khartoum, Sudan]' 1961

 

Hilla Becher (German, 1934–2015)
[Shell, for the German Industrial Exhibition, Khartoum, Sudan]
1961
Gelatin silver print
15 3/8 × 11 7/8 in. (39 × 30.1cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne.

 

 

Even after the establishment of the Bechers’ professional partnership in 1959, Hilla continued to accept commission work. She produced this study of the inner architecture of a seashell as a graphic for a display of industrial design at a German trade fair in Khartoum. This vintage photograph was copied and used by the pavilion designer as oversize enlargements. Hilla also documented the interior and exterior of the innovative prefabricated shed pavilion with its lively metal banding.

 

Ernst Haeckel (German, 1834-1919) "Echinidea. – Igelsterne" 'Kunstformen der Natur' (Leipzig and Vienna: Verlag des Bibliographischen Instituts, 1904)

 

Ernst Haeckel (German, 1834-1919)
“Echinidea. – Igelsterne”
Kunstformen der Natur (Leipzig and Vienna: Verlag des Bibliographischen Instituts, 1904)
1904
Lithograph
Sheet: 13 5/8 × 10 1/4 in. (34.6 × 26cm)
Joyce Frank Menschel Library, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

For both research purposes and aesthetic pleasure, Hilla Becher assembled a collection of illustrated books dedicated to scientific classification. None on the theme of biological order was more important to the artists’ development than Ernst Haeckel’s 1904 Kunstformen der Natur. The plate from a disbound volume presented here shows a typological comparison of sea urchins and sand dollars.

 

 

From July 15 to November 6, 2022, the renowned American museum is showing a retrospective of the important artist couple in cooperation with Studio Bernd & Hilla Becher, Dusseldorf, and Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne.

Bernd and Hilla Becher (1931-2007, 1934-2015) are among the most important artists of the second half of the 20th century. Since the 1960s, their works have provided decisive impetus for photography, art and also generally for dealing with our culture, economy, science and society. For more than 50 years, the artist couple has devoted themselves to the subject of the industrial landscape, the functional buildings and constructions of the mining industry in Western Europe and North America. They created countless black-and-white photographs, which they took with their large-format cameras, of winding towers, blast furnaces, water and cooling towers, coal bunkers, gas tanks, half-timbered houses, entire industrial plants and landscapes. The photographs show precise, at the same time analytical views and individual forms, which Bernd and Hilla Becher subjected to a comparative analysis. So-called typologies, unfolding photographic sets or also large-format typologically conceived individual photographs were the results of their collaboration, which they exhibited internationally and published in monographs. Works that received a special appreciation under the term “Anonymous Sculptures” and attained top-class awards.

The method used by the Bechers can be regarded as style-defining. It transformed the descriptive, objective view of photography of the 19th and early 20th century, which the artist couple highly valued, into a new era, integrating it into clearly sequenced series of images and thus at the same time pointing to perspectives of minimal and conceptual art, which further underscores the innovative power of their work.

Between 1976 and 1996 Bernd Becher taught at the Art Academy in Dusseldorf. Numerous well-known photographers and artists emerged from his photography class. As of the 1960s Bernd and Hilla Becher had their studio in Dusseldorf. Today the studio is being continued as the Bernd & Hilla Becher Studio by their son, estate administrator and artist Max Becher. From 1995 until their death, the artist couple worked together with Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur in Cologne, from which the Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive emerged. The majority of the exhibition is furnished from this collection, including numerous previously little-shown and unknown materials by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Overall, the retrospective, which will be on view in a second venue at the SFMoMA between December 17, 2022 and April 2, 2023, introduces all of the artist couple’s areas of work.

The exhibition was curated by Jeff L. Rosenheim, Joyce Frank Menschel Curator, Department of Photographs, assisted by Virginia McBride, Research Associate, Department of Photographs, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Text from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website

 

Unknown photographer. 'Bernd and Max Becher, Kintzel Coal Company, Big Lick Mountains, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania' 1978

 

Unknown photographer
Bernd and Max Becher, Kintzel Coal Company, Big Lick Mountains, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania
1978
Chromogenic print
4 3/8 × 3 7/16 in. (11.1 × 8.8cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

Unknown photographer. 'Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ensdorf Mine, Saarland, Germany' 1979

 

Unknown photographer
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ensdorf Mine, Saarland, Germany
1979
Gelatin silver print
4 3/4 × 5 9/16 in. (12 × 14.1cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

Their camera’s lens, facing Hilla, has been raised higher than the film plane that’s facing Bernd, a trick that lets them capture the tops of tall structures.

 

Unknown photographer. 'Hilla Becher, Youngstown, Ohio, United States' 1981

 

Unknown photographer
Hilla Becher, Youngstown, Ohio, United States
1981
Instant diffusion transfer print (Polaroid)
2 7/8 × 3 3/4 in. (7.3 × 9.5cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

Bouwen voor de Industrie in de 19e en 20e eeuw, een fotografische dokumentatie door Bernd en Hilla Becher, Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands 1968

 

Bouwen voor de Industrie in de 19e en 20e eeuw, een fotografische dokumentatie door Bernd en Hilla Becher, Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands
1968
Photomechanical reproduction
Sheet: 34 5/8 × 24 3/16 in. (88 × 61.5cm)
Frame: 36 15/16 × 26 7/16 in. (93.8 × 67.2cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher were notoriously exacting about how their photographs were constructed in the camera, printed in the darkroom, and sequenced and reproduced in their many publications. Interestingly, they were rather generous with how and where their photographs were used in other printed materials, such as promotional leaflets, invitations, and exhibition posters. The posters gathered in this exhibition display a variety of typographic treatments and arrangements.

 

Bernd och Hilla Becher, Form genom Funktion, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden 1970

 

Bernd och Hilla Becher, Form genom Funktion, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden
1970
Photomechanical reproduction
Sheet: 39 5/16 × 27 1/2 in. (99.8 × 69.8cm)
Frame: 41 9/16 × 29 3/4 in. (105.6 × 75.6cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

Bernd und Hilla Becher, Typologien industrieller Bauten, Museum für Fotografie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, Germany 2005

 

Bernd und Hilla Becher, Typologien industrieller Bauten, Museum für Fotografie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, Germany
2005
Photomechanical reproduction
Sheet: 46 7/8 × 33 1/16 in. (119 × 84cm)
Frame: 49 1/16 × 35 5/16 in. (124.6 × 89.7cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

Bernd & Hilla Becher, First Posthumous Retrospective of the Highly Influential Photographers to Open at The Met July 15

Bernd and Hilla Becher (1931-2007; 1934-2015) are widely considered the most influential German photographers of the postwar period. Working as a rare artist couple, they developed a rigorous practice focused on a single subject: the disappearing industrial architecture of Western Europe and North America that fueled the modern era. Opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on July 15, 2022, Bernd & Hilla Becher features some 200 works of art and is the artists’ first posthumous retrospective of their 50-year career. It is organised with full access to the Becher’s comprehensive archive and personal collection of working materials and is the first American retrospective since 1974 (when their mature style was still evolving).

The exhibition is made possible by Joyce Frank Menschel, the Barrie A. and Deedee Wigmore Foundation, the Edward John & Patricia Rosenwald Foundation, and Linda Macklowe. It is organised by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in association with Studio Bernd & Hilla Becher and Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur.

“Bernd and Hilla Becher changed the course of late 20th-century photography, and their groundbreaking work continues to influence artists to this day,” said Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of The Met. “It is a privilege to present this first posthumous retrospective and to celebrate their legacy and remarkable artistic achievement.”

 

Exhibition Overview

The Bechers seemingly objective aesthetic looked back to 19th- and early 20th-century precedents but also resonated with the serial, premeditated progressions of contemporary Minimalism and Conceptual art. Equally significant, their aesthetic challenged the perceived gap between documentary and fine-art photography. The artists used a large-format view camera – similar to those used by 19th-century photographers such as the Bisson Frères in France and Carleton Watkins in the American West – and spurned the handheld, 35 mm roll-film cameras of the type preferred by journalists and pre- and postwar artists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. They worked exclusively with black-and-white photographic materials, intentionally avoiding the medium’s inevitable move to colour that took place during the 1960s and 1970s, and methodically recorded blast furnaces, winding towers, grain silos, cooling towers, and gas tanks with precision, elegance, and passion. Their standardised approach allowed for comparative analyses of structures that they exhibited in grids of between 4 and 30 photographs. They described these formal arrangements as “typologies” and the buildings themselves as “anonymous sculpture.”

The Bechers had a direct and profound influence on several generations of students at the renowned art academy Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where Bernd was appointed the first professor of photography in 1976. Among the members of the so-called Becher School or Düsseldorf School of Photography are some of the most recognised German artists of the past 40 years, such as Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, and Thomas Ruff.

Featured in the exhibition alongside the individual and grids of photographs for which the Bechers are best known are extraordinary works in photography and other media executed by them before and after the formation of their creative partnership in 1959. These rarely seen lithographs, collages, photographs, ink and pencil sketches, Polaroids, and personal snapshots offer a deep understanding of the artists’ working methods and intellectual processes.

Following its debut at The Met, the exhibition will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where it will be on view from December 17, 2022 through April 2, 2023. Bernd & Hilla Becher is curated by Jeff L. Rosenheim, Joyce Frank Menschel Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs, with assistance from Virginia McBride, Research Assistant in the Department of Photographs, both at The Met. The Met developed the exhibition with Max Becher, the artists’ son, and with Gabriele Conrath-Scholl, director of the Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur in Cologne, where the artists’ vast photographic print archive is preserved.

The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly publication, the first posthumous monograph published on the Bechers. It features essays by Gabriele Conrath-Scholl; Dr. Virginia Heckert, curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum and an expert on the Bechers; and Lucy Sante, arts critic, essayist, artist, and visiting professor of writing and photography at Bard College. The publication also includes an extensive interview with Max Becher that, together with the essays, introduces and surveys the Bechers’ photographs and the significance of their achievement over a remarkably productive half-century career. The catalogues is made possible by the Mary C. and James W. Fosburgh Publications Fund.

Press release from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Blast Furnaces (United States, Germany, Luxembourg, France, and Belgium)' 1968-1993

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Blast Furnaces (United States, Germany, Luxembourg, France, and Belgium)
1968-1993
Gelatin silver prints
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher

 

Such series may have been less about the glories of heavy industry than its approaching demise in the West.

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Blast Furnace, Youngstown, Ohio, United States' 1983

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Blast Furnace, Youngstown, Ohio, United States
1983
Gelatin silver print
23 1/8 × 18 1/4 in. (58.8 × 46.4cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

The buildings Bernd and Hilla Becher chose to photograph were meant to be altered or demolished when superseded technologically. Given the planned obsolescence of their subjects, the artists’ timing played an important role in the success of their practice. In one of their last books, Industrial Landscapes (2002), they commented: “Once we were in northern France, where we found a wonderful headgear [the top of a blast furnace] – a veritable Eiffel Tower. When we arrived the weather was hazy and not ideal for our work so we decided to postpone taking the photos for a day. When we arrived the next day, it had already been torn down, the dust was in the air.”

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015) 'Gravel Plants' 1988-2001

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Gravel Plants
1988-2001
Gelatin silver prints

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Gravel Plant, Günzburg, Germany' 1989

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Gravel Plant, Günzburg, Germany
1989
Gelatin silver print
24 3/16 × 19 3/16 in. (61.4 × 48.7cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bernd and Hilla Becher completed a thorough documentation of the many gravel plants in and near Günzburg, a small city on the Danube River in Bavaria. This oddly shaped yet functional building was used as a stone breaker to produce gravel, the still-lucrative industrial material required for making roads and high-quality concrete. The asymmetrical facade delights the eye, recalling the Bechers’ frequently stated agenda: “We were fascinated above all by the shape of technical architecture, and hardly by its history.”

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Cooling Tower, Zeche Mont Cenis, Herne, Ruhr Region, Germany' 1965

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Cooling Tower, Zeche Mont Cenis, Herne, Ruhr Region, Germany
1965
Gelatin silver print
23 5/8 x 18 1/4 in. (60.5 x 46.4cm)
Collection of James Kieth Brown and Eric Diefenbach

 

 

Influenced by the formal rigour and conceptual methods of pre-World War II artists, such as August Sander and Walker Evans, Bernd and Hilla Becher were considered equals and fellow travellers by Minimalist sculptors, such as Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt. They treated their subject matter – the disappearing industrial architecture of the West – as “anonymous sculpture.” Here, a fabulous tower used to cool water at the Mont Cenis colliery rises from the ground like a modernist top hat made for a wooden giant. In 1978, just thirteen years after the Bechers visited the busy complex, it closed permanently, ending more than one hundred years of coal extraction on the site.

The Bechers photographed against a blank sky and without any pictorial tricks or effects, using an old-fashioned tripod-mounted view camera of the kind used by Eugène Atget and Walker Evans. They treated their subjects as “anonymous sculpture” (the name of their first monograph) that could only be fully rendered through either multiple views from different perspectives or more often, through the typological accumulation and serial presentation of multiple specimens. Although they were artists not scientists, the Bechers used an almost Linnean system of classification – another important 19th century precedent which they made resolutely modern.

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Cooling Tower, Caerphilly, South Wales, Great Britain' 1966

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Cooling Tower, Caerphilly, South Wales, Great Britain
1966
Gelatin silver print
Image: 14 5/8 × 11 3/4 in. (37.1 × 29.9cm)
Gift of the LeWitt Family, in memory of Bernd and Hilla Becher, 2018

 

 

As both artists and professors at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, the husband-and-wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher have influenced an entire generation of German photographers with their typological approach to the medium, in which a single archetypal subject is described through an accumulation of diverse examples. For more than three decades, they have systematically examined the dilapidated industrial architecture of Europe and North America, from water towers and blast furnaces to the surrounding workers’ houses, all recorded against a blank sky and without expressive effects. As it developed in the 1960s, the Bechers’ project chimed with Conceptual Art in its emphasis on impersonal series as well as with older traditions of objective photography as practiced by such artists such as August Sander and Karl Blossfeldt.

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015) 'Cooling Towers (Wood)' 1976

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Cooling Towers (Wood)
1976
Gelatin silver prints
16 × 12 in. (40.6 × 30.5cm), each
Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015) 'Cooling Towers (Wood)' 1976 (detail)

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Cooling Towers (Wood) (detail)
1976
Gelatin silver prints
16 × 12 in. (40.6 × 30.5cm), each
Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

 

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Cooling Towers (Wood) (detail)
1976
Gelatin silver prints
16 × 12 in. (40.6 × 30.5cm), each
Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

 

 

The Bechers’ purpose has always been to make the clearest possible photographs of industrial structures. They are not interested in making euphemistic, socio-romantic pictures glorifying industry, nor doom-laden spectacles showing its costs and dangers. Equally, they have nothing in common with photographers who seek to make pleasing modernist abstractions, treating the structures as decorative shapes divorced from their function.

The Bechers’ goal is to create photographs that are concentrated on the structures themselves and not qualified by subjective interpretations. To them, these structures are the ‘architecture of engineers’ and their pictures should be seen as the photography of engineers – that is, record pictures. …

[Record photographers are the unsung heroes of the history of photography. They are the anonymous commercial photographers who were commissioned to record both great and everyday industrial and civic projects, from the construction of canals to the blooming of floral clocks.]

The Bechers are fascinated by the idiosyncratic appearance of each structure. The mass-produced, design-conscious assemblies devised by architects with an eye on appearance do not appeal as much as those with a mindfulness of function. What interests the Bechers are constructions made by engineers whose plans are pragmatic, where function dictates the form, rather than, as is increasingly the case, the other way round. In the words of Bernd: ‘There is a form of architecture that consists in essence of apparatus, that has nothing to do with design, and nothing to do with architecture either. They are engineering constructions with their own aesthetic.’

Their fascination is rooted in an understanding of the structures. The Bechers are the first to acknowledge the primarily functional role of the constructions, that their existence is justified solely by their industrial performance, and that once this has been superseded the structures will be modified or demolished. They liken the way a blast furnace develops over time, as furnaces and pipework are added, to the organic but apparently chaotic growth of a medieval city. This purpose-led rationale is what attracts them. They refer to some of the structures as ‘nomadic architecture’. Once they photographed a blast furnace that was being dismantled by Chinese workers in Luxembourg, who then had to reassemble it in China.

By placing photographs of similar subjects alongside each other, the individual differences emerge, making the fine details in each picture more noticeable, more distinct. Drawing on this, they began exhibiting the pictures as typologies; by the early 1960s they showed their work only in typological groups. Typically, a piece of work would comprise four small prints of, for example, water towers, adjacent to a larger print of one of the four. They would not supply prints of individual pictures; the typology was the work. Later, their typologies contained prints of equal size, measuring 30 cm by 40 cm. It could be three rows of five prints, a grid of nine or, in one case, 28 blast furnaces in three rows; a symphony of industrial structures.

The Bechers’ pictures do not have to be viewed in typologies in order to make sense, as they have validity as individual images. The typology has been developed for two reasons. First, by amassing such a detailed survey of industrial structures they are revealing sets and subsets, much like 19th-century zoologists did. With water towers, for example, there are round steel ones with conical tops, like hats, and semi-circular ones. Others are circular with sloping roofs, or without roofs, or on steel derricks, or brick towers, and so on. The more fine the differences, the better they are illustrated by the typology.

Second, the typology used by the Bechers emphasises the rewards of close scrutiny, and it is this that makes each and every one of their pictures fascinating. By presenting 15 water towers in a grid, the first effect is an imposing mass of industrial structures. You must stand back in order to take them all in as a group, but to look closer at an individual picture it is necessary to draw nearer.

Up close, only one tower is visible at a time. Isolated in pristine, black-and-white definition, this everyday object is revealed as an ‘anonymous sculpture’, an unostentatious but fabulous creation by mankind. To compare it with the others is to stand back again, and from here the impulse is to step up and examine another. Just as the beauty of the individual structure (for that is what they are) is there to see, so together as a typology they are a thrilling spectacle. …

There is a wisdom and honour in the Bechers’ work which frees them from imposing a conditional reading upon the viewer. The wisdom is the methodology they recognise in the ‘neutral’ depiction of record photography. The honour stems from a principle about not imposing their ideas on other people.

Hilla and Bernd both grew up under Adolf Hitler. They saw how he corrupted German art to promote his propaganda. This was particularly pertinent to photography, and it remained tainted after the war; witness the grim examples of Leni Riefensthal’s glorifying images of Nazis and the pseudo-scientific eugenic portrait studies that were published to defend anti-semitism and supremacism. This is why the legacy of August Sander (1876-1964), whose neutral approach to portraiture was damned by the Nazis, is so precious in Germany. It is also why the Bechers’ continuing example is extremely important. …

Because photography has, for so long, been used for commercial reasons, notably in advertising, people are accustomed to absorbing manipulative images, and have come to expect – or even rely on – a conditional presentation. Take away this interpretative control and the viewer is left free, which is unnerving if one is not used to it. This is why some regard the Bechers’ photographs as ‘cold’. There is no editorial, no soundtrack, no suggestions nor judgments. You are left to your own devices.

Of course, their motivations are not invisible, nor their presence unfelt. What does it mean when something ‘rings true’? How is it that one can sense the sincerity in another’s words? Perhaps this lies in the realm of intuition, not explanation. To analyse art is not necessarily to experience it. Sometimes, by focusing on a deliberation of it, one limits the engagement to a cerebral encounter. In the West particularly, we use explanations to try to control the unknown, to make uncertainties certain. Maybe there is a wisdom we have that is not learnt but is within us. Far better to look rather than puzzle, and to open one’s senses to what is there.

Here lies the wonder in the Bechers’ photographs. They are like rounding a hill and seeing a view spread out before you. In Cwmcynon Colliery, Mountain Ash, South Wales, 1966, a minehead stands above lines of terraced houses in the village. The giant pair of wheels on top of the single-tier steel headframe is an engineer’s structure. A device to do a job, not to win design awards. You could not dream up such structures, neither could you invent, say, your grandparents’ kitchen. These things arise from the conditions in which they are used.

They are the lines on the face of the world. The photographs are portraits of our history. And when the structures have been demolished and grassed over, as though they were never there, the pictures remain.

Michael Collins, “The long look,” Tate Research Publication, 2002 originally published in Tate Magazine issue 1 on the Tate website [Online] Cited 01/11/2022

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Winding Towers (Belgium and France)' 1967-1988

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Winding Towers (Belgium and France)
1967-1988
Gelatin silver prints
15 15/16 × 12 3/8 in. (40.5 × 31.5cm), each
The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Winding Tower, Cwm Cynon Colliery, Mountain Ash, South Wales, Great Britain' 1966

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Winding Tower, Cwm Cynon Colliery, Mountain Ash, South Wales, Great Britain
1966
Gelatin silver print
Image: 15 9/16 × 11 13/16 in. (39.6 × 30cm)
Purchase, Vital Projects Fund Inc. Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and Jade Lau Gift, 2018

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Winding Tower, Zeche Neu-Iserlohn, Bochum, Germany' 1963

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Winding Tower, Zeche Neu-Iserlohn, Bochum, Germany
1963
Gelatin silver print
Image: 15 9/16 × 11 1/4 in. (39.5 × 28.5cm)
Purchase, Vital Projects Fund Inc. Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and Jade Lau Gift, 2018

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Water Towers (Germany, France, Belgium, United States, and Great Britain)' 1963-1980

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Water Towers (Germany, France, Belgium, United States, and Great Britain)
1963-1980
Gelatin silver prints
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher

 

Is there some quiet comedy in revealing all the ways industry has managed the single job of storing water?

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Water Towers (New York, United States)' 1978–1979

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Water Towers (New York, United States)
1978-1979
Gelatin silver prints
15 15/16 × 12 3/8 in. (40.5 × 31.5cm), each
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Water Towers (New York, United States)' 1978–1979 (detail)

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Water Towers (New York, United States)(detail)
1978-1979
Gelatin silver prints
15 15/16 × 12 3/8 in. (40.5 × 31.5cm), each
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

One wall is gridded up with photos of industrial cooling towers, portrayed in wildly detailed black-and-white.

Another gives us 30 different views of blast furnaces, at plants across Western Europe and the United States. You can just about make out each bolt in their twisting pipework.

An entire gallery surveys the vast Concordia coal plant in Oberhausen, Germany: Teeming photos present its gas-storage tanks, its “lean gas generator,” its “quenching tower,” its “coke pushers.”

These and something like another 450 images fill “Bernd & Hilla Becher,” a fascinating, frankly gorgeous show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met’s curator of photography, Jeff Rosenheim, has organized a thorough retrospective for the Bechers, a German couple who made some of the most influential art photos of the past half-century. Bernd (1931-2007) and Hilla (1934-2015) mentored generations of students at Düsseldorf’s great Kunstakademie, whose alumni include major photographic artists such as Andreas Gursky and Candida Höfer.

But for all the heft of the heavy industry on view in the Met show – it’s easy to imagine the stink and smoke and racket that pressed in on the Bechers as they worked – you come away with an overall impression of lightness, of delightful order, even sometimes of gentle comedy.

Wall after wall of gridded grays soothe the eye and calm the soul, like the orderly, light-filled abstractions of Agnes Martin or Sol LeWitt. The very fact of gathering 16 different water towers, from both sides of the Atlantic, onto a single museum wall helps to domesticate them, removing their industrial angst and original functions and turning them into something like curios, or collectibles. A catalog essay refers to the Bechers’ “rigorous documentation of thousands of industrial structures,” which is right – but it’s the rigour of a trainspotter, not an engineer. Despite their concrete grandeur, the assorted water towers come off as faintly ridiculous: Whether you’re collecting cookie jars or vintage wines – or shots of water towers – it’s as much about our human instinct to amass and organise as it is about the actual things you collect.

Consider the 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) that launched Andy Warhol’s pop career, which are a vital precedent for the Bechers’ ordered seriality. You can read the Soup Cans as a critical portrayal of American consumerism, but a catalog of canned soups also reads as a quiet joke, at least when it’s presented for the sake of art, not shopping. Ditto, I think, for the Bechers’ famous “typologies” of industrial buildings, presented without anything like an industrial goal.

Indeed, the one thing you don’t come away with from the Becher show is real knowledge of mechanical engineering, or coal processing, or steel making. In long-ago student days, I cut out and framed a wallful of images from the Bechers’ glorious book of blast-furnace photos. (Their art has always existed as much in their books as in exhibitions.) After living with my furnaces for a decade or so, I can’t say I could have passed a quiz from Smelting 101.

Early coverage referred to the Bechers as “photographer-archaeologists” and the Met’s catalog talks about how they revealed the “functional characteristics of industrial structures.” There are certainly parallels between the preternatural clarity and unmediated “objectivity” of their images and earlier, purely technical and scientific photos meant to teach about the constructions and processes of industry. The Bechers admired such pictures. But however systematic their own project might seem, its goal was art, which means it was always bound to let function and meaning float free.

I think it’s best to imagine that they cast a doubting eye on earlier aspirations to scientific and technical order. After all, the Bechers hit their stride as artists in the 1960s and early ’70s, at just the moment when any aspiring intellectual was reading Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” which pointed to how the sociology of science (who holds power in labs and who doesn’t) shapes what science tells us. French philosopher Roland Barthes had killed off the all-powerful author and let the rest of us be the true makers of meaning, even if that left it unstable. European societies were in turmoil as they faced the terrors of the Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof gang, so brilliantly captured in the streaks and smears of Gerhard Richter, that other German giant of postwar art. The Bechers were working in that world of unsettled and unsettling ideas. By parroting the grammar of technical imagery, without actually achieving any technical goals, their photos seem to loosen technology’s moorings. By collecting water towers the way someone else might collect cookie jars, they cut industry down to size.

The Bechers weren’t the only artists working that seam. Their era’s conceptualists also played games with science and industry. When John Baldessari had himself photographed throwing three balls into the air so they’d form a straight line, he was simulating experimentation, not aiming for any real experimental result: The repeated throwing and its failure was the point, not the straight line that could never get formed, anyway. When the Bechers’ friend Robert Smithson poured oceans of glue down a hillside or bulldozed dirt onto a shed until its roof cracked, he was mimicking the moves of heroic construction, not aiming to build anything.

What made the Bechers different from their peers is that they did their mimicking from the inside: They used the language of advanced photographic technology to inhabit the technophilic world they portrayed. Their photos are almost as constructed as any “lean gas generator” they might depict. The just-the-facts-ma’am objectivity of their images is only achieved through serious photographic artifice.

Take the Bechers’ four-square photos of four-square workers’ houses. Several houses are photographed from so close that, standing right in front of them, you’d never take in their entire facades at one glance, as the Bechers do in their images. It takes a wide-angle lens to allow that trick, and only if it’s installed on the kind of technical view camera whose bellows lets lens and film slide in opposite directions. That’s how the Bechers manage to line up our eyes with the top step on a stoop (we see it edge-on) while also catching the home’s gables, high above.

The preternatural level of detail on view and its glorious range of grays and blacks require negatives the size of a man’s hand, a tripod as big as a sapling, lens filters and an advanced darkroom technique. And the couple were relying on such labour-intensive technology at just the moment when most of their photographic peers, and millions of average people, had moved on to cameras and film that let them shoot on the fly, in lab-processed colour. With the Bechers, the “decisive moment” of 35 mm photography gets replaced by a gray-on-gray stasis that feels as though it could last forever – as though it’s as immovable as the steel girders it depicts.

But, in fact, those steel girders were more time-bound than the Bechers’ photos let on. “Just as Medieval thinking manifested itself in Gothic cathedrals, our era reveals itself in technological equipment and buildings,” the Bechers once declared, yet the era they revealed wasn’t really the one they were working in. In many cases, their factories and plants and mines were about to close when the Bechers shot them – a few had already been abandoned – as Western economies made the switch to services and design and computing. The outdatedness of the Bechers’ technique matches up with their subjects. Both represent a last-gasp moment in the “industrial” revolution, which is why there’s something almost poignant about this show.

One of its most revealing moments involves a film, not a photo, and it’s not even by the power couple. The Bechers’ young son, Max, who has since become a noted artist in his own right, once captured his parents in moving colour as they set out to document silos in the American Midwest. Max filmed Bernd and Hilla unloading their heavy-duty equipment, still much as it was in Victorian times, from a classic Volkswagen camper of the 1960s. It was an absurdly underpowered machine, but who could resist its colourful paint job or its mod lines and stylings?

To get the full meaning and impact of the Bechers’ Machine Age black-and-whites, they should really be viewed through the windows of their Information Age orange van.

Blake Gopnik. “Photography’s Delightful Obsessives,” on The New York Times website July 28, 2022 [Online] Cited 30/07/2022

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Lime Kiln, Brielle, Netherlands' 1968

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Lime Kiln, Brielle, Netherlands
1968
Gelatin silver print
24 in. × 19 1/2 in. (61 × 49.5cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

Lime, an important building material since ancient times, is used in the production of mortar and cement. Here, the Bechers focused their attention on six towering brick chimneys that look as much like sprouting asparagus as utilitarian structures. The artists chose a similar view of lime kilns for the cover image of Anonyme Skulpturen (1970), their ambitious first publication. The book presents comparative sequences of different industrial forms, from kilns and gasometers to cooling towers, blast furnaces, and winding towers.

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Gas Tank, Wesseling / Cologne, Germany' 1983

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Gas Tank, Wesseling / Cologne, Germany
1983
24 in. × 19 13/16 in. (60.9 × 50.3cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Framework House, Schloßblick 17, Kaan-Marienborn, Siegen, Germany' 1962

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Framework House, Schloßblick 17, Kaan-Marienborn, Siegen, Germany
1962
Gelatin silver print
Image: 15 7/8 × 11 5/8 in. (40.3 × 29.6cm)
Purchase, Vital Projects Fund Inc. Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and Jade Lau Gift, 2018

 

 

Both as artists and teachers, Bernd and Hilla Becher are the most important figures in European photography since 1950. Influenced by the formal rigour and typological method of prewar artists such as August Sander and Walker Evans, they were considered equals and fellow travellers by Minimalist sculptors such as Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt and paved the way for the medium’s integration into the broader arena of contemporary art. As professors at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, their influence was paramount on the celebrated generation of photographers known as the “Düsseldorf School” such as Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, and Candida Höfer.

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'High Tension Pylon near Düsseldorf, Germany' 1969

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
High Tension Pylon near Düsseldorf, Germany
1969
Gelatin silver print
Image: 15 13/16 × 11 11/16 in. (40.2 × 29.7cm)
Purchase, Vital Projects Fund Inc. Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and Jade Lau Gift, 2018

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'High Tension Pylon near Düsseldorf, Germany' 1969

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
High Tension Pylon near Düsseldorf, Germany
1969
Gelatin silver print
Image: 15 3/4 x 11 1/2 in. (40 x 29.2cm)
Purchase, Vital Projects Fund Inc. Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and Jade Lau Gift, 2018

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Comparative Juxtaposition, Nine Objects, Each with a Different Function' 1961-1972

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Comparative Juxtaposition, Nine Objects, Each with a Different Function
1961-1972
Gelatin silver prints
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher

 

 

These photographs show that the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher were sometimes more interested in aesthetic form than in what industry actually does.

Bernd and Hilla Becher found artistic inspiration in the under appreciated beauty of the built environment, specifically, commonplace industrial and residential architecture. The Bechers’ use of typological ordering, as seen here in a grid of fifteen framework-house studies, can be traced to Hilla’s interest in the concepts of taxonomy and morphology, which are systems of biological classification based on shape and function. They called their assemblages “typologies” and used this effective graphic structure to compare similar and different forms, as would a researcher studying a collection of fossils or butterflies.

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Terre Rouge, Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg' 1979

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Terre Rouge, Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg
1979
Gelatin silver print
17 5/8 × 23 1/2 in. (44.8 × 59.7cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Charleroi-Montignies, Belgium' 1971

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Charleroi-Montignies, Belgium
1971
Gelatin silver print
19 in. × 23 1/4 in. (48.2 × 59cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Duisburg-Bruckhausen, Ruhr Region, Germany' 1999

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Duisburg-Bruckhausen, Ruhr Region, Germany
1999
19 3/8 × 23 7/8 in. (49.2 × 60.6cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

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30
Oct
22

Exhibition: ‘Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production’ at Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

Exhibition dates: 15th July – 31st October 2022

Curators: The exhibition is curated by artist, author and curator Boaz Levin and Dr. Esther Ruelfs, Head of the Photography and New Media Collection at MK&G.

Artists: Ignacio Acosta, Lisa Barnard, F& D Cartier, Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio (Lauren Bon, Tristan Duke und Richard Nielsen), Susanne Kriemann, Mary Mattingly, Daphné Nan Le Sergent, Lisa Rave, Alison Rossiter, Robert Smithson, Simon Starling, Anaïs Tondeur, James Welling, Noa Yafe, Tobias Zielony

 

 

Mary Mattingly (American, b. 1979) 'Mineral Seep' 2016

 

Mary Mattingly (American, b. 1979)
Mineral Seep
2016
C-print
© Mary Mattingly

 

 

A worthy subject I had never really thought about. Kudos to the curators for digging into (pardon the pun) and conceptualising the “five chapters following the different materials used for photographic production: Copper for the daguerreotypes, fossil fuels and their derivatives such as coal and bitumen for the printing processes, silver for the widely used silver gelatin prints of the 20th century, Paper as a carrier material, and, today, rare earths and metals for our ever-shrinking cameras and smartphones, and the energy required for the so-called “cloud”.”

Something has to change very quickly because almost everything the human race produces seems to add to the burden of this earth. Consumerism, capitalism, money, power, greed. I despair of the human race saving the earth. We might end up with ‘being’ only to be confronted by ‘nothingness’.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

.
Many thankx to the Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production' at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

 

Installation view of the exhibition Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg showing at left, work from Anaïs Tondeur’s series Carbon Black

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production' at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

 

Installation view of the exhibition Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg showing on the table the work of Ignacio Acosta; and at far right, a contemporary enlargement of G.H. Johnson’s Outdoor view of a large mining operation on the North Fork American River 1852 Daguerreotype enhanced with gold

 

 

The exhibition Mining Photography: The Ecological Footprint of Image Production is dedicated to the material history of key resources used for image production, addressing the social and political context of their extraction and waste and its relation to climate change. Using historical photographs and contemporary artistic positions as well as interviews with restorers, geologists, and climate researchers, the exhibition tells the story of photography as one of industrial production, showing the extent to which the medium has been deeply intertwined with human change of the environment. By focusing on the ways by which industrial image production has been materially and ideologically implicated in climate change, rather merely using it to depict its consequences, the exhibition employs a radically new perspective towards this subject.

Ever since its invention, photography has depended on the global extraction and exploitation of so-called natural resources. In the early 19th century, these were salt, fossil fuels such as bitumen and carbon, as well as copper and silver, which were all used for the first images on copper plates and for salt paper prints. By the late 20th century, the photographic industry was one of the most important consumers of silver, responsible, at its peak, for about a quarter of the metal’s global consumption. Today, with the advent of digital photography and the ubiquity of mobile devices, image production is contingent on rare earths and metals such as coltan, cobalt, and europium. Image storage and distribution also consume immense amounts of energy. One scholar recently observed that Americans produce more photographs every two minutes than were made in the entire nineteenth century. Mining Photography: The Ecological Footprint of Image Production is dedicated to the material history of key resources used for image production, addressing the social and political context of their extraction and waste and its relation to climate change. Using historical photographs and contemporary artistic positions as well as interviews with restorers, geologists, and climate researchers, the exhibition tells the story of photography as one of industrial production, showing the extent to which the medium has been deeply intertwined with human change of the environment. By focusing on the ways by which industrial image production has been materially and ideologically implicated in climate change, rather merely using it to depict its consequences, the exhibition employs a radically new perspective towards this subject.

The exhibition is divided into five chapters following the different materials used for photographic production: Copper for the daguerreotypes, fossil fuels and their derivatives such as coal and bitumen for the printing processes, silver for the widely used silver gelatin prints of the 20th century, Paper as a carrier material, and, today, rare earths and metals for our ever-shrinking cameras and smartphones, and the energy required for the so-called “cloud”.

Interviews with conservators, climate scientists, and geologists highlight various aspects of the production process in relation to its ecological footprint. The exhibition thus consists of historical materials used during different image production techniques, historical artefacts, contemporary works, as well as information conveyed by the interviews.

“Mining Photography” traces exemplary individual supply chains, and analyses how photography’s materiality – which remains invisible to naked eye – has changed over the years. For instance, it will ask where the copper and silver used for Hermann Biow’s daguerreotype of the polymath, explorer and mining officer Alexander von Humboldt came from?

The “Copper, Gold, and the Daguerreotype” section looks at the copperplates that were photography’s first image supports in the 1840s and 1850s. The plates were produced on an industrial scale, primarily in Paris, and sold around the world. Copper was refined in Wales, in the area of Swansea, powered by the burgeoning fossil fuel industry. Ores were shipped to England from all over the world and smelted there to be traded worldwide. Photography was dependent on the copper trade, and the rapid proliferation of the medium would have been inconceivable without fossil fuels, colonial expansion, and the exploitative extraction of minerals.

The photographs from the time of the gold rush give a clear indication of the impact of the extractive mining industry, providing a documentary record of both the destruction of the landscape and the self-enactment of the gold miners, who proudly present themselves to the camera as entrepreneurs. Their female counterparts, the “Pit Brow Women” from Wigan represent the invisible labor that accompanies an industrialised product like photography. Specially created for the exhibition, Ignacio Acosta’s Hygieia Watches Over Us links the copper sculpture depicting the personification of health and hygiene with the copper-producing company Aurubis in Hamburg. It is part of the artist’s “Copper Geographies” project (ongoing since 2010), which traces the international trade routes followed by copper originating from his native Chile.

In “Fossil Fuels, Coal, and Bitumen”, we focus on the use of soot or coal as a pigment that is mixed in with photographic dyes, as can be seen, for example, in works by Anaïs Tondeur, Oscar and Theodor Hofmeister, Eduard Arning, and Susanne Kriemann. The motifs that are shown present us with moor landscapes in which coal is mined. An authentic “material unconscious” is laid down here as picture content in the photographs. Another fossil fuel is light-sensitive bitumen, a naturally occurring asphalt that was used in photographic production. For the exhibition, Noa Yafe created a work that shows the Dead Sea landscapes in which this raw material naturally occurs.

“Paper and Its Coating” focuses on the materials cotton, cellulose, gelatin, and celluloid. Europe was the centre of paper production in the 19th century, with cotton or flax rags initially used to make it. In the period around 1860, cotton was planted and harvested in the southern states of the US using slave labor. It was then shipped to Europe, where it was processed into fabrics, which served, in the form of rags, as the basis for most of the paper that was produced. It was not until the 20th century that cellulose derived from wood was first used in paper production. The photographers Alison Rossiter and F&D Cartier explore the different materiality of historical photographic papers in “discovered” images with an abstract poetic quality. Animal products were a vital ingredient used for coating the papers. In the 19th century, it was eggs, followed in the 20th century by gelatin, most of which was obtained from the bones of cows. In their pictures, which centre in different ways on the materials used in photographic coating, Madame d’Ora and James Welling document and reflect upon the brutal reality of industrialised meat production. Another work, especially created for the exhibition by Tobias Zielony and based on research he conducted at the former Agfa Filmfabrik Wolfen, focuses on the aspects of labor and ecology in the photographic industry.

The precious metal silver forms the basis of the photographic image, which still relies on it today. Of all the raw materials dealt with in the exhibition, silver is absolutely key to the global photographic industry, which, at least for now, is at present its largest consumer. It is here that we get the clearest indication of the sheer quantity of material that is required. The works of Daphné Nan Le Sergent, Simon Starling, and Metabolic Studio’s Optics Division allude to the connections between silver mining’s colonial background, the extraction of the raw material, and the process of refining it. Sergent also shows how the metals’ market value has been a the influence of the market value of metals, a driving force behind photographic technical innovations, which it has made that has made them more lucrative. Rather than being brilliant individual success stories, inventions are only possible and fruitful at a particular time and under particular conditions: witness the work of Hercule Florence, whose parallel development of a photographic process in South America remained unknown.

Lastly, “The Weight of the Cloud: Rare Earths, Metals, Energy, and Waste” looks at the resources that are needed to produce, display, and store digital images. Mining rare earths requires considerable amounts of energy: together with the “conflict minerals”, they are built into our smartphones and data storage devices used in the distribution of images. The rare earths ultimately end up in the burgeoning mountains of e-waste in the Global South, which are constantly growing to keep pace with our hunger for new devices. Lisa Barnard’s research-based work The Canary and the Hammer looks at the aspect of recycling with a focus on the precious metal gold. Mary Mattingly tracks cobalt’s complex and often opaque supply chains, mapping their course and constantly updating her rendering of them in response to market events. Lisa Rave’s video essay centres on the rare-earth metal europium. The app developed by Christoph Knoth and Konrad Renner together with their students at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg (HFBK) allows visitors to look at their phones in terms of their durability and recyclability, enabling them to probe into their own energy consumption.

 

Historical Material and Loans

The exhibition shows historical works by Eduard Christian Arning, Hermann Biow and Oscar and Theodor Hofmeister, Jürgen Friedrich Mahrt and Hermann Reichling. Together with historical photographic material from the Agfa Fotohistorama Leverkusen, photographic material from the Eastman Kodak Archive, Rochester, the FOMU Antwerpen and mineral samples collected by Alexander von Humboldt from the collection of the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, they represent the wealth of photographic products and processes whose raw materials the exhibition focuses on.

The exhibition is curated by artist, author and curator Boaz Levin and Dr. Esther Ruelfs, Head of the Photography and New Media Collection at MK&G.

 

Catalogue

The exhibition will be accompanied by a publication (German/English) with contributions by Siobhan Angus, Nadia Bozak, Boaz Levin, Brett Neilson, Esther Ruelfs, Christoph Ribbat, Karen Soli, 174 pages, Spector Verlag, Leipzig

Press release from the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

 

 

Tobias Zielony (German, b. 1973) 'Dunkelraum' 2022

 

Tobias Zielony (German, b. 1973)
Dunkelraum (Darkroom)
2022
Slide installation
© Tobias Zielony

 

 

Ever since its invention, photography has depended on the global extraction and exploitation of so called natural resources. In the early 19th century, these were salt, fossil fuels such as bitumen and carbon, and copper and silver, which were all used for the first images on copper plates and for salt paper prints. By the late 20th century, the photographic industry was one of the most important consumers of silver, responsible, at its peak, for over half of the metal’s global consumption. Today, with the advent of digital photography and the ubiquity of mobile devices, image production is contingent on rare earths and metals such as coltan, cobalt, and europium. The storage and distribution of images also generate immense amounts of CO2.

The exhibition is dedicated to the material history of the key resources used for photography. It traces the social and political context of their extraction and disposal and how this relates to climate change. Using historical photographs and contemporary artistic positions as well as interviews with a chemist, an activist, a restorer, a mineralogist, and a biologist, the exhibition tells the story of photography as one of industrial production, showing the extent to which the medium is implicated in climate change.

 

Copper and the Daguerreotype

In 1802, Alexander von Humboldt collected mineral samples containing copper and silver on his research trip through South and Central America. A good forty years later, the use of such materials made it possible for Humboldt to be photographed. Silver-coated copper plates were the first image supports to enjoy widespread usage in photography.  The silver layer of these daguerreotypes, made light sensitive by iodine, was applied to a base of copper, which resulted in plates that were both more robust and less expensive. In 1839, when the daguerreotype was invented, such silver-coated copper sheets, produced using the so-called Sheffield Plate technique, were an inexpensive material employed for a whole range of silver household items, from trays to candlesticks. In Paris alone, the production of daguerreotypes required 100 tons of copper a year, producing in 1851 almost a million whole plates. Photography thus benefited decisively from the upswing in copper processing.

Beginning in the early 18th century in Swansea, Wales, coal was used to smelt copper ore on an industrial scale far away from the site where it was found. By the 1840s, ores from Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Australia, and New Zealand were being processed in Swansea smelting works, which now produced more than a third of the copper that was traded worldwide – not without consequences for people and the environment. A look at Swansea reveals that photography’s global success would have been inconceivable without the use of fossil fuels, colonial expansion, and the world-wide extraction of metal deposits.

 

Hermann Biow and Alexander von Humboldt

Photographic pioneer Hermann Biow’s clear, unfussy visual language quickly made him a sought-after portraitist in prominent circles. In 1850, his Deutsche Zeitgenossen (German Contemporaries) portfolio was published with copperplate engravings from his photographs of artists, scientists, and politicians. In 1847, Biow had also photographed the famous naturalist Alexander von Humboldt in Berlin for the project. Humboldt, whose goal it was to depict the entire physical world in one work, was employed as a mining official for the Prussian authorities before setting out in 1799 on his first major research trip through South, Central, and North America. He brought back from there samples of the metals that would be the key elements in Biow’s daguerreotypes half a century later. The silver- and copper-bearing minerals that he collected give a sense of how these raw materials occur in nature and how, after the complex processing steps, their materiality is ultimately concealed by the finished photograph. Humboldt also recorded the way these precious metals circulated between the continents – a requirement for the industrial-scale production of daguerreotype plates – in a map in his Geographical and Physical Atlas of the Kingdom of New Spain, published in 1811. There is still some dispute, however, as to whether Humboldt was the first to warn of the dangers of anthropogenic climate change when, in 1843, he raised the question in his publication Central-Asien of the extent to which humans were influencing the climate “by felling the forests, altering the arrangement of bodies of water, and developing large masses of steam and gas at the epicenters of industry.”

Hermann Biow (b. 1804 in Breslau, d. 1850 in Dresden) was a portrait painter and lithographer and an important pioneer of photography in Germany. His documentation of the devastation of Hamburg after the fire of 1842 was the first photo reportage in history. The natural scientist Alexander von Humboldt (b. 1769 in Berlin, d. 1859 in Berlin) was an early fan of photography and saw it as “one of the most delightful and wondrous discoveries” of his time, even if he never operated a camera himself.

 

Daguerreotypes of the Californian Gold Rush

When, in 1848, it became known that gold had been discovered in the bed of the American River, people headed west to California in their hundreds of thousands to seek their fortune, together with traders, merchants, and photographers. Every gold prospector was also a potential customer wanting to send home a photo after a successful dig. The gold rush led to a boom in early photography and became the first event in US history to be comprehensively documented in photographs. Many daguerreotypists travelled straight to the mines as itinerant photographers. They portrayed gold diggers in threadbare clothing with tools and weapons, thereby presenting the Californian adventurers as the antithesis of the sophisticated denizens of the big cities. At the same time, they recorded the ongoing evolution of the techniques used in gold prospecting. The prospectors started out manually washing the precious metal from the river sediment using pans. But in the 1850s companies began extracting gold on an industrial scale. Watercourses were diverted so that gold could be retrieved from the drained riverbeds; “hydraulic” mining applied high pressure jets of water to detach gold-bearing sediments from hillsides and cliffs; and explosives and heavy equipment were used to dig veins of gold from underground. The gold rush daguerreotypes are thus the first documentation too of environmentally destructive mining practices. Here, it is easy to miss the fact that the images also record the mining of a material that was necessary for their own production: gold chloride had been in constant use as a fixative for daguerreotypes since 1841. Mercury represents another link between mining and photography. While photographers’ use of it as a developing agent jeopardised their own health primarily, its accessory role in gold washing caused the contamination of entire rivers in the area around the mines.

 

Cartes de visite of pit brow women

The photographs show the women who, from the early 17th century on, worked unseen in Britain’s coal mines, first below ground, and later, following the passage of the Mines and Collieries Act (1842), carrying out the lower-paid jobs on the surface. As mine workers, they moved lumps of coal with shovels and carts and separated them from the gangue using large sieve pans. Their work was a major economic contributor to Britain’s industrial success. Coal was a key element underpinning many production sectors, and it was crucial for the processing of copper, which was used in manufacturing daguerreotype plates. The British poet Arthur J. Munby collected photographs of working-class women, which catered to his interest in sociology. He bought photographs of women workers distributed as cartes de visite and also had studio photographs taken that depicted the women in their work clothes and pit gear. Unlike the Californian prospectors, who presented themselves in daguerreotypes as gold rush entrepreneurs and adventurers, the women seen in these images had little in common with the classical notions of the Victorian era. The view they showed of women in dirty work clothes (including trousers) turned the pictures into collectible motifs. We see the women sitting with legs apart and hands on hips – self-reliant poses with strong male connotations – photographed in a studio setting, where the furnishings were at odds with their class affinities.

 

Ignacio Acosta

Created for the exhibition, Ignacio Acosta’s multimedia installation centres on forty photographs arranged in a four-row grid structure. They combine three motifs linked together in a visually associative network, straddling copper production and water consumption. In the topmost rank, we see a smokestack belonging to the Hamburg copper producer Aurubis AG rising aloft, paralleled by the sculpture of Hygieia, which is mounted on a fountain with her back turned on Hamburg’s city hall, looking towards the Chamber of Commerce. Acosta makes a connection between the resource-intensive and, above all, water intensive industry – a major source of pollution for the Elbe River – and the politically charged sculpture commemorating the dreadful cholera epidemic of 1892, which was caused by contaminated water. In the rows below, close-up views of the fountain are interlaced with stained rubber suits worn by Aurubis AG’s workers to protect themselves from sulfuric acid. Visual and material analogies arise, linking the copper parts of the bronze sculpture, which have been oxidised to a green patina, with the tokens of “dirty” work in the copper plant – a thematic examination of the relationships between industry, politics, and society in terms of water and resource consumption. Acosta delves deeper into these themes in a video interview with Klaus Baumgardt from the Hamburg-based environmental protection initiative “Save the Elbe.” This new installation thus expands on his work Copper Geographies, an investigation into the global mobility of mined copper that he began in 2010.

Text from the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

 

John Cooper (British) 'Woman miner' 1860s

 

John Cooper (British)
Woman miner
1860s
Carte de visite Trinity College Library, Cambridge

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production' at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

 

Installation view of the exhibition Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg showing the work of Ignacio Acosta

 

Ignacio Acosta (Chilean, b. 1971) 'Computer Aid' 2015

 

Ignacio Acosta (Chilean, b. 1971)
Computer Aid
2015
© Ignacio Acosta

 

Ignacio Acosta (Chilean, b. 1971) 'Hygieia Watches Over Us' 2022 (detail)

 

Ignacio Acosta (Chilean, b. 1971)
Hygieia Watches Over Us (detail)
2022
Installation comprising 40 pigment prints and video
© Ignacio Acosta

 

 

Coal and Bitumen: Fossil Fuels and Moorland

The majority of photographic processes popular around 1900, such as pigment printing, rubber printing, and heliogravure, did not require silver. In pigment or carbon printing, charcoal powder or lampblack, which consists of nearly pure carbon, replaces the silver grains. The heliogravure technique uses plates coated with bitumen and pigments, which lend the images their colour. This section of the exhibition deals with different perceptions of the landscapes in which the raw materials were found and extracted: peat bogs and moors in northern Germany, bitumen in the area around the Dead Sea in Jordan.

The pictures produced by Reichling and Mahrt – natural scientist and farmer, respectively – document the transformation of the moors and the shift from peasant labour to turf cutting and industrialised peat extraction. At the turn of the 20th century, when the work of draining, reclaiming, and burning the moorland began on a large scale, the landscape, which had been transformed by human intervention, was also consciously aestheticised and presented as an artistic ideal.

The raw materials used to produce these images originated in the moors too. The coal dust used as a pigment is created from dead trees, enriched with solar energy, that over the course of millennia have been pressed first into peat and then into coal. The photographs by Louis Vignes, and Charles Nègre’s prints of these images, depict the landscape of the Dead Sea, an area where bitumen, a form of petroleum, occurs naturally. Nègre used this material to coat the plates for their production of Vignes’s photos. This knowledge makes evident the connection between the motif, the landscape from which the raw material is extracted, and bitumen. Although invisible at first, this material relation inscribes in the image a kind of second, unconscious history.

 

Theodor and Oscar Hofmeister

The Hofmeister brothers present the moorlands around Hamburg as an area imbued with longing. The white blooms of the cottongrass accentuate the charming, painterly qualities of the idealised landscape, which is rendered in vertical format in the style of Japanese woodblock prints. The Hofmeisters do not show the furrowed ground, marked by the incipient signs of systematic peat extraction, or the geometrical lines of the drainage ditches. Instead, our eye is drawn in by a walkway projecting into the picture at an angle. The technique of multicolour gum bichromate printing, which came into vogue in the 1890s, uses pigments to render the photographic masters as prints that are made more durable by the admixture of soot.

Theodor Hofmeister (b. 1868 in Hamburg, d. 1943 in Hamburg) and Oscar Hofmeister (b. 1871 in Hamburg, d. 1937 in Ichenhausen) were amateur photographers alongside their professional work (as businessman and legal clerk, respectively). Exponents of the Pictorialist approach, they began exhibiting their work internationally in 1895. They specialised in multicolour gum bichromate printing.

 

Jürgen Friedrich Mahrt and Hermann Reichling

Moorlands contain the organic commodity peat. Once it has been drained, dug, and dried, it can be burned as a source of energy. This usage has a long history and was of great importance until the emergence of the coal industry. As naturalists, Jürgen Friedrich Mahrt and Hermann Reichling recorded how peat cutting infringed on nature and documented the massive impact it had. While Mahrt’s hand-coloured photographs are illustrative of the arduous manual labor involved, Reichling’s work gives a palpable sense of the industrial scale of this undertaking. He often seeks out compositions that set up a contrast between the supposedly pristine moor – which represents such an important habitat – and the drastic impact of human agency. In this way, he clearly shows how the natural vegetation is inscribed with an industrial grid of furrows, which gives structure to the photographs’ pictorial space as a graphical raster. It becomes evident here how nature is turned into a commodity, how with every cut that is dug, whether with a spade or an excavator, sods of peat are removed from the earth as a monetisable product. The shots showing the edges of the peat in cross section – as documented by both photographers – also allude to the temporal dimension of the resource: in the right conditions, it takes a thousand years to produce 1 meter of peat from organic material. However, the climate is being damaged not only by the commercial exploitation of the moorlands but also by the process of draining them, which releases huge amounts of CO2.

Jürgen Friedrich Mahrt (b. 1881 in Elsdorf, d. 1940 in Rendsburg) was a farmer and Hermann Reichling (b. 1890 in Heiligenstadt, d. 1948 in Münster) a biologist. As self-taught photographers, they made a record of their cultural and natural surroundings. In the 1920s, Mahrt founded a private museum in Elsdorf in which he exhibited natural history dioramas and photographs. Reichling was director of Münster’s museum of natural history, Provinzialmuseum für Naturkunde, from 1921 to 1948.

 

Eduard Arning

If you look closely at Eduard Arning’s large-format gum bichromate print of an iron and steel works, it has a leathery look that resembles skin. The print’s surface structure contains the pigments that give it its murkily indistinct visual effect. This is produced in large part by a blue-black colour produced when larger amounts of soot were mixed into the pigments. The surface of the paper, which has been treated with pigments and a binding agent, is exposed: these areas become fixed, while less exposed parts are rinsed away and remain lighter. In this case, the result is a nocturnal view of an iron and steel works, whose chimneys spout fire and belch smoke. The leaping flames and brightly lit windows were added after the fact by Arning and convey a Romantic idea of industrial production at the turn of the 20th century. To the right of the picture, a shadowy heap of ore looms large in the foreground, while on the left a somewhat brighter swath leads the eye into the depths of the picture and the glowing entrance to the factory. Towering next to it is the monumental chimney from which soot rises – a symbol of industrial progress. This returns in material form as blue-black pigment, extending right to the frontmost plane of the picture and giving the dark pile of ore its shape.

 

Anaïs Tondeur

Anaïs Tondeur’s work Carbon Black sees her delving into soot particles, which were an essential component used in photographic methods at the turn of the 20th century. A product of industrial combustion processes, consisting almost exclusively of carbon, soot is carried by wind and air currents and does not usually fall to the ground until it is hundreds of kilometres from the site of emission. The black particles of carbon absorb the sun’s rays, warming the atmosphere and thus contributing to the melting of the ice caps. Soot enters the human body through the lungs as a fine dust measuring less than 2.5 micrometers – breathed into the alveoli, it is transported into the bloodstream and finds its way into the internal organs. Working together with two climate researchers, the artist set out on a fifteen-day expedition traversing the UK. Using airflow analyses, the team determined the trajectory of soot particles, a trail that led from Fair Isle in Scotland to the port of Folkestone in the south of England. At each stop on their journey, they took photographs of the horizon using a helmet camera, measured the concentration of particulate matter, and recovered soot particles from the air. Inserted into printer cartridges as pigment, these particles were then used to produce a landscape photograph whose colour characteristics are specific to the site where the picture was taken. The severity of the air pollution is thus given expression in the dramatic grey and black tones of the cloud constellations depicted.

Anaïs Tondeur (b. 1985 in France) studied at Central Saint Martins and at the Royal College of Arts in London. Her research-based work explores the dynamic realm connecting the natural sciences, anthropology, and mythic narratives.

 

Susanne Kriemann

The artist works with heliogravure, a manual printing technique that is now no longer used in practice: the copper plate is dusted with asphalt powder and printed using a highly pigmented paint mixed with soot. In 2017, Susanne Kriemann began accompanying scientists from the University of Jena on their research trips to investigate the renaturation of the uranium mining area formerly operated by SDAG Wismut in the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge). Uranium ore, a highly radioactive substance, was mined there between 1949 and 1990. Today, its soil is severely contaminated with heavy metals. Kriemann uses photography for her artistic research on the project – her logging of contaminated plants stretches the medium to the very limits of what it can depict, as the radiation measured by the researchers cannot be seen in the photograph. Notwithstanding, Kriemann has devised a method that allows her to inscribe the radioactivity in the image: she harvests individual plants that she has previously photographed and processes them to produce different-coloured pigments, which she mixes with soot and uses to print her heliogravures. This technique allows her to include the plants directly in the work she creates. In this way, the radioactivity becomes a physical element in her images.

Susanne Kriemann (b. 1972 in Erlangen) studied at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design (ABK Stuttgart) and the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Her research-based work is concerned with the technical requirements and historical conditions of photographic production.

 

Robert Smithson

In his 1969 work Asphalt Rundown, Robert Smithson abandoned the gallery space completely to realise his first outdoor earthwork. In a stone quarry south of Rome, he had a truckload of hot, liquid asphalt tipped down an eroding slope. In choosing the quarry, he opted for a landscape that bore the marks of human intervention, the first link in a variety of industrial supply chains. Smithson’s Asphalt Lump from 1968 had already demonstrated his interest in industrial composites and nature as shaped by humanity: it was at this point that he was invited by the Konrad Fischer Galerie to conduct research on the slag heaps in the Ruhr, together with the photographer couple Bernd and Hilla Becher. In the work in Rome, the inky black mass covers the barren earth in next to no time, causing the ground to disappear beneath it as it pushes its way down the slope like a natural river, cooling and congealing.

Smithson conceived the sculpture as a symbol of frozen time. In his view, time does not simply pass – rather, it is deposited in an ongoing process like layers of sediment in the soil. As a language construct, Asphalt Rundown links into the idea of photographic images as frozen moments. On the material level, meanwhile, Smithson’s use of asphalt also alludes to Nicéphore Niépce’s heliographic experiments, where the hardening of asphalt on a tin plate under the action of light was used to record fleeting images and was thus a means to freeze time. The natural asphalt used by Niépce can be found as bitumen judaicum in the area around the Dead Sea, where the visual scenery bears a striking resemblance to Smithson’s artificially created volcanic landscape.

Robert Smithson (b. 1938 in Passaic, New Jersey, d. 1973 in Texas) gained a reputation as an early exponent of land art. He applied his conceptual approaches to a study of the relationships between humans and nature, drawing parallels between industrial and geological processes.

 

Honoré d’Albert de Luynes, Louis Vignes, Charles Nègre

The atlas Voyage d’exploration à la mer Morte is a documentary account of the 1864 scientific, archaeological, and artistic expedition to the Dead Sea basin and the interior of Jordan. Financed by Honoré d’Albert, duc de Luynes, an archaeologist, scientist, and art connoisseur, the expedition was accompanied by, among others, the geologist Louis Lartet and the photographer Louis Vignes. D’Albert subsequently commissioned Charles Nègre – who was one of France’s best-known photographers and had developed a photomechanical reproduction process – to translate Vignes’s photographs into an official report on the expedition using photogravure plates. The publication that came out of this process can still be termed a handmade book. Nègre was not merely an accomplished technician, he also had the eye of an art photographer and created intermediate tonalities and shadows for Vignes’s images, which turned out to have too much contrast. His prints, which are rich in detail and the play of light and shadow, were on occasion composed of several negatives, and, in some cases, the clouds were superimposed. The atlas shows, among other things, the sites where the natural deposits of bitumen were found: this was the basis, in turn, for the gravure printing process that Nègre refined.

Honoré Théodoric Paul Joseph d’Albert de Luynes (b. 1802 in Paris, d. 1867 in Rome) was a numismatist, archaeologist, collector, scholar, and art lover. Born into an aristocratic family, he was endowed with a considerable fortune and financed the research trip to Jordan, in which he also took part. Louis Vignes (b. 1831 in Bordeaux, d. 1896 in Paris) was an admiral in the French navy and an amateur photographer. Charles Nègre (b. 1820 in Grasse, d. 1880 in Grasse) was a painter and photographer as well as a technician and inventor of his own photogravure method.

 

Noa Yafe

At first glance, we see a two-dimensional image, and it is only when we get closer to what is apparently a photograph mounted in the exhibition space that we register the three-dimensional sculpture let into the wall surface, which opens up like a diorama into the space behind it. Noa Yafe’s sculptures are based on photographs: these are used as templates. It is often scientific images that capture her imagination. The artist deals with the verity of photography and the moment of illusion; at the same time, by turning photographs into objects, she also addresses materiality in an age in which images have become immaterial. The master for the work she made for the exhibition is the black-and-white photograph Vue Prise au dessus de Mar Saba (View over Mar Saba) of the Jordanian hillscape around the Dead Sea. The picture was taken by Louis Vignes and reproduced by Charles Nègre using the photogravure technique: it appeared in the atlas Voyage d’exploration à la mer Morte (Expedition to the Dead Sea, 1868-1874). The artist uses real materials for the “photograph” she constructs.

Noa Yafe (b. 1978 in Israel) studied at the HaMidrasha School of Art at Beit Berl College and at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She works in the medium of photography and sculpture.

Text from the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

 

Jürgen Friedrich Mahrt (German, 1882-1940) 'Making baked peat on Hartshoper Moor' c. 1930

 

Jürgen Friedrich Mahrt (German, 1882-1940)
Making baked peat on Hartshoper Moor
c. 1930
Gelatine silver paper, hand coloured
Collection Mahrt/Storm, Rendsburg/Berlin

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production' at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

 

Installation view of the exhibition Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg showing the work of Robert Smithson

 

Robert Smithson (American, 1938-1973) 'Asphalt Rundown' 1969

 

Robert Smithson (American, 1938-1973)
Asphalt Rundown
1969
Documentary photograph
© Holt/Smithson Foundation VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

 

 

When the Bechers’ friend Robert Smithson poured oceans of glue down a hillside, or bulldozed dirt onto a shed until its roof cracked, he was mimicking the moves of heroic construction, not aiming to build anything.

Blake Gopnik. “Photography’s Delightful Obsessives,” on The New York Times website July 28, 2022 [Online] Cited 20/10/2022

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production' at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

 

Installation view of the exhibition Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg showing work from Anaïs Tondeur’s series Carbon Black

 

Anaïs Tondeur (French, b. 1985) 'North Sea, 27.05.2017, Carbon Black Level (PM2.5): 13,8 µg/m' 2017-2018

 

Anaïs Tondeur (French, b. 1985)
North Sea, 27.05.2017, Carbon Black Level (PM2.5): 13,8 µg/m
2017-2018
From the series Carbon Black
15 Carbon ink prints photographs, carbon black particles, cartography
100 x 150cm

 

 

Despite the absence of industries, the inhabitants of the isle of Fair suffer from suffocation. As Anaïs Tondeur reached the island she sent her geographic coordinates to climate modellers Rita van Dingenen and Jean-Philippe Putaud (JRC, European Commission) who retraced the itinerary of the particulate matters meeting her. By means of atmospheric backward trajectory models and the analyses of anthropogenic emission of air pollutants, they could define the site of emission of the particles. This abstract trajectory line lead the artist to an expedition of 837 miles by foot, ferry, fishing boat and car unravelling the journey of the anthropic meteors.

She crystallised each day in a photograph of the sky as well as filtering black carbon particles she encountered through breathing masks. The particles were later extracted by scientist J.P Putaud and turned into ink. In point of fact, black carbon is a collateral form of soot, used for centuries as the primary component of Indian ink. The photographs are thus printed with some ink composed from the particles captured in the sky where they were shot.

Text from the Anaïs Tondeur website [Online] Cited 16/10/2022

 

Anaïs Tondeur (French, b. 1985) 'Edinburg, 30.05.2017, Carbon Black Level (PM2.5): 8,18 µg/m³' 2017-2018

 

Anaïs Tondeur (French, b. 1985)
Edinburg, 30.05.2017, Carbon Black Level (PM2.5): 8,18 µg/m³
2017-2018
From the series Carbon Black
15 Carbon ink prints photographs, carbon black particles, cartography
100 x 150cm

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production' at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

Installation view of the exhibition 'Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production' at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

Installation view of the exhibition 'Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production' at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

 

Installation view of the exhibition Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg showing at left in the bottom photograph, heliogravures by Susanne Kriemann

 

Susanne Kriemann (German, b. 1972) 'Bitterkraut aus: Falsche Kamille, Wilde Möhre, Bitterkraut (Zyklus 2)' 2017

 

Susanne Kriemann (German, b. 1972)
Bitterkraut aus: Falsche Kamille, Wilde Möhre, Bitterkraut (Zyklus 2)
Bitterweed from: false chamomile, wild carrot, bitterweed (Cycle 2)
2017
Photogravure with ox-tongue pigment, 0.6 g soot on paper
80 x 60cm
© Susanne Kriemann

 

 

Paper and Its Coating: Cotton, Pulp, Gelatin, and Celluloid

The development of photography as a mass product, first made possible using paper as a material substrate, came at a cost. For most of the 19th century, photographic paper consisted primarily of rag made of cotton and flax. European manufacturers dominated the markets for textiles and paper throughout the century, but much of the raw material they used was sourced from the United States, which became cotton’s leading cultivator through its utilisation of slave labour and, after the Civil War, of share croppers and tenant farmers.

The cultivation of cotton was closely intertwined with the often-violent emergence of capitalism, precipitating the drainage of wetlands – whose ecosystems play a crucial role in carbon storage – and thus accelerating climate change. This cotton was then exported to Europe, where it was spun into clothes, which, when worn out, were collected by ragpickers – predominantly working-class children and women – and sold back to European paper mills, where women prepared them for pulping, removing buttons and bleaching them white using newly discovered toxic chlorine compounds.

The ever-increasing demand eventually led producers to seek an alternative to cotton. Perfected in Germany, wood pulping in entails the boiling of wood in sulfuric acid so as to separate it into individual cellulose fibres. The photo-paper industry’s use of animal-derived substances, such as albumin and gelatin, relied on industrialised farming and slaughter houses. A single photographic paper producer in Dresden used six million eggs a year for albumen coating, and as late as 1999 Kodak was still processing over thirty million kilos of cow skeletons every year.

 

Gevaert Photographic Paper

The 1964 merger of the German corporation Agfa AG and the Belgian company Gevaert Photo-Producten NV led to the creation of the Agfa- Gevaert Group. These two enterprises, each with a long tradition, combined to form one of the world’s leading producers of photographic goods, whose line extended from cameras to X-ray film. If we take, for example, black-and-white gelatin silver paper – one of Agfa-Gevaert’s core products and a staple of the photographic industry in general – it is still manufactured according to the same principles today. The paper substrate is coated with a layer of barium sulfate (also known as baryte), which covers the paper fibres and ensures that the emulsion of gelatin and light-sensitive silver halide grains applied at the end adheres to the base. The pictures from the Agfa archive offer an insight into this process. Although the layers were always built up in the same way, there was considerable variety in the photographic paper that was produced. The possible surfaces might be white or cream coloured, glossy or matte, smooth or textured and were available in up to six variants to allow the motif to be rendered with different degrees of contrast, from extra soft to ultra hard. Systematic research into photographic papers and their material properties did not start until a few years ago. One such example is the documentation of Gevaert papers by the FOMU Photo Museum in Antwerp, which should provide a better understanding of these products and facilitate their processing in both artistic and technical terms. A study of the packaging reveals that successful product lines were offered over a period of decades, even if their outer form changed with the times in line with contemporary tastes.

 

Alison Rossiter

Alison Rossiter’s photographic work is created without a camera or a lens, using expired photographic paper. Since 2007, the artist has collected approximately fifteen hundred packages of old photographic paper, starting from the late 19th century and representing every decade of the 20th. Rossiter mines what she describes as a “cross section of the history of photographic print materials” for their latent images – created by the effect on the paper over time of oxidation, light leaks, pollutants, or physical damage and then developed by the artist in the darkroom to reveal “found photograms.” At times, the artist marks the surface intentionally by pouring or pooling photographic developer directly onto the paper, or else limiting its contact with it, deftly combining chance and skill. The results are abstract images, fields of texture, spilled marks, and monochromes, in a subtle array of blacks, greys, and whites reminiscent of mid-century modernist painting. Each work’s title contains three facts: the manufacturer and type of paper, its expiration date as stated on its package, and the date that Rossiter processed the material. As indicated by its title, a work consisting of six prints included in the exhibition was produced using Gevaert Gevaluxe Velours paper, but their exact expiration date is unknown. First produced by Gevaert in 1933, Gevaluxe Velours was advertised by the company as the “most beautiful paper ever made” and is considered to this day to have been one the best commercially available papers due to its matte surface and intensely deep black shadows. A second work comprises of two images printed using an unnamed photographic paper produced by The Haloid Company, Rochester, for the US military. The abstract geometrical compositions’ material provenance reveals their connection to what could be called the military-photo-industrial-complex, but also hints at the origins of digital technologies within the photographic industries: in 1961 Haloid changed its name to Xerox Corporation, and would go on to invent some of the key technologies in personal computing.

 

F & D Cartier, Wait and See – The Never Taken Images

In 1998, F & D Cartier began investigating the materiality of photographic paper in a work group entitled Wait and See. For them, the work is an exploration of the rudiments of the medium and a way of engaging with the flood of photographic images produced in the digital age. In their installations, the artists use expired photographic papers dating from the years 1890 to 2000, which have lost some of their sensitivity but still respond to light. Their exposure in the exhibition space triggers an ongoing process of slow change as their appearance constantly alters. Without any recourse to a camera or photochemistry, the duo thus brings to life images that were never taken and examines their potential. At the same time, their radically simplified experiment, designed to record light and time, connects back to the early days of the medium, when developing photographic paper was still unusual and daylight exposure was the principal means of blackening the silver salts. The surprising colours produced by the undeveloped gelatin silver emulsions reveal another invisible aspect of analog photography: in this way, F & D Cartier’s experiment conveys a profound sense of the complexity of a material that was ubiquitous in the 20th century.

Françoise Cartier (b. 1952 in Tavannes) studied sculpture at École des Arts Appliqués in Bern; Daniel Cartier (b. 1950 in Biel/Bienne) studied photography at Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). Their experiments with photographic materials, which they embarked on together in 1995, have been devoted to themes relating to remembering, forgetting, and the passing of time.

 

James Welling

Throughout his career, James Welling has reflected on photography’s history and nature by examining the medium’s materiality through the lens of its most common components. Used as a binding layer for gelatin silver prints, gelatin’s prevalence in photographic images normally remains invisible to the naked eye. In this series, produced in 1984, Welling chose to portray the substance in a style reminiscent of product photography. Infused with black ink and then cooled, the sculpted chunks of gelatin were placed against a seamless white background, creating semi-abstract compositions with the appearance of shining coal or black glass. Welling’s work highlights photography’s artifice: reflecting on the way it is consciously and explicitly staged, its choice of subject, and its referential indeterminacy. This is accentuated by the fact that it is difficult at first to tell what exactly it is we are looking at. In his work, Welling often creates a delay between the moment an image is seen and the time viewers understand what it depicts. Here, what the image is of is exactly what it is made of: as if by sleight of hand, Welling reveals image and substrate to be one and the same, reflecting on all that is normally left out of the frame or taken for granted – or all that is hidden by it – when we normally think of what photography is, and what it does to the world.

James Welling (b. 1951, Connecticut, US) studied at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh and later at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Throughout his career, Welling has experimented with different photographic media, exploring the tensions within and between representation and abstraction and challenging the medium’s conventions.

 

Madame d’Ora

Between 1949 and 1953, Madame d’Ora produced an unsparing photographic study of two Parisian slaughterhouses, which she would go on to describe as her “great final work.” Built during the 19th century under Napoleonic decree and in keeping with Baron Haussmann’s vision, slaughterhouses such as the Abattoir Ivry Les Halles and Abattoir de Vaugirard signalled the emergence in France of industrialised meat production governed by capitalist imperatives. It was in such abattoirs that the repetitive, procedural, and rationalised mode of the factory was first introduced into the realm of animal slaughter, a practice that was later perfected in the US with the introduction of the assembly line. Enabled by such developments, the exponential growth of the cattle industry during the 19th century contributed to the dramatic acceleration in carbon emissions that began in those years. To this day, cattle are considered the number one agricultural source of greenhouse gases worldwide (responsible for about 14 percent of total human-induced emissions). Madame d’Ora’s images seem to dissect her subjects, portraying them with a sense of tactility and precision and, at times, of the absurd. In some images, skin is stretched across the picture plane, resulting in near abstraction, while, in others, pools of blood and rows of clipped and flayed corpses fill the frame to capacity, creating a mood of excess and serialised death. Evoking a mixture of detachment and brutality, distance and cruelty, reminiscent of the horrors of the 20th century, the series has often been read as an implicit response to the Holocaust, during which many of d’Ora’s family members, including her sister Anna, were killed. By documenting the unpleasant reality behind industrial meat production, an essential component in many everyday commodities – including the gelatin-silver paper used for these prints – d’Ora sheds light on a dark and often ignored aspect of modernity.

Madame d’Ora (née Dora Philippine Kallmus, b. 1881 in Vienna, d. 1963 in Frohnleiten, Austria) was an Austrian Jewish photographer and one of the most acclaimed portraitists of fin-de-siècle Vienna. After the war, d’Ora was commissioned to produce a series representing refugees and displaced persons by the United Nations. It was at that time too that she started working on her slaughterhouse series.

 

Tobias Zielony

For Blackbox Wolfen, Tobias Zielony has created a fictional archive of the AGFA-ORWO film factory in Wolfen, combining still images and interviews with former employees who worked in the factory’s darkrooms. Predominantly women, the workers had to perform their tasks in near pitch darkness, in extreme cold or heat, exposed to various toxic chemicals. For the GDR, filmstock represented a valuable commodity that could be traded with the Soviet Union in exchange for silver, oil, and gas. ORWO also supplied cinematographic material to other socialist countries, as well as non-socialist economies such as Egypt and Brazil. One of the biggest export markets for ORWO film was India, which needed stock for its burgeoning movie industry and provided sun-bleached cow bones, used for high-quality film gelatin, in exchange. Today, only a single small company exists in Wolfen, primarily producing a highly specialised black-and-white archival film. Used by the German Federal Archive, the film is said to survive for up to a thousand years once exposed if it is stored in dark and cold environments, such as Germany’s National archive, which is located deep underground in the decommissioned silver mine of

Tobias Zielony (b. 1973 in Wuppertal, Germany) studied photography at the University of Wales, Newport, and later at the Academy of Fine Arts (HGB) Leipzig. He is known for his photographic and filmic depictions of youth and subcultures, which employ a critical approach to documentary photography.

Text from the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

 

Madame d'Ora (Dora Kallmus) (Austrian, 1881-1963) 'Severed cows legs in a Parisian abattoir' c. 1953-1954

 

Madame d’Ora (Dora Kallmus) (Austrian, 1881-1963)
Severed cows legs in a Parisian abattoir
c. 1953-1954
Gelatin silver print
Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

 

Madame d'Ora (Dora Kallmus) (Austrian, 1881-1963) 'Severed calf's head in a Parisian slaughterhouse' c. 1953-1954

 

Madame d’Ora (Dora Kallmus) (Austrian, 1881-1963)
Severed calf’s head in a Parisian slaughterhouse
c. 1953-1954
Gelatin silver print
31.7 × 24.5cm
Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

 

Unknown photographer. 'Raw paper storage, Agfa AG, Leverkusen' 1956

 

Unknown photographer
Raw paper storage, Agfa AG, Leverkusen
1956
C-print, mounted on cardboard
Agfa Collection, Museum Ludwig, Cologne
© Museum Ludwig

 

James Welling (American, b. 1951) 'Gelatin Photograph 45' 1984

 

James Welling (American, b. 1951)
Gelatin Photograph 45
1984
Inkjet print
50.8 × 40.6cm

 

F&D Cartier. 'Wait and See' 1998 - today

 

F&D Cartier
Wait and See
1998 – today
Exposure tests, untreated gelatin silver photographic papers from Leonar, Illingworth & Co., Hans Mahn & Co., Wephota
©F&D Cartier

 

Tobias Zielony (German, b. 1973) 'Dunkelraum' 2022

 

Tobias Zielony (German, b. 1973)
Dunkelraum (Darkroom)
2022
Slide installation
© Tobias Zielony

 

 

Silver

Since the advent of the medium, silver has been the basis of the photographic image and the most important raw material used in the photochemical industry. In the popular gelatin silver process, it is embedded in the gelatin layer of the photographic paper, and the light-sensitive material then registers the image. The final image consists of small particles of metallic silver that turn black when exposed to light, while the unexposed silver halide crystals are washed away.

It was only the automation of production and commercial film development services that enabled photography to become a veritable mass medium. The growing number of amateur photographers caused the industry’s  silver consumption to explode. Photography remained the largest consumer of silver worldwide, even after 1979, when a massive rise in the price of silver led to the development of smaller photographic formats such as 110 film as well as research into digital photography. Photography is interwoven with global trade, the extraction of raw materials, and colonialism. The exploitation of Cerro Rico (“Rich Mountain”) in the Potosí region of Bolivia started back in the 15th century, and until the mid-20th century most silver was sourced in North and South America.

The production of film and photographic paper and its development has always been accompanied by significant environmental pollution, through both its high levels of water consumption and the contamination of waste water with alkalis, acids, and traces of silver. The impact of such pollution is to this day clearly visible in the areas around Eastman Kodak’s headquarters in Rochester (USA) and the ORW Ofactories in Bitterfeld-Wolfen.

The recovery of silver from photographic waste was first developed for economic reasons during the 19th century but was only established as standard practice in photographic production in the 1960s. Today such recycling processes are important – and not just with regard to a single finite raw material.

 

Simon Starling

In his sculptural work, Starling zooms in on the materiality of the photograph, using an electron microscope to single out two silver particles in the emulsion of a historical photo and then rendering them, with the help of a computer program, at a magnification of 1:1,000,000. This rendering is converted into a stainless-steel three-dimensional sculpture that is larger than a person, its seemingly fluid polished surface creating a virtual effect. Starling has described the photograph as a “deposit of matter”, an image produced by an agglomeration of silver particles. His rendering has its origins in the materiality and documentary function of a stereo-photograph showing Chinese migrant workers who had been brought to Massachusetts in 1870 to break a strike in a shoe factory. Made in China because of lower production costs, the sculptures reverse the trajectory in this story of labour migration. The Nanjing Particles can also be regarded, therefore, as a work about the development of systems of global production. Starling treats photographs as material objects that need to be produced and preserved. In the process, photographs activate memory and knowledge, at times revealing stories that have been suppressed.

Simon Starling (b. 1967 in Epsom) studied art and photography at various institutions, including the Glasgow School of Art. He works in the area of conceptual art. Starling’s work draws on models of sustainability and wasteful extravagance to focus on the historical trajectories of exploitation.

 

Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio (Lauren Bon, Tristan Duke, and Richard Nielsen)

The dry expanse of Owens Lake in the California desert is not only the subject of the work by the artists’ collective, it also supplies the material for it. Liminal Prints Buried in Owens Lake shows two large format photographs buried in the mud of the lake, where they are being “developed.” These images are on show in the exhibition along with the utensils used for the purpose. The silver nugget on display is the silver from two years of photographic work – including the exposures from the AgH2O series – that has been recovered from the fixer by a process of electrolysis.

The group of works originated with the artists’ attempt to produce their own photographic materials. The members of Metabolic Studio collected silver from the disused Cerro Gordo mine, harvested halide salts from the bottom of the lake, and processed gelatin from cattle from the region. The darkroom was replaced by the nighttime darkness, and the chemicals by brine from the lakebed, which contains large quantities of sodium thiosulfate, a fixing agent employed since the invention of photography. This rarely occurring element is produced by the microorganisms present there – archaea – which metabolise sulfur. The lakebed develops the images and fixes them at the same time.

To create the photographs in the AgH2O series, the collective used its “Liminal Camera,” a shipping container that has been converted into a large-format camera. The container symbolises the global trade in silver and water and the overexploitation of these resources: the silver from the Owens Valley was mostly used by Eastman Kodak to produce film (the company also supplied Hollywood), while, from 1913 on, the water slaked the increasing thirst of Los Angeles’s expanding metropolis. By 1924, the lake was all but dry. The landscape in the photographs is itself a quotation: we are familiar with the steppe valley from Hollywood westerns and Ansel Adams’s landscape images.

Lauren Bon (b. 1962 in New Haven), Tristan Duke (b. 1981 in Campaign), and Richard Nielsen (b. 1966 in Vancouver) started Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio in 2010: the artists’ collective examines the relationship between Los Angeles and Owens Valley as part of an ongoing process.

 

Daphné Nan Le Sergent

The film L’image extractive (The Extractive Image) intercuts macro photography of a silver surface with black-and-white landscape shots showing silver and gold mining in the Americas. This takes us on a journey to Mexico’s mining regions. The video essay weaves together fact and fiction. It tells the story of how photography was invented: the artist does not begin her account in 1839 but rather starts with the discovery and mining of silver in South America. The film tells of the legendary El Dorado and recounts an alternative story of the medium’s invention set in Brazil, where photographic pioneer Hercule Florence secretly discovered a gold-based process at the same time as French inventors Daguerre and Arago made their own discoveries. This is followed by images of die stamping, of silver’s stock price, and of miners. On the soundtrack, the artist speaks of the photographic industry’s late 19th-century boom, which she associates with the introduction of the gold standard around 1870 and the devaluation of silver. She recalls how the vertiginous rise in the price of silver led to the invention of digital photography in 1985. She also suggests a link between the P. G. Morgan company’s interests in silver speculation and its promotional work in the field of art photography. Her narrative arc ranges from the gold rush to data mining. She uses haunting music to underscore the repetitive loop of images showing gold and silver prospecting and the landscape being scoured in search of gold nuggets. The textual layer of the film uses a staccato verse sequence to tell a hypothetical and speculative story, drawing on a plethora of historical facts from Le Sergent’s artistic research.

Daphné Le Sergent (b. 1975 in Seoul) grew up in Paris. Her work deals with geopolitical issues and the way they inscribe themselves in the bodies of individuals.

Text from the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

 

Unknown photographer. 'Silver bars in the Kodak vault' 1945

 

Unknown photographer
Silver bars in the Kodak vault
1945
Gelatine silver paper
Kodak Historical Collection #003, Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation, University of Rochester
Used with permission from Eastman Kodak Company

 

Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio (Lauren Bon, Tristan Duke und Richard Nielsen) 'Lake Bed Developing Process' 2013

 

Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio (Lauren Bon, Tristan Duke und Richard Nielsen)
Lake Bed Developing Process
2013
© Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio

 

 

On moonless nights on the Owens Valley dry lakebed, to the soundtrack of KPPG Live on the radio, Lauren Bon and Optics Division’s Rich Nielsen and Tristan Duke use the valley as their photographic darkroom. They take light-sensitive photographic paper and bury it for the night in the concentrated salt brine. The lakebed’s bio- and geo-chemistry works on the paper with unconventional developing and fixing properties, yielding unique renderings of and by the lakebed. These unique photographs are developed and fixed by the chemicals in the lakebed, creating warm, earthy, and metallic tones.

 

Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio (Lauren Bon, Tristan Duke und Richard Nielsen) 'Owens Lake Panorama 1' Nd

 

Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio (Lauren Bon, Tristan Duke und Richard Nielsen)
Owens Lake Panorama 1
Nd
Silver gelatin print processed in Owens Dry Lakebed
© Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio

 

Daphné Nan Le Sergent (South Korean, b. 1975) 'L'image extractive' (The extractive image) 2021 (film still)

 

Daphné Nan Le Sergent (South Korean, b. 1975)
L’image extractive (The extractive image) (film still)
2021
Video, b/w and colour, sound, 20′
© Daphné Nan Le Sergent

 

Simon Starling (English, b. 1967) 'The Nanjing Particles' 2008

 

Simon Starling (English, b. 1967)
The Nanjing Particles
2008
Forged stainless steel
200 x 420 x 150cm and 200 x 450 x 170cm
Courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York

 

 

The Weight of the Cloud: Rare Earths, Metals, Energy, and Waste

Digital photography’s materiality is even less visible than its analog predecessor. In 2021, it was estimated that over ninety percent of all images were taken using phones, with more than a trillion images produced that year alone. Most digital images are archived digitally or shared using “social media” platforms, which have developed in parallel with the rise of smart phones and their cameras and are fuelled by their visual content. User data, stored on the so-called cloud, is “mined” by tech companies for targeted advertising. Yet it’s not only data that is mined. The cloud – though advertised as ephemeral and virtual – is heavy with metals and waste. Digital photography relies on a vast material network: from the mining of metals and rare earths used for electronic circuitry to elaborate supply chains operating on a global scale, data storage facilities with ever-growing carbon emissions, and, ultimately, vast amounts of electronic waste. Fifty-four million tons of e-waste were generated in 2019 alone, with Northern Europe being responsible for the highest per capita waste globally. Most of it is exported to lower-income countries, causing environmental damage and increasing health risks. A single smart phone can require up to 75 elements for its production (out of the 118 elements in the periodic table), many of which – such as gold, tin, cobalt, coltan, and tungsten – are considered “conflict minerals,” whose trade involves forced labour and finances armed militias. Even small quantities of metal necessitate large amounts of mining: it has been estimated that 34 kilograms of ore would have to be mined to produce the metals that make up a single 129-gram iPhone.

 

Lisa Rave

Structured like a nautilus shell, with layers of narrative gradually unfolding and echoing each other in the process, Lisa Rave’s Europium makes visible connections between Papua New Guinea’s colonial past and the planned excavation of the rare earth element Europium from the Bismarck Sea. Using a combination of historical found footage, interviews, and performative sequences, the essay film revolves around the rare earth Europium, whose fluorescent qualities are used to validate European banknotes and to ensure the brilliance of colours on flat-screen surfaces. Pointing to the human and ecological violence inherent in the extraction of so-called resources and their transformation into monetary value, Rave directs her anthropological gaze back toward our own society, exposing the ghosts of the past as they appear in the technologies and screens that surround us.

Lisa Rave (b. 1979, London) is a Berlin-based artist and filmmaker. Rave studied experimental film at the University of Arts Berlin and photography at Bard College, New York. In her work, Rave connects the histories of colonial domination with current forms of extraction and ecological violence.

 

Mary Mattingly

Combining chalk-drawn maps of global supply chains, satellite imagery, staged photographs of sculptural assemblages, and documentary images, Mary Mattingly’s series Cobalt – a selection of which is shown in the exhibition – is an attempt to comprehend a system of immense scale, scope, and complexity that remains hidden in plain sight. Over 60 percent of the world cobalt extraction, the “blood diamond of batteries,” takes place in the Democratic Republic of Congo in dangerously precarious conditions. The extracted metal, mined predominantly as a by-product of copper or nickel, is purchased by Chinese manufacturers, who process and then retail it to clients in the consumer market. Cobalt is then used in our phone’s sensor components and lithium-ion batteries of all kinds (from laptops to vacuum cleaners to electric cars). Capable of withstanding extreme heat, the mineral is also used in weapons and alloyed steel and has been classified as a “strategic mineral” by the US, in an attempt to encourage its local mining and production. In Mattingly’s work, we can see different stages in cobalt’s life cycle: mineral seepage visible in an exposed cliff face; a recently opened mine in Michigan, whose manmade structures protrude from the natural landscape; an ore transportation station. Weaving them all together is an elaborate map, tracing its supply chain across its different stages. Mattingly’s work seeks to address the ways in which we are inevitably entangled in the violent and extractive logic of neoliberalism and its ecological toll. Through her attentive mapping, we see how even forms of critical representation are dialectically bound to a mode of production wrought by ecological devastation and radical inequality. It is only by recognising these conditions, Mattingly suggests, that we can begin to work toward changing them.

Mary Mattingly (b. 1979, Connecticut) studied at Parsons School of Design, New York, and the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon. Mattingly creates photographs, sculptures, and large-scale public art projects that address climate change, thereby tracing connections between the social and economic forces behind the current political ecology impacting our environment.

 

Lisa Barnard

In the “The Fox and the Rooster” section of her extensive project The Canary and the Hammer, Lisa Barnard uses documentary photography to examine the economy of waste surrounding the precious metal gold. One of the most expensive materials on earth, gold is used in making our smartphones, cameras, and televisions, turning worn-out devices into a precious commodity. However, e-waste contains not only precious substances but also some that are extremely poisonous – metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, which are highly toxic for both humans and the environment. China, which is responsible for 10 million tons of toxic substances every year, is one of the world’s largest sources of e-waste as well as its biggest importer. In her research, the artist looks at China’s trade in illegal e-waste, in which gold is extracted from old devices using aqua regia, a highly explosive mixture of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid, whose name is derived from its ability to dissolve the precious metals gold and platinum. An illustration of this reaction can be found in alchemist Basilius Valentinus’s treatise “The Twelve Keys,” which was published in 1599. The work contains a woodcut showing a rooster (symbolising gold) eating a fox, which in turn is eating a rooster. The gold is dissolved not by the acid itself but rather by the products it creates when it reacts with the precious metal. Barnard’s choice of title thus makes reference to the potential dangers involved in recovering gold as well as to the mysterious aura that still surrounds it, even in the recycling loop that is a feature of the modern tech economy.

Lisa Barnard (b. 1967) studied photography at the University of Brighton and critical theory at the University of South Wales. Her documentary practice is concerned with current debates about materiality and global capitalism.

 

Mari Lebanidze, Cleo Miao, Leon Schweer, Marco Wesche with the mentoring of Prof. Christoph Knoth and Prof. Konrad Renner of the University of Fine Arts (HFBK) Hamburg – Digital Graphics class

Using the same sort of facial recognition technologies employed by tech companies to mine behavioural data for speculative value, Terraformed Self tracks exhibition visitors’ behaviour. Having identified people using their smartphone, the interactive installation informs visitors about their own contribution to the ecological footprint of digital image production using a playful game-like animation. How many selfies have been taken in front of this screen? How much carbon dioxide are they responsible for? What is the equivalent of a minute of scrolling on Instagram? While the work seems to invite visitors to take the obligatory exhibition selfie in front of the large, mirrored structure, it offers a sobering reflection on how our daily smartphone habits are implicated in a planetary system of resource extraction. The work is accompanied by an Instagram face filter – using the platform to reflect on its own footprint.

Digital Graphics class. Against the backdrop of omnipresent digital forms that mingle with artefacts from the past, the class, led by Prof. Christoph Knoth and Prof. Konrad Renner of the University of Fine Arts (HFBK) Hamburg, explores the integrity of modern technologies and conceives visual models in the context of culture and digital possibilities.

Text from the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production' at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

 

Installation view of the exhibition Mining Photography. The Ecological Footprint of Image Production at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg showing the work of Mary Mattingly

 

Mary Mattingly (American, b. 1979) 'Eagle Mine' 2016

 

Mary Mattingly (American, b. 1979)
Eagle Mine
2016
© Mary Mattingly

 

Mary Mattingly (American, b. 1979) 'Ore Transport Station' 2016

 

Mary Mattingly (American, b. 1979)
Ore Transport Station
2016
© Mary Mattingly

 

Lisa Barnard (British, b. 1967) 'Broken mobile phone screen, Shenzhen, China' 2018

 

Lisa Barnard (British, b. 1967)
Broken mobile phone screen, Shenzhen, China
2018
© Lisa Barnard

 

 

Events in the history of capitalism, ecology, and photography

With excerpts from the time line compiled by Lukas Egger and Nils Güttler for the exhibition “Nach uns die Sintflut (After Us, the flood)” at Kunst Haus Wien

1492 Columbus arrives in the Americas, setting in motion a process described as the “Columbian exchange”: the movement of diseases, ideas, food, crops, and populations between the New World and the Old World brought about by European colonisation.

1556 Dere Metallica (On the Nature of Metals) by Georgius Agricola (Georg Bauer), is published. Illustrated with over 270 woodcuts, the treatise quickly became the authoritative text of its day on mining and helped popularise technical knowledge in the field.

1717 The German polymath Johann Heinrich Schulze (1687-1744) is the first to demonstrate the photosensitivity of silver salts.

1776 James Watt’s steam engine, originally invented and perfected to be used in mines, is introduced. Signalling the advent of the first industrial revolution, steam power allows for previously labour-intensive forms of production to become mechanised, especially in the textile industry. Coal is now an increasingly important energy source.

1800 While traveling in Venezuela, Alexander von Humboldt is one of the first scientists to describe the harmful effects of Human-induced climate change and its relation to colonialism, observing the adverse effects of the deforestation brought about by Europeans on the local soil quality and the moisture levels in the atmosphere.

1807 Claude and Nicéphore Niépce obtain a patent for the Pyréolophore (from Greek: pyr = fire, aeolos = the keeper of wind, and phore = carrier) one of the earliest internal combustion engines, fuelled by coal mixed with resin.

1827 Joseph Nicéphore Niépce produces the first Heliograph (Greek for “writing with sun”), by dissolving light-sensitive “bitumen of Judea,” a semi-solid form of petroleum, in oil of lavender, and applying a thin coating over a polished pewter plate.

1838 The first steam-powered crossing of the Atlantic ocean.

1839 Louis Daguerre presents the Daguerreotype before the French Académie des Sciences.

1840 William Henry Fox Talbot submits his first patent for an internal combustion engine titled “Obtaining Motive Power”. By 1852, he had registered four additional engine patents.

1844-1846 Wiliam Henry Fox Talbot publishes “The Pencil of Nature”, widely considered to be the first commercially published photo-illustrated book.

1846 Nitrocellulose (also known as “gun cotton”) is patented. It is used as an explosive in mines, as well as for the production of early – infamously flammable – cellulose film. It led to the invention of thermoplastic.

1851 A staggering 893,000 daguerreotype plates are produced in Paris alone in only one year. Converted to the standard portrait size of a quarter or eighth plates, 3-8 million portrait images could betaken.

1859 British glaciologist John Tyndall begins a series of laboratory experiments to demonstrate the significance of atmosphere gasses – including CO2 – for global warming.

1862 Writing for the US magazine Atlantic Monthly, Oliver Wendell Holmes estimates the annual consumption of precious metals for photography at ten tons of silver and half a ton of gold.

1870 Start of the Second Industrial Revolution, the electrification of production processes and of spheres of private life begins. Crude oil becomes increasingly important as a fuel for powering combustion engines.

1872 The correspondent of the English journal The Year-Book of Photography describes various methods of silver recovery from the developer fluids of photochemistry – for example, by reducing silver nitrate with the help of charcoal or by burning the papers and dissolving the ash with nitric acid and water.

1877 Founding of the Moorversuchsstation (Moor Experiment Station) in Bremen, the first NGO to campaign against moor burning. The first provisions pertaining to air pollution control are issued in a number of countries.

1888 The Eastman Kodak Company introduces the Kodak No.1 camera model, marking the beginning of the industrial processing of photographs in the laboratory. Advertised with the slogan “You press the button – we do the rest!,” the new camera and the company’s service relieved photographers of the chemical processing of their photos, introducing photography to a popular audience.

1901 The discovery of the Spindletop oilfield in Texas marks the dawn of the age of crude oil in the United States, which soon takes on a global dimension with the discovery of large oilfields in the Middle East and Venezuela.

1913 Henry Ford introduces a continual assembly line for the first time in automobile production, boosting productivity eightfold.

1945 The United States drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, heralding the beginning of the “nuclear age.” In the 1950s, the first commercially used nuclear power plants are introduced.

1947 Physicist Edwin Land introduces the firs tPolaroid camera in the USA.

1948 In their books Road to Survival and Our Plundered Planet, ornithologist William Vogt and palaeontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn warn of the devastating ecological consequences of global industrial capitalism.

1958 At the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, atmospheric scientist Charles David Keeling begins to take regular measurements of the CO2 concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere. The data provides the basis for the Keeling Curve, which is now regarded as the measurement-based evidence of anthropogenic contribution to global warming.

1970 In the United States, some 20 million people take part in the first-ever “Earth Day”, an international day of environmental campaigning. The following year, the Greenpeace environmental organisation is founded in Vancouver.

1975 The first digital still camera is developed by Eastman Kodak’s engineer Steven Sasson.

1980 In what came to be known as “Silver Thursday,” silver prices reach an all-time high and immediately crash. Following a decade-long surge, which leads manufacturers to search for ways to reduce their dependency on the precious metal, a speculative frenzy sends the price up 713% within a year.

1992 The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development is held in Rio de Janeiro. Along with the 1972 Stockholm Conference, it is considered a milestone in the political implementation of global environmental and development efforts.

1993 The US office of industries lists photography as the principal application for silver in its yearly report, accounting for over 50 percent of U.S. silver fabrication demand that year.

1999 Toshiba launched the Camesse, the first cell phone with an integrated camera, which paved the way for much faster and broader communication based on pictures.

2000 Nobel laureate chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene F. Stoermer describe the effects of humans on the global environment as constituting a new human-dominated geological epoch: the Anthropocene. According to Crutzen and Stoermer, the Anthropocene started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, which marks the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. As they write, this date also happens to coincide with the commercial introduction of James Watt’s steam engine in 1786.

2010 Instagram is launched.

2011 Economist David Ruccio first publishes the term Capitalocene, describing capitalism as the driving force behind climate change.

2013 For the first time, a majority of the digital images produced are taken on phones.

2017 According to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 12.6 million people die each year worldwide as a result of industrial pollution. The worst affected regions are South-East Asia, the Western Pacific, and Africa.

2018 In Sweden, schoolgirl and environmental activist Greta Thunberg initiates the “Skolstrejk för klimatet”, which soon resonates world wide and leads to the global “Fridays for Future” movement.

2020 It is estimated that 1.4 trillion digital images have been taken during 2020 alone, over 90% of which are taken on phones.

2030 In order to limit global warming to 1.5°C – a target meant to stave off severe climate disruptions that could exacerbate hunger, conflict, and drought worldwide – global greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2025, at the latest, and be reduced by 43 percent by 2030.

Text from the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

 

 

Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg
Steintorplatz, 20099 Hamburg

Opening hours:
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23
Oct
22

Exhibition: ‘Between skin & shirt: The photographic portraits of William Harding’ at the National Library of New Zealand Gallery, Wellington

Exhibition dates: 26th May – 29th October 2022

Curator: Fiona Oliver

 

 

William James Harding (New Zealand, 1826-1899) 'Businesses of Harding and Richardson, Ridgeway Street, Wanganui' c. 1870s

 

William James Harding (New Zealand, 1826-1899)
Businesses of Harding and Richardson, Ridgeway Street, Wanganui
c. 1870s
Wet collodion glass negative
6.5 x 8.5 inches
Negatives of Wanganui district
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

 

 

Buildings on Ridgeway Street, Wanganui, circa 1870s, including that of W J Harding, photographer, and Mrs Richardson, dressmaker.

William Harding’s studio, Ridgeway St, Whanganui, c. 1870s. He used this studio from 1860 until 1889, when he left for Sydney. His collection of 6,500 glass-plate negatives were nearly dumped by the studio’s new owner but were rescued by a relative of Harding’s and the Whanganui Museum. They were bought by the Turnbull Library in 1948.

 

 

Reclaiming the light

A fascinating posting on the portrait photographs of New Zealand photographer William Harding (New Zealand, 1826-1899), which “provide a detailed picture of Whanganui society from the 1850s to the 1880s, and are a rich source of information relating to Māori and Pākehā individuals and their relationships at a formative time in this country’s history… He’d come to New Zealand from England as a coachbuilder in 1855, along with his wife Annie. He tried his hand at cabinet-making, and in 1860 set up a photographic studio in Ridgway St, Whanganui.”1

In the main the photographs are the usual Victorian colonial fare of formal studio portraits of white settlers (Master Percival Thomas Scott), the standing or sitting subjects posed with props on linoleum floors against rolls of plain paper or painted backgrounds staring straight into the camera lens or obliquely off into the distance. Harding’s portraits never flatter to deceive: “Harding’s sitters are also largely unsmiling. But their faces are alight, staring down the camera, eyes aflame. Sometimes they look peevish, bored or exhausted. There seems to be little inclination towards idealisation. Harding refused to retouch his photographs as other commercial photographers did. Faces are weathered and freckled; clothing is often ragged, mended or borrowed, illustrating the hardships of colonial life… The women, men, children, families and other groups who sat for him are shown with sensitivity and honesty.”2

Occasionally the framing is more interesting, as in the negative space which surrounds the profile portrait of [Miss] Scott (Between 1870-1889, below), the placement of the figure within the pictorial frame in Mrs Gillen (1870s, below), or the closeness to the subject so that the strong face fills the frame in Unidentified Maori man, with moko, Whanganui district (1860s, below). Group photographs are also taken outdoors against hanging rug or fabric backdrops which are pinned to the exterior of weatherboard houses, probably as Harding travelled around the district or was commissioned to take the family portrait. As with other colonial portrait photographs from around the world, treasured possessions such as photographs, sewing machines, clocks, birds, bibles, and books are placed on covered tables to signify their importance in the colonists lives. 

What is undeniable is the wonderful, casual yet almost crystalline presence that Harding’s sitters possess… no doubt due to his perception as a human being and a photographer, to his association with the community in which he lived, and to the clarity of the glass plate negatives that he produced. In this regard you only have to look at the portrait of Mr Plampin (17 August 1883, below) in all his Dickensian glory to understand what a great photographer William Harding was… in his ability to convey with perspicacity the personality of the sitter, that bright spark that was their life.

Through his portrait textures and tonalities there is a sense of the people who populate that place, but more than that, there is a sense of our own fragility and mortality. A feeling of anOther existence for our life if we had been born into such worlds. It is a little disappointing then that none of Harding’s many photographs of pairs of men are present in the exhibition, such as the photograph with the dog on the front of the book Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand by Chris Brickell (2009), which is a Harding image (see photograph below).3 Hidden histories indeed!

As interesting, and just as problematic, are the portraits by a white photographer of the Māori and their artefacts, indigenous Polynesian people of mainland New Zealand (Aotearoa). First of all can I say that I am not an expert in the field of colonial photography of First Nations peoples including the photographs of the Māori of New Zealand. This is a complex and contested terrain requiring specialised knowledge of ancient histories, cultures and memories, where the reclaiming and becoming is being undertaken mostly by scholars and First Nations peoples and artists.

Having said that, what I can observe is that ALL photographic histories of colonised peoples – whether it be for example photographs of Indigenous Australians, indigenous people of the United States or African colonial photographs – are contested terrain which needs to be reclaimed by ancestors: from the posing of “conquered” people; to the gaze of a white male photographer; to the “impartial” gaze of the machine; to the possession of the body and artefacts of the possessed through the physicality of the photograph; to the scripting of a particular un/reality, a story photographers wanted to tell; to the scientific, anthropological measuring of physiognomies (anthropologists were interested in documenting hair styles and scarification marks, as well as tattoos, moko, and facial characteristics); to the representation of many cultural items and ancestors that have been stolen; to the photographs ability to “show us today some things that we may no longer have access to and give us a window into eyes of real human beings who were in the process of losing the lives they had known for centuries.”4 To name just a few terrains and identities that need to be reclaimed.

Very briefly, in the history of New Zealand (and the “new” in the title speaks for itself, despite the fact the Polynesian people of Aotearoa had been on the islands for centuries before the British), in 1841 “representatives of the United Kingdom and Māori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi, which in its English version declared British sovereignty over the islands. In 1841, New Zealand became a colony within the British Empire. Subsequently, a series of conflicts between the colonial government and Māori tribes resulted in the alienation and confiscation of large amounts of Māori land.”5

Although there was only “estimated a scant 1100 Europeans in the North Island in 1839, with 200 of them missionaries, and a total of about 500-600 Europeans in the Bay of Islands” compared with an estimated population of 30-40,000 Māori by 1870, with the arrival of new immigrants and the issue of land-ownership, Justice Minister Henry Sewell (in office 1870-1871) described the aims of the Native Land Court as “to bring the great bulk of the lands in the Northern Island […] within the reach of colonisation” and “the detribalisation of the Māori – to destroy, if it were possible, the principle of communism upon which their social system is based and which stands as a barrier in the way of all attempts to amalgamate the Māori race into our social and political system.” By the end of the 19th century these goals were largely met – to the detriment of Māori culture.”6

There are many complexities around colonial photography – on both sides of the lens – and the decolonisation of collections and museums / galleries in general is a difficult area. “The ‘archival turn’ of the 1990s has brought increased scrutiny to the practices of collecting, collating, and classifying photographs and artefacts – procedures that are now sites of contested histories.”7 Despite the repurposing of the colonial archive and the decolonisation of historical images, we must accept that the Māori people photographed in Harding’s portraits were subjected to the colonial gaze: “Originally photographed and collected to document a so-called primitive race or culture, or as part of tourism and government programmes of protection and assimilation, the colonial archives remained inaccessible to First Nations peoples until recent decades.”8  We must acknowledge the usual myths (for example, that authentic Māori culture was about to be or had been lost through Māori degeneration – the myth of the dying race) and stereotypes presented by colonials who “discovered, created, propagated and romanticised the Maori world at the turn of the century summed up in a popular nickname describing New Zealand; Maoriland [in which] the culture of Maoriland was a colonists creation…”9 but we must also acknowledge (as with Indigenous Australians10) the part Māori played in manipulating colonial myth-making for their own purposes, that “Māori were not merely passive victims: they too had a stake in this process of romanticisation…”11

But as Indigenous Australian artist Brook Andrew observes, “There is an urgent need for First Nations peoples to control their representation, both contemporary and historical, and for Indigenous knowledge to be recognised. For too long, negative or romantic representations of First Nations peoples have proliferated in primitivist discourse and museum displays to naturalise the colonial project and its aftermath…”12 According to a friend who works in a museum in New Zealand, “It would be fair to say that, despite us having the Treaty of Waitangi, there is still a lot of cultural trauma here. There are lots of attempts at redress, and strong work being done by contemporary Māori artists (including photographers) to reinterpret colonial views, give voice to the harm done, and find ways to move forward.”13

She continues, “Outside of the museum/gallery, in local marae (meeting houses), photographs of ancestors are a way to connect with them quite tangibly. This is positive. Most marae display photographic portraits illustrating the whakapapa (geneaology/lineage) of their iwi (tribe) and hapu (sub-tribe). Some have many photos hung along all the walls of the whare, and others are only brought out for tangihanga (funerals). Photographs are often removed from the wall and travel to other marae for big events. So on a vernacular as well as a ritual/spiritual level, they have an important and valued role invoking the presence of people now departed.”

There is never a definitive answer to these complex questions and the ground will forever remain contested terrain, full of the possibilities of re-territorialisation and remembering. But this visual language of race can be reinterpreted with respect, honour and grace, serving “as inspiration for artistic production in New Zealand that centres Indigenous frameworks, concepts, and worldviews” that prioritise storytelling and lived cultural practices which elaborate “the Māori values and principles that should underpin both academic and community research, particularly where photography is concerned.”14 Yes, simply yes!

The photographic portraits by Harding of Māori emphasise the fact that their story is not one of the distant past but is one of “a present-day reality populated by real people with mana, knowledge, history, integrity, and a legitimate grievance against the Crown’.15 “As Christopher Morton and Elizabeth Edwards have demonstrated, the medium [photography] is defined by its incessant ‘recodability’ and, while photographs have been valued for recording a past moment, photographic images also perform in the present, often in unexpected ways. When it comes to legacy images, I can examine the conditions around their making, but I can also consider their contemporary uses and meanings. This is a method of rewriting history to account for Indigenous loss and survival, and also to think through the absences in the photographic record.”16

“In Roland Barthes’s words, it is ‘that someone has seen the reference […] in flesh and blood‘. The relation between metal compounds and light in analogue photography means they are an ’emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here’. Ethnographic photographs can reveal trauma, when viewers connect with the bodily presence of those photographed, recognise a life that matters, and implicate themselves in the history of dispossession. However, the trauma includes the violent framing of First Nations peoples.”17

“In sum, for Aboriginal and Māori artists and communities, photographic archives offer a rich source of history, counter silence and exclusion, and provide a means to explore many issues that remain in the present. Archival images are tangible and powerful relics that provide a link with the past and bring it concretely into our time. This is the power of photographs: to address absence, to reconnect relatives with each other and to Country, and to heal. As Wiradjuri scholar Lawrence Bamblett argues, photographs link people in the present, as well as connecting them to places and the past; they ‘fit into the joyful scene of people telling stories’. The history of broken families and the dispossession and control of Aboriginal people remain contested, and often absent, from national stories and visual histories, but these silences are filled by the solidity and presence of photographs.”18

To me, the saddest photograph in the posting is that of an Unidentified young maori girl (Between 1856-1889, below) in which the unknown has a traditional hairstyle yet wears Western clothes (some Māori disdained to wear a Pākehā garment when being photographed) and has a crucifix around her neck. The pensiveness of the hands and the desolate look on her face says it all… they speak of sadness “not because of what she’s doing or where she is, but something ages ago, like there is a long, long deep sadness.”

And yet the strongest photographs of Māori women are two other portraits: in one, Unidentified young Maori woman with clear chin moko (1870-1889, below), the unknown wears Western dress but stares comfortably, defiantly at the camera displaying her clear chin moko (her heritage, her culture) with her hands relaxed on her lap, her presence undeniable / her undeniable ‘presence’; and in the other, Unidentified Māori woman (c.1880, below), the unknown also wears Western dress and stares determinedly at the camera (that stare reaching through the centuries), the white-tipped tail feather of the huia in her long natural hair (these feathers were prized above all others as head adornments, and signified chiefly status) – her ringed hand resting comfortably across her chest, the hand over the heart a gesture emblematic of honesty, she displays her tā moko tattoo, a unique expression of her cultural heritage and identity.

Present, alive, full of energy, an emanation of the referent, a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here.

From past into present into future.
From past time into present time into future time.
From past (representation) into present (reclamation/reconfiguration) into future (change).

Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Footnotes

  1. Fiona Oliver. “Off the record | William Harding, ‘photographist’,” on the National Library website July 28th, 2022 [Online] Cited 23/08/2022
  2. Ibid.,
  3. For more photographs of men and pairs of men by William Harding please see Stephen O’Donnell. “Young gentlemen of Whanganui – photographs from the studio of William James Harding, New Zealand, circa 1856-1889,” on the Gods and Foolish Grandeur blog, Sunday, May 30, 2021 [Online] Cited 20/10/2022
  4. Email to the author, 1st June 2018 from Executive Director Shannon Keller O’Loughlin (Choctaw) of the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA)
  5. Anonymous. “New Zealand,” on the Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 18/10/2022
  6. Anonymous. “Māori culture,” on the Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 18/10/2022
  7. Elizabeth Edwards and Christopher Morton, ‘Introduction’, in Photography, Anthropology and History: Expanding the Frame, ed. Christopher Morton and Elizabeth Edwards, Farnham: Ashgate 2009, pp. 1-24 footnoted in Jane Lydon and Angela Wanhalla. ‘Editorial’, in History of Photography Volume 42, 2018 – Issue 3: Indigenous Photographies. Guest Editors: Jane Lydon and Angela Wanhalla, pp. 213-216
  8. Michael King. Māori: A Photographic and Social History. Wellington: Reed 1996, p. 2 quoted in Helen Brown (2018) “‘I Depend More on Photographs to Help Me Along’: The Ngāi Tahu Portraits in Lore and History of the South Island Maori,” in History of Photography, Volume 42, 2018 – Issue 3: Indigenous Photographies. Guest Editors: Jane Lydon and Angela Wanhalla, pp. 288-305
  9. See Roger Blackley. Galleries of Maoriland: Artists, Collectors and the Māori World, 1880-1910. Auckland University Press, 2018
  10. See Jane Lydon and her important books Eye Contact: Photographing Indigenous Australians (2005) and Photography, Humanitarianism, Empire (2016) where she unpacks the historical baggage of the colonial portrait photography of Indigenous Australians and notes that the photographs were not solely a tool of colonial exploitation. Lydon articulates an understanding in Eye Contact that the residents of Coranderrk, an Aboriginal settlement near Healsville, Melbourne, “had a sophisticated understanding of how they were portrayed, and they became adept at manipulating their representations.”
  11. Roger Blackley Op cit.,
  12. Brook Andrew & Jessica Neath (2018). “Encounters with Legacy Images: Decolonising and Re-imagining Photographic Evidence from the Colonial Archive,” in History of Photography, Volume 42, 2018 – Issue 3: Indigenous Photographies. Guest Editors: Jane Lydon and Angela Wanhalla, pp. 217-238
  13. “Artists draw upon the archive to retell or transform national histories that have omitted or denigrated Indigenous people.6 In addition, Indigenous photographers have provided a new perspective on past and present by revealing marginal experiences, asserting Indigenous capacity and addressing the losses and fractures of historical processes such as assimilation.”
    Jane Lydon. ‘Transmuting Australian Aboriginal Photographs’, World Art, 6:1 (2016), pp. 45-60; and Ashley Rawling, ‘Brook Andrew: Archives of the Invisible’, Art Asia Pacific, 68 (May/June 2010), pp. 110-17, footnoted in Jane Lydon and Angela Wanhalla. ‘Editorial’, in History of Photography Volume 42, 2018 – Issue 3: Indigenous Photographies. Guest Editors: Jane Lydon and Angela Wanhalla, pp. 213-216
  14. Elizabeth Edwards and Christopher Morton, ‘Introduction’, in Photography, Anthropology and History: Expanding the Frame, ed. Christopher Morton and Elizabeth Edwards, Farnham: Ashgate 2009, pp. 1-24 footnoted in Jane Lydon and Angela Wanhalla. ‘Editorial’, in History of Photography Volume 42, 2018 – Issue 3: Indigenous Photographies. Guest Editors: Jane Lydon and Angela Wanhalla, pp. 213-216
  15. Ibid.,
  16. Brook Andrew & Jessica Neath (2018). “Encounters with Legacy Images: Decolonising and Re-imagining Photographic Evidence from the Colonial Archive,” in History of Photography, Volume 42, 2018 – Issue 3: Indigenous Photographies. Guest Editors: Jane Lydon and Angela Wanhalla, pp. 217-238
  17. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1981), London: Vintage 2000, pp. 79-80 (original emphasis) quoted in Brook Andrew & Jessica Neath (2018). “Encounters with Legacy Images: Decolonising and Re-imagining Photographic Evidence from the Colonial Archive,” in History of Photography, Volume 42, 2018 – Issue 3: Indigenous Photographies. Guest Editors: Jane Lydon and Angela Wanhalla, pp. 217-238
  18. Elizabeth Edwards and Christopher Morton Op cit.,

.
Many thankx to the National Library for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Book cover of 'Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand' by Chris Brickell

 

Book cover of Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand by Chris Brickell which is a Harding image.

 

William James Harding (New Zealand, 1826-1899) 'Two unidentified men' c. 1888

 

William James Harding (New Zealand, 1826-1899)
Two unidentified men
c. 1888
Glass negative
Negatives of Wanganui district
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

 

Please note: photograph not in exhibition.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Between skin & shirt: The photographic portraits of William Harding' at the National Library of New Zealand Gallery, Wellington

Installation view of the exhibition 'Between skin & shirt: The photographic portraits of William Harding' at the National Library of New Zealand Gallery, Wellington

Installation view of the exhibition 'Between skin & shirt: The photographic portraits of William Harding' at the National Library of New Zealand Gallery, Wellington

Installation view of the exhibition 'Between skin & shirt: The photographic portraits of William Harding' at the National Library of New Zealand Gallery, Wellington

 

Installation views of the exhibition Between skin & shirt: The photographic portraits of William Harding at the National Library of New Zealand Gallery, Wellington
Photographer: Mark Beatty for Alexander Turnbull Library Imaging Services

 

 

Looking at Harding’s portraits

French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said that ‘The most difficult thing … is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt’. William Harding achieves just that. Harding diligently applied his art to reveal the person behind the formality of appearances. In the setting of his studio, his subjects are luminous.

The portraits in this exhibition have been selected from the nationally significant Harding collection of over 6,500 glass-plate negatives held by the Alexander Turnbull Library. The photographic portraits William Harding took in his Whanganui studio from the 1850s to the 1880s come to us with such startling immediacy that we find ourselves looking, it seems, at someone we might know.

 

William James Harding (New Zealand, 1826-1899) 'Reardon child' c. 1870s

 

William James Harding (New Zealand, 1826-1899)
Reardon child
c. 1870s
Glass negative
4.25 x 3.25 inches
Negatives of Wanganui district
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

 

William James Harding (New Zealand, 1826-1899) 'Master Percival Thomas Scott and his sister, of Feilding' April 1878

 

William James Harding (New Zealand, 1826-1899)
Master Percival Thomas Scott and his sister, of Feilding
April 1878
Glass negative
4.25 x 3.25 inches
Negatives of Wanganui district
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

 

 

Photograph taken by the studio of William James Harding, Whanganui. Accession register gives girl’s name as Elizabeth Jane or Annie Scott and her age as 6 years. Percival’s age is given as four years.