On Some of my Favorite Photographers
Since having written this in graduate school several years ago, I have been lucky enough to see some quite extraordinary photography exhibitions in my new home, New York City. I went to see the Speed of Life retrospective honoring Peter Hujar’s work at the Morgan Library and Museum recently along with William Eggleston’s Los Alamos series at the Met. Before that I was amazed by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of India at the Rubin Museum. I have also been incredibly impressed by Emma Elizabeth Tillman’s work and, most notably, her recently published collection of photographs entitled Disco Ball Soul. All of these photographers have inspired me to take a look back at this piece I wrote where I discuss some of the artists who made an impact on me as a college student.
Man Ray, Guy Bourdin, Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, and Cindy Sherman are fabulous photographers and artists. Only one out of the list is extant and it’s a woman—Cindy; too bad she’s crazy as hell (well not really, but her photos will haunt you, at least while you’re looking at them.) These photographers mean a lot to me; their art has struck me in a, I guess, profound way (I know that sounds pretentious). Art has a funny way of making you feel like an insider very quickly, as if you’re in on the joke and aware of something that had always seemed hidden, taboo or off limits. Susan Sontag said that “to collect photographs is to collect the world.”
Man Ray was born in the late 1800s; he was an American who changed his name. He was actually a sort of mentor for Guy Bourdin, the Seneca to his Nero. Their partnership, luckily, did not end with a bathtub and forced suicide—opened veins (slit wrists) was how Seneca chose to die (one can see this referenced in The Godfather II). Man Ray is probably most well known for Observatory Time, The Lovers and Tears. À l’Heure de l’Observatoire, les Amoureux (Observatory Time, The Lovers—the title is also en français because most of Man Ray’s career took place in Paris) was shot in black and white in 1934 (now, it is very well-known for being strikingly colorful—the lips are bright red); later, in 1936, it was re-vamped for Harper’s Bazaar. The lips hovering in the sky belonged to Man Ray’s muse Lee Miller.
The photograph is of a skyline that is filled with thinly distributed, sparse clouds and a hovering pair of enormous lips that float in the sky; they are closed tightly as if they dare not reveal a secret. Maybe they inspired Belinda Carlisle to sing Our Lips are Sealed. (I actually saw her live with the Go-Go’s several summers ago on their reunion tour; she was dressed completely in white; her skirt was long and Boho; she was barefoot. She looked like an angel—an angel who had had some work done and lots of Botox and an angel with a druggy past—but an angel nonetheless).
Beneath the lips, in what seems to be an entirely different section of the photograph, is a chessboard with pieces that haven’t been played and a nude woman lying beside it, on her side. All that can be seen of this woman is her figure from the back: thin shoulders, a straight back, hip bones that protrude just enough, a beautiful bottom and a long pair of gams. I don’t believe in living a bourgeois life style—this is why these photographers are so important; all of them exemplify what it means to live a fabulous existence that isn’t ruled by societal norms that can be, I imagine, very suffocating. According to Rainer Werner-Fassbinder, in his meta-fictitious film Beware of a Holy Whore, (and I’m paraphrasing here) “the saddest thing is when you realize just how bourgeois you really are.”
Man Ray’s Les Larmes or Tears features the upper-portion of a woman’s face—forehead to nose; she appears to be crying. There are no real tears on her face; instead there are what appear to be glass beads glued to her face. Her eyelashes are false; they are long and the tips have tiny bulbs on the ends—like a spider’s legs. Her eyebrows are drawn-on, pencil thin. It is visible that her real eyebrows are thin but not tweezed perfectly; some hairs have begun to grow in and they look sloppy.
Lee Miller was frequently photographed by Man Ray—in black and white, nude, with metal accessories (what appears to be an arm-brace in some, a metal hat in others). Man Ray’s photos of nude women sprawled across floors are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen—long hair falls in such a way, a necklace’s charm falls to the back of one’s neck and only a delicate chain can be seen; it is now a choker. Natural hair in some of the most beautiful, secretive places looks soft and always European. I don’t like the too-fit look as much as I love natural looking women. They say that even Greta Garbo didn’t look perfect when she undressed; she looked like a real person.
The surreal and sensual quality to Man Ray’s photographs is unmatched. His Self-Portrait with “dead” nude taken in 1930 features the artist lying just below the hips of a woman; her face is cloaked in hair. Just below her left breast, she appears to be bleeding (the blood has been drawn onto the photograph and looks very unreal, almost surreal). This is from the La Prière series that features the back side of a nude woman while praying; her hands are beneath her heart-shaped bottom, and that’s all we see. What else is there that one would want to see?
Robert Mapplethorpe took photographs of everything: portraits of many famous people, flowers and precious children. What he will probably always be remembered for are his sex photographs, especially his X portfolio. To say that Mapplethorpe is controversial or avant-garde is passé; he’s been dead since 1989 and it’s time to move on. He took photographs like this, he said, because he wanted to capture that feeling in art that he got when he saw “physique” pictures wrapped in cellophane in adult magazine shops when he was still a closeted teenager. That feeling you get in the pit of your stomach I guess—anyway, it’s visceral.
A Mapplethorpe photograph is clean, sharp, well-lit, precise and spot-on. It’s unflinching and doesn’t make excuses. Uncircumcised cocks spilling out of unzipped trousers are the same as irises in a clear glass vase on a table. The Man in the Polyester Suit, whose penis is hanging out of his pants, is a very-well known photograph. The man’s identity is hidden; all that can be seen are from above his knees to his chest—his hands are revealed as they hang limply at his sides. The man is black—Mapplethorpe did more for race politics with his erotic photographs of nude black men than Malcolm X ever did by speaking about non-passive resistance (well, not really).
The X portfolio is one not to be looked at with your parents, although my mother has looked at it in depth and we talked about it as if it were the weather; she doesn’t quite understand the Fist Fuck photographs but, then again, neither do I. After all, I have no desire to be elbow-deep in ass, literally. Sadomasochism is something not to be taken lightly. It is something that I know nothing about (other than what I’ve read in books including legitimate texts and Freud’s On Masochism or seen in photographs or in films). It is based upon humiliation, though. I know that that is what is (usually) sought after, whether it’s conscious or otherwise. Mapplethorpe said that the people in his photographs were not exhibitionists and he was not a voyeur. For him, sex was an experience that had “no parallels anywhere.” It went “beyond any experience” that he “knew of otherwise.”
These people who were photographed actually got their kicks doing these things: people drinking urine in the photographs did this in their spare time (it really does take all kinds). People really did engage in a Double Fist Fuck (which is well documented in the X portfolio). People wore leather masks and chains; they strung up their genitals; they bloodied themselves and drove metal pins through their nipples. There is a photograph of a man’s penis and testicles caught in a steel trap as they are being hammered into place by another man. They dressed as babies (which is sad and hilarious). They engaged in Sucking Ass.
They enjoyed a Clothespinned Mouth and loved the smell of leather. Nipple clamps abound in these photographs (and are attached to chains and pulled until it looks as if the skin would tear) and dildos come as big as bowling pins (well, maybe not quite that big). Getting your rocks off can be done in a myriad of ways; subcultures are explored in this photography that many people may not know of otherwise. Sex culture, Gay culture, S&M culture: if it’s a legitimate part of the world that consumes people, then it shouldn’t be kept in the dark.
I quite like Mapplethorpe’s Mr. 10 ½. It makes me chuckle—a ten and one half inch dick on a table; anyone who sees this and isn’t a devout lesbian will always be comparing this mister to other misters; women may lie in bed at night dreaming of Mr. Right (yeah—Mr. Right and Mr. 10 ½ are one and the same). This man has a tiny devil with a pitchfork tattooed on his right bicep; this is almost too good to be true. It’s trashy. It’s campy and it’s cheesy. It’s too fabulous to be real. I have learned to really appreciate the art of bad taste. There is also a scary photograph with a man shoving the tip of a very sharp knife into the head of his penis—it instantly induces a foul grimace when I see it. I feel pain for the poor man; at least his act of self-injurious behavior is documented forever and available to be seen by millions (even at our very own Longwood University Greenwood Public Library).
Mapplethorpe said that he didn’t like the word “erotic.” He said, “I think it’s pretentious. ‘Erotic Art’ – either it’s art or it’s not art. Erotic Art seems to connote something that isn’t quite good enough to be art.” This statement jolts me for some reason; I agree completely. Sometimes, when I say that I’m not an academic or an intellectual, it’s because I want to have an artist’s eye, to be able to see something that others don’t, can’t or are incapable of seeing. Something that has always stuck with me is something that I heard in the film My Left Foot with Daniel Day-Lewis. He portrayed the Irish artist Cristie Brown, who also happened to be a quadriplegic.
In the biographical film, a character says that Cristie isn’t a great quadriplegic artist, but simply a great artist. His work stood on its own and was wonderful no matter what the circumstances were under which it was created. When I was in Ireland at Glasnevin Cemetery viewing Michael Collins’ grave, I heard that Cristie Brown was buried there as well. I looked and looked (there really wasn’t enough time and there were so many old gravestones; the names and dates were hardly legible on the majority of them) but I never was able to find his grave. That’s something that I regret not seeing.
This is what a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph can convey. It’s a feeling that you can’t quite describe. It’s a little death, un petit mort, that feeling that’s the same as anxiety—as if there’s a slight current of electricity charging on the roof of your mouth, just beneath the skin. It’s a metallic taste, like pennies or blood, when arousal becomes completion. A Mapplethorpe self-portrait contains a very tongue-in-cheek funniness as well as provocation; at least the one with the bullwhip does. He is standing with his back to the camera, his head is turned looking into the lens and he is wearing leather chaps (aren’t all chaps ass-less?); there is a bullwhip strategically placed, actually shoved, into an orifice (you can guess which one). It’s as if he’s some sort of demon with a long, leather tail with a serious look on his face, all the while he must be thinking I’m in on the joke.
There are also beautiful cunnilingus photographs, but I don’t have enough space to talk about them. I think that’s a perfect way to transition to Guy Bourdin. I had my first Guy Bourdin experience in the place of his birth, in the most beautiful city in the world—Paris, France. I was a seventeen year old high school senior on a tour of France. I was walking down the Champs-Élysées with my sister Angela and some fellow students on a beautiful spring day when I came across a Parisian magazine stand with a copy of L’Official magazine on display; I needed a fashion magazine fix pronto. I immediately bought it and, inside, there was one of the most beautiful photographs I’ve ever seen in my life. Ever since seeing it, I’ve been a devoted lover of Guy Bourdin’s photography.
It’s a photograph that I never tire of looking at. It hangs on my bedroom wall. It was taken in 1976 for Vogue Paris of a beautiful girl wearing lingerie by Les Nuits d’Elodie. She’s lying on a white background on her back with a beige telephone. The rubber cord runs down the length of her incredibly thin body and through her partially spread legs, the cord slightly catching itself in her labia (majora not minora).
She is only wearing pale pink, silky underwear that look almost like a vintage boy short. They are a slightly sheer and her pubic hair can be seen, but only barely and if you look very closely. Her bare chest is as flat as a pancake—she’s all nipples. The phone receiver is pressed to the right side of her face as she licks it with her pink tongue—her glossy pink lips match perfectly. Her makeup is simply to die for: blue eye shadow and lots of bubblegum pink blush. She has long curly, fiery red hair and long, sharp pink fingernails. This look of a redhead on the telephone (licking the receiver) is iconic and has been recreated by Yves Saint Laurent for his Rive Gauche perfume.
The photograph is erotic, playful, innocent and candy-colored. In other words, it’s perfect. Guy Bourdin was sometimes called the Master of the Macabre and a fashionable genius. He worked regularly for Vogue and took Beauty photographs along with his Fashion photographs. Some of my favorites include: a nude woman on a bed while the floor is littered with pink condoms, like rose petals. A frizzy-haired girl shows off a dancer’s move (very à la All that Jazz) with her legs spread in front of a pink wall; she is wearing a black onesie and silvery high heels. Her face is done in classic Guy Bourdin-style makeup: lots and lots of blush, glossy red lips, dark eye shadow with a lot of lash and stenciled eyebrows. All of his girls either have either red or pink manicures.
There’s a photograph of a woman doing an acrobatic pose, almost a bridge, against a sofa with a framed photograph of John Travolta (era Saturday Night Fever) at her feet (clad in shiny, bright red sling backs). Her legs are spread open, her dress is hiked to her waist so that her stockings and garter-belt are revealed and her face is displaying a toothy, deliriously happy, orgasmic grin. Women seem to be falling off the edges of things in Bourdin’s photographs; all that can be seen in some are legs swathed in fishnet and infamous “fuck me” heels that are about to be part of the inevitable carnage. There are women who appear to be bleeding red paint from their mouths as they lie like cherubs, face down, against backdrops with their palms facing the sky and a perfectly painted face.
Some of Bourdin’s women appear to be straddling trees in a field of wild flowers, model airplanes and toy dolphins. Enormous tubes of Dior lipstick appear in the foreground of shots, but that’s not phallic at all, is it? All of Bourdin’s photographs are colorful and simply pretty to look at; they are also playful and, at times, morose. A red corseted body appears next to a man exhaling a plume of smoke while the lower half of a naked woman is trapped beneath a bed with a pink coverlet and a baby elephant plush toy, trunk up. A woman appears to have been struck dead by doctor’s office art; a skinny pale body is holding cellophane-covered roses tightly between her thighs while the reddest blood you’ve ever seen seeps from an electrical outlet. A woman tied to a tree is bleeding from her nipples in a Christ-like fashion.
Finally, Cindy Sherman and Helmut Newton could not be more different. Newton says that he was very inspired by vulgarity and bad taste, but most of his photographs are legendary in the world of high fashion; they aren’t vulgar at all. He took many photographs of fetish fashion, such as black patent leather fuck me pumps that Joan Crawford made famous, masks, chains, women tied up with ropes (including Tina Chow),women with pistols in their mouths and women wearing neck and leg braces. He took portraits of handcuffed women, women on beds saddled like horses and women on crutches with steel-rods in their legs. His women that were entirely covered in metal-armored casts directly inspired Lady Gaga for her Paparazzi music video. There are women having sex with Doberman pinschers.
One of my favorite Helmut Newton photographs is probably one of his most rare: it’s called Kiss and was taken in Los Angeles in 1985. A woman straddles a man lying on a bed; she’s wearing a silver mask and black opera gloves. His eyes are covered with thick, black glasses and he’s wearing a studded dog collar. They are kissing. It’s erotic but not vulgar and sweet but not at all common or saccharine. It embodies hard-core fashion and an industrial aesthetic.
Finally, there’s Cindy Sherman. I quite like her black and white film-stills; they are her earliest work. She always photographed (and still does) herself; she doesn’t use models. In the photos, she is dressed as B-movie starlets; she is always in character. She never looks the same. As her work progressed and she started to work with color, she continued to take photographs of herself in character, but the characters became darker, more obscene and more outrageous. In her Centerfolds, her characters are more troubled and desperate looking. In her Fashion photographs, she is more avant-garde and experimental. It is her Fairy Tales and Disasters that are even more disturbing and grotesque. She plays the part of a character with a hideous, long red tongue and the Disaster shots are sometimes called “disgust” pictures. Some are photographs of rooms with vomit-covered carpet, decaying corpses and blow-up dolls surrounded by garbage.
Sherman has taken photographs of hideous masks that she makes herself. There is one of a deformed baby and, I swear, it’s like looking into the eye of Beelzebub himself. It is her Sex Pictures, though, that are probably the most outlandish and experimental. She uses plastic dummies, not real people (except for one photograph) and they are always broken, like her Broken Dolls. These mannequins and dummies are arranged to look as if they are engaging in sex acts. One photograph is of a connected torso, one end is female, the other male. The female end has a tampon lodged into the vaginal orifice; there is a detached head watching the entire scenario unfold. Grimacing faces fill the majority of her work, whether they are plastic or plaster.
Cindy Sherman is definitely one of a kind. In real life, she is very beautiful and her artwork compels me. She is one of the most famous contemporary female artists who deal with difficult concepts living today; she’s definitely a New York favorite. The first time I saw her photographs, they were a bit scary and silly to me, but I liked them. I accepted them as something interesting and different. She is not my absolute favorite, but I respect her. If one is in the mood for an “easy” Cindy Sherman viewing experience, I would recommend her Film-Stills, Hollywoods and Hamptons types, or Rear Screen Projections. If one does not like clowns, they will not like Cindy Sherman’s take on clowns; they are uncanny and hallucinatory.
I respect all the artists that I have mentioned because art is my life. Art makes a life worth living. According to Ingmar Bergman, without it, we can “all go to hell.” The photographs that I have mentioned or explained in detail prove that beauty isn’t always pretty. Beauty is always worth seeking. If something is raw and pure, then it is beautiful (doesn’t that sound very Keatsian?) and important. I’m not interested in blasé experiences; only if it is the emotional equivalent of a punch in the gut do I want it hanging on my wall.