‘Hidden Master’ Rightfully Places George Platt Lynes in the American Photography Canon | lpstrkl.com

‘Hidden Master’ Rightfully Places George Platt Lynes in the American Photography Canon

Photographer George Platt Lynes, born in 1907, was self-taught but shot portraits of Gertrude Stein (she called him “Baby”), Jean CocteauTennessee Williams and countless Hollywood heartthrobs. He was a well-regarded fashion photographer and worked for the likes of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Henri Bendel. He was also the primary photographer for the New York City Ballet, and it’s said that Balanchine considered Lynes a leading figure in the image-making process and visual iconography of the company. Perhaps more importantly, though less known, he was also the first photographer in America to specialize in the male nude.

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So why has Lynes largely been regarded as a secondary figure in the history of photography? Hidden Master, a documentary directed by Sam Shahid (now available on Apple TV+), tries to answer this question through extensive interviews with photographers, gallerists, artists, curators and representatives of the Kinsey Institute and makes a strong case for Lynes’s artistic merits both as a Modernist photographer and as a representative of the Queer community.

SEE ALSO: Two Curators On How the National Museum of Asian Art’s “Staging the Supernatural” Came to Be

Rebecca Fasman, a curator at the Kinsey Institute and manager of their traveling exhibitions division, told Observer that she was only “vaguely aware” of his work when she first joined the institute, which owns one of the largest collections of his works. “He was such a sensual person, and imbued his photos with this sensuality.”

A slim man wearing nothing but a white t-shirt poses with one knee up
A riff on the classical male nude by George Platt Lynes. Courtesy of A Precious Few LLC

Artistically, Lynes was not just an aesthete emulating 20th-century Neoclassicism. Rather, his style combined the trend with Surrealism in domestic settings—he often shot in his own apartment. “You see him lighting bodies to highlight musculature and skin, to make people look the best that they can look but not robotic, not flat—like full humans with skin and bones and muscle,” Fasman explained. “There are a lot of images where he specifically highlights parts of the body other photographers maybe wouldn’t focus on, such as body hair… he plays so much with hard and soft lighting.”

Fasman points to a backlit Rückenfigur shot of Bill Harris, one of Lynes’s muses, where the lighting highlights the peach fuzz on Harris’ thighs and bum. This creativity extended to his fashion work. For a 1949 campaign for Henri Bendel showcasing a bedazzled bolero and a taffeta ballgown, Lynes has a wicker basket propped on the model’s head and it’s overflowing with straw and doves. Through his lens, she’s no longer just a figure wearing a dress, Fasman said. “It’s this human person who is presented in front of you in a way that makes you take notice.”

Lynes was, unbeknownst to many even today, part of a strong cohort of Queer artists who defined American Modernism. Along with Lynes, there was Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, the painter Paul Cadmus and the Russian-born Surrealist and set designer Pavel Tchelitchew. It’s helpful, said Fasman, to think outside of categories when looking at this group of artists who often worked in multiple mediums. In a way, this echoes the modus operandi of Les Ballets Russes in Paris in the prior decade. You could, for example, have a high fashion designer working on ballet costumes where the needs and the priorities are different. “There’s also this joy in their work, which I think gets us past the kind of droll sad bleakness [of the 1930s], and that’s quite refreshing,” she added.

It’s worth noting that the photographer was far from being a marginal figure in that decade. His portraits of notable cultural figures from the 1920s and 1930s led to exhibitions including a solo show at the Julian Levy Gallery. Lynes’ work was also featured in MoMA’s seminal “Murals by American painters and photographers” exhibition in 1932. Additionally, his private practice of male nude photography took off after he started shooting for the New York City Ballet, which provided him with plenty of models.

A nude Black man hugs the abdomen of a nude white man
Male nudes by George Platt Lynes. Courtesy of A Precious Few LLC

“There is a really lovely and deep sense of connection that I feel between many of these artists, and Kinsey was part of this, too; he saw it and thought, ‘Everyone is making work together,’” Fasman said. “It’s a really special thing, where the interdisciplinary component doesn’t just pertain to the creative aspect of what people did, but also their interest in science and research.”

Circling back to why Lynes didn’t become a Mapplethorpe ante litteram, the conclusion reached by scholars and by the documentary is, quite predictably, that he operated in the wrong place at the wrong time. His homoerotic work remained wholly private in his lifetime and was only passed to the Kinsey Institute after he died in 1955. That was intentional—when the photographer started actively thinking about his legacy, he realized that the institute would be a safe space where his work could be preserved.

We also need to consider that, unlike the storied art-historical tradition of the female nude and its varying socially acceptable degrees of eroticism, the male nude, unless patently classicized and sterile—a heroic nudity or a physique shot—was considered until relatively recently too threatening to be the subject of fine art. There was a resurgence of interest in his work in the 1970s and 80s, and it’s clear that Lynes gave subsequent photographers the visual vocabulary to play with the male nude: photographers like Bruce Weber and Robert Mapplethorpe are, to some degree, indebted to George Platt Lynes’s visual vocabulary. “The first thing I bought was a George Platt Lynes from Ileana Sonnabend,” Weber said in a 2010 interview in The Art Newspaper. In the current era, Matthew Leifheit and Paul Sepuya reference Queer Modernism and Lynes in their oeuvre.

“George Platt Lynes’s balance between softness and hardness in photography is deeply prevalent today,” Fasman explained. In the past six years, exhibitions like “Passages” curated in 2018 by Nick Mauss at the Whitney and “The Young and Evil” at the David Zwirner Gallery in 2019 make a strong case for Queer Modernism, alongside the Kinsey Institute’s own “Sensual/Sexual/Social: The Photography of George Platt Lynes.” These and other shows have slowly brought Lynes’s work to the fore, but a retrospective at a major institution is long overdue.

Filed Under: ArtsPavel TchelitchewBruce WeberMatthew LeifheitPaul SepuyaBill HarrisGeorge Platt LynesPaul CadmusLincoln KirsteinQueer ArtTennessee WilliamsJean CocteauPhotographersGertrude SteinRobert MapplethorpeDocumentariesPhotography

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