In the 1930’s and 40’s, George Platt Lynes was the best-known fashion and portrait photographer in the U.S. He was also producing an abundance of male nudes that he circulated among friends and occasionally published in the Swiss homosexual magazine Der Kreis under the pseudonyms Roberto Rolf and Robert Orville. Over time, the male nudes became his most valuable artistic endeavor. The photographs we have come to associate with Lynes are often his highly staged studio images, which he crafted with exacting control over the smallest detail. These images display his inventive use of diffused lighting that seems to come from everywhere and yet from nowhere. Idealized and perfected, bodies and faces are wrapped in light and shadows, their contours defined with precision by the spaces around them.
Lynes had been diagnosed with lung cancer in May, 1955, just a few weeks after his 48th birthday. The rest of the year was in many respects a free fall to his death. He had gone through tiring radium treatments during the early summer. “I’m taking 20-odd kinds of pills,” he wrote to his friend Samuel Steward that summer while resting at his family’s home in Egremont, Massachusetts. “There are terrible pains in my chest, as if an elephant were sitting on me.” With his debts mounting, he spent those last few months destroying negatives of his fashion and portrait work. But his male nudes were saved from this fate. What he could barter away to cover outstanding debt, he did. He continued to sell works to his friend Alfred Kinsey, who purchased nearly 600 prints and negatives.
In September, he traveled to Paris, the place that had enchanted him three decades earlier when, barely eighteen years old, he’d first encountered the expatriate community there, befriending Gertrude Stein for a friendship that would last for some years. Lynes referred to this final trip as his “sentimental journey.” His hair, prematurely gray for most of his adult life, was dyed black for the trip. His voice was raspy. On his return to New York in November he entered the hospital again. He smoked in his room, not caring about the nurses’ complaints. He would be dead by December.
The funeral, held at St. George’s Church in Stuyvesant Square, New York, was crowded with friends and lovers—many of whom he had photographed. He was buried in the family plot in Woodlawn cemetery near his father, whose own early death in 1932 had forced Lynes to turn his interest in photography into a serious livelihood.
Over the last fifty years Lynes has moved from obscure fashion photographer to celebrated pioneer of homoerotic photography. Who would have imagined at the time of his death that Lynes would be resurrected to such a status? Perhaps the one person who did was Lynes himself. His final acts of editing his legacy—the destruction of most of his commercial prints and negatives—speaks to his concern about how we, generations later, would come to regard his work.
An extensive show of his celebrity portraits was mounted by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1960 by his longtime friend Lincoln Kirstein. “His portraits are his greatest work,” Kirstein wrote in the exhibition catalogue. Through his social circle in New York, Paris, and in the late-1940’s Hollywood, Lynes photographed most of the celebrity figures from the world of film, literature, and the arts, everyone from Lilian Gish to Edward Hopper, Burt Lancaster, Colette, Igor Stravinsky, and Gertrude Stein. But by the late 1960’s and 70’s, there was little interest in Lynes’ work from either galleries or collectors. Occasionally his photographs found their way into group shows, notably a few exhibits on the male nude in the mid-70’s. In 1973, Kirstein published The New York City Ballet: Photographs by Martha Swope and George Platt Lynes, which showcased his innovative way of capturing dancers while in movement. It wasn’t until 1981, however, with Jack Woody’s publication of George Platt Lynes: Photographs 1931—1955, that Lynes’ resuscitation truly began.
Wrote fashion photographer Bruce Weber: “I always believed that Lynes photographed a lot of men who knew how to fix a car, but the difference was that he made them look as if they had gone to Yale.” Lynes’ experiments with lighting and composition gave his images an idealized quality. For him, photography was far from a simple act of documentation. Rather, it was about turning the mundane into the beautiful, of making the beautiful ideal. It was privileging a way of looking, immortalizing the act as much as the subject. Eventually, this experience blurred the line between photographer and camera. “I’m the damned soul of my damned camera,” he wrote to Bernard Perlin in 1954.
Later in his career, Lynes continued to explore the ways in which the camera can transform the naked bodies of his subjects. Seldom overtly sexual, his photographs of naked men have little to do with nakedness itself. Indeed, Lynes’ camera transforms the male body from something to be desired to something more distant, something to be looked at and pondered.
Being a long time admirer of George Platt Lynes’ controversial art, I am quite enthusiastic to announce that https://www.controforma.it/ online curated art gallery has just added a new lot by this photographer to its fine collection:
Original vintage photogravure, composed in 1952 and printed somewhat later, on high-grade archival paper affixed to a thin acid-free sheet. Stamped with the artist’s name, verso. The stunning composition “Herbert Bliss” refers to Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”.
“…if ever I am to be a successful photographer, exuberance and fantasy, or qualities of that order, will be the making of me, rather than calculations and impassivity”.
– George Platt Lynes
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