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Shade, smoke, texture, flesh

Peter Wells on the photographs in <EM>Anonymous Bodies</EM>

<P data-associrn="43927"></P> <P>The first thing that strikes you with all the photographs in the exhibition <EM>Anonymous Bodies</EM> is that there are no faces. The one fully visible head is turned away, so the blank back of the head hides the face. The second thing is that these bodies are nearly all in a state of undress. This immediately informs us about the danger of the naked human body. The third interesting thing is that the photos (with one exception) are presented through the classic medium of black-and-white. This is in stark contrast to the fact our bodies are made of flesh, and flesh is coloured with a variety of hues. The colour of the flesh continues to be highly significant in terms of how that body is valued or devalued. </P> <P>Turning flesh into black and white renders the body cool. It implies a degree of distance, even of desexualising. We are meant to consider these bodies not in an evaluative way (does she or he turn me on?) but in a much more detached way that relates to pattern, texture, shape, and classical art forms like sculpture.</P> <P data-associrn="37901"></P> <P><STRONG>Shade, smoke, texture, flesh</STRONG></P> <P>The two male nudes in particular evoke a lustrous history of Greek statuary. In his 1988 photo <EM>Tyke – Upper St Regis Lake, NY</EM>, Bruce Weber seems to imply that his subject is about place and not the sinuously curved body of a man. (What is he doing? Washing his hair? Yet he seems caught in an attitude of guilt.) Another title could be ‘Narcissus’ – the legendary Greek youth who fell in love with his beautiful reflection in a pool and drowned. Weber is a filmmaker as much as a photographer, and this photo could almost be a still from one of his atmospheric, black-and-white movies: like <EM>Let’s Get Lost</EM>, his 1988 documentary about the drug-addicted jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, it is a tone poem in shade, smoke, texture, flesh.</P> <P data-associrn="irn"></P> <P>Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1983 photo <EM>Ken Moody</EM> is slightly strange in that it gives a person’s name to what is essentially a turned back – the gesture of rejection. This could be a Greek statue lacking arms, the eye sliding down to the emphatic buttocks outlined by a G-string. There's a monumentality here – a deep seriousness, which comes from the erotic force of concentration. Here is one (undisclosed) human looking intensely at another human’s shape. Where are his arms? What is he doing in this pose? It comes as quite a surprise to see, in a 2011 interview on YouTube, the statue turn into a human who speaks. The Ken Moody who speaks and moves is entirely human, his gestures ordinary, and his blackness is offset by the startling pinkness of his palms. Somehow this human is both more available and infinitely less mysterious than the eternally silent black man with his back turned in this monumental photograph.</P> <P data-associrn="186958"></P> <P><STRONG>Still lives</STRONG></P> <P>Most of these photographs are gelatin silver prints; as such, they aspire to the mystery of the silent movie, the silver screen. Each is like an image from a missing black-and-white classic. All we have left is a single, enigmatic still. From that one still, we have to read everything, imagine everything, invent the rest of the story. Except we have one other aid. The title. <EM>Suspect in the back of a police car, New York City</EM> (1978) tells us a lot. Its very blankness informs us that the subject comes from a documentary, not a drama. Yet because it features a semi-naked body and handcuffs it has a certain erotic charge. A young man is captured. The body – and the gaze at the body – is inherently anarchic. The mind will not sit still. It goes off on a daydream. It makes up its own movie. So even here, where the subject contains a social critique – a young man is on his way to a life-changing event at a police station – there is still this other, anarchic narrative happening. He could just be on his way to a party.</P> <P data-associrn="187345"></P> <P><EM>Soldiers searching bus passengers, Northern Highway, El Salvador</EM> (1980) immediately delivers a stern, rebuking title. Susan Meiselas, the photographer, works in a similar documentary tradition to Leonard Freed in <EM>Suspect in the back of a police car</EM>. (Freed’s photograph is taken from a documentary series about New York police; Meiselas’s is from a body of work shot in El Salvador when it was plunged into civil war.) Yet her approach to the human body skates away from obviousness. <EM>Soldiers searching</EM> is an enigmatic, troubling image. What is happening? Is it a dream? It appears threatening, a frozen moment. Why didn’t the documentary photographer swivel her camera round to photograph actual people – not their reflections?</P> <P data-associrn="187429"></P> <P>The same photographer eludes ambiguity to deliver brazen matter-of-factness in <EM>Carnival strippers, Essex Junction, Vermont</EM> (1973). Different subjects require different treatments. In <EM>Soldiers searching</EM>, the shadowy prisoners imply non-being. The women’s bodies in <EM>Carnival strippers</EM> are not ambiguous. Flesh is their business. This is the flat, documentary gaze, supposedly without the gauze of lighting effects. Its prosaic glance asserts ‘this is the truth’. Meiselas may consciously have chosen such a flat way of lighting and looking to demystify what is often glamourised – women’s bodies, as created through the longing gaze of men. Instead, her visual shorthand asserts that we are looking not at ‘glamour’ but a variant of almost brutal sexual work. It just so happens the work stands in relation to that most explosive and unstable unit of meaning – the human body. </P> <P>How well does photography manage to evoke the power of flesh, its magnetism and its melancholies, its ecstasies and moments of failure? In all these photographs there is a tension between ‘this is the truth’ and ‘this is what my eye is interested in’. Where the eye travels instinctively is an X-ray of desire. </P> <P><STRONG>Less is more</STRONG></P> <P>It is worth pointing out all these photographs come from a pre-digital world. They exist in the static and (relatively speaking) highly composed world of physically vulnerable negatives and positives, made when photographic effects were difficult to obtain. The internet and Photoshop have bypassed the singularity and even seriousness of these gestural photographs. Sexting and selfies have introduced a candour that stands completely outside their relative reticence. (It is an interesting comment, too, that Te Papa is wary of nude images, and only sometimes includes naked images in its Collections Online, and this at a time when the internet is an open door offering images of virtually every variety of sexual act known to humanity – and some almost unknown, I would venture.)</P> <P data-associrn="187476"></P> <P>Hamaya’s <EM>Woman planting rice, Toyama, Japan</EM> (1955) is the polar opposite of this explicit, promiscuously productive, endlessly accumulating digital universe. It is an almost defiant framing of the body of a woman involved in hard physical work. She is wading against the weight of water. She is literally standing up to her knees in mud. She is not wearing clinging, soft clothes. Her clothing appears padded. She has no head, no eyes, no mouth – not even a neck. But there is an erotic force in the sheer liveliness of her body. You could call it life force. And the almost defiant cutting off of any identifying features – face most of all – renders her body into a broad, almost symbolic statement: a symbol of strength. This is what I mean by the reticence of these photographs. In that lies their real and secret power. Less can be more.</P> <P data-associrn="irn"></P> <P>Jan Saudek’s <EM>Man holding newborn baby</EM> gets its power, too, from its restricted framing. It is not a family snap concentrating on smiling faces. The powerful physique of the young man contrasts with the focus of the photograph – the utter vulnerability of a newborn baby. The father tenderly supports the baby’s too-heavy head, but his gaze is almost sternly averted. Love is ambivalent in this image, possibly soon to be withheld. And the baby’s intense fragility – that tiny finger, the way the feet struggle to get a hold on the man’s jeans – is contrasted with the glossy swell of the young man’s biceps. The biggest contrast, however, lies outside of the photograph. In the whole history of art there are very few images of fathers being tender to babies. It is traditionally women’s work. So this father holding newborn babe, an image recreated in a popular poster a decade later, marks a break in gender roles and expectations. This is where it gets its real power. It delivers news.</P> <P><STRONG>The gaze and the image</STRONG></P> <P>Every photo is the result of the gaze. It follows that there is a serious eroticism in some of these works, as opposed to the flat, frequently brutal delivery of information in internet pornography. In this pre-digital world we are looking at restriction (framing, reduction of colour, stillness, careful selection), and this careful act gives added power to the image. Edward Weston’s 1934 portrait of his future wife, Charis Wilson, frames her breasts as fixatedly as Mapplethorpe marshals the gaze towards a pair of male buttocks framed by a G-string. (Where the eye travels instinctively is an X-ray of desire.) But the gaze shapes the image, even refines and abstracts it. Hot eroticism meets cool structure and shape. Barbara Morgan’s elegant 1935 image of a headless and armless Martha Graham dancing could easily be a Greek statue in all its sinuousness, abstraction, and timelessness.</P> <P data-associrn="irn"></P> <P>So many of these photos imitate the glance, for the erotic glance is swift but penetrating, like the light that enters the lens of a camera to reproduce a fleeting image on a negative. John Gutmann’s <EM>Out of the pool</EM> (1934) and Bill Brant’s <EM>London</EM> (1953) are like quick darts of sight, almost illicitly taken. But the coolness of the black-and-white medium saves these erotic glances from the aura of perving. They aspire to something more timeless. The films they are part of are all classics (although Brandt’s <EM>London</EM> may hint at a Hitchcockian level of obsession in its strange perspective, which is about both longing and disgust). So each of these stills – and they are all monumentally still – mark a kind of triumph. A flat, one-dimensional, colour-restricted medium using carefully selected views of anonymous flesh to evoke the most explosive and unstable unit of meaning – the human body. </P> <P>This, finally, is the point of this exhibition: the marriage of opposites, the extremely careful and precise presentation of something so completely anarchic and fragile – ever growing, ever decaying – as the human body, flesh. But by cutting off identifying faces, these photographs – the earliest from 1934, the latest 1988 – mark a transition towards the frankness of the present. They utilise discretion to amp up their power. Less is more, as I have said, in these strangely ambivalent images. </P> <P>Flesh melts away and we all die, and new humans are born into the paradox: how to make sense of what we experience. </P> <P><STRONG><FONT size=2>Endnotes</FONT></STRONG></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2> Jan Saudek’s Man holding newborn baby was recreated in 1987 as photograph by Spencer Rowell, similarly depicting a shirtless man (model Adam Perry) holding a baby. The photograph was published as a popular poster by British company Athena Posters, who sold millions of copies.</FONT></LI></OL> <P><BR/><STRONG>Peter Wells</STRONG> is a film-maker and author whose works have consistently spoken with a personal voice and an individual vision. His latest book is <EM>Journey to a Hanging</EM>, an evocation of justice and injustice during the colonial period. The book is part photographic, part essay, part memoir, and part drama acted out within the confines of our own urgent history.</P>

Barbara Morgan, Martha Graham - 'Ekstasis', 1935, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 1984 with New Zealand Lottery Board funds.
Full object info is available on