Naked Girls (continued)
The better to enjoy the breeze and the sun of a
continued perfect day we wandered down LaBrea Avenue, window shopping
and stopping for coffee at stores that sold everything from furniture, to farm
implements, clothes and cappuccino. Young, much tattooed and nose and navel
beringed salespeople thoughtfully help with our purchases.
What interested me, transplanted New Yorker
that I am, was the number of armed guards stationed at the entrance or in the
windows of so many establishments. I am not used to seeing this much visible
firepower. In New York, if memory serves me, one might on occasion see a
security guard in a store, but usually without obvious weapons. It
made us look around a little more carefully as we strolled.
It wasn’t far to the Fahey Kline Gallery,
which we almost missed because we couldn’t find the door and were misled by
the windowless, fortress-like appearance of the front of the building. A
little intercom with a buzzer bore the name of the gallery but after three
rings there was still no answer. As a last resort we gave the door
handle a tug and found that it opened. (What courage!) Inside a
receptionist failed to look up from her work and we ambled unmolested around
the gallery which was clearly in the midst of an installation. Stacks of
pictures leaned against the walls six and ten deep. Helper boys lifted and
carried and received instructions. Phones rang and people rushed about,
oblivious of two strangers stooping low to get a better look at the images of
dead elephants, tigers, naked native girls, crocodiles and mud.
The work was familiar. Where had we seen the
bones of that half eaten elephant before? But these images were
different. Many of them were altered and painted and bordered in squiggly,
cartoon, semi-Steinberg like drawings, or smeared in what appeared to be
Some had collaged elements of indeterminate
materials, many had barely readable text written in black ink by a fine hand
in calligraphic strokes. We read quotes from Rilke, notes from diarys,
short essays, long sentences meandering across images of the plains, the
river, the long grasses and the people and animals of Africa. We cringed
at descriptions of lions grabbing and eating a man from the station, and
afterwards the sounds of their satisfied purring rumbling in the dark
night. We dared to rifle through a few of the stacks the better to see
the images in back.
"Can I help you," said the nice
"Clearly the show hasn’t opened
yet," we allowed, distressed to think that we might have to make the
drive back to see the work.
"No it hasn’t, but you can come back
next week," she said helpfully.
We played our one card. "We’re here to
review the show."
"Let me talk to the Director,"
she said disappearing and then quickly reappearing from a back room.
"Come right this way," she motioned. "The photographer is here
and you can talk to him."
Thus we were introduced to Peter Beard who with
the director and several others was in the middle of a stand up picnic lunch
atop flat files and frames. "Grazing," Beard explained,
"Nice to meet you."
Friendly, a little frail, garrulous, good
looking, slightly wobbly and with pizza in hand, Beard escorted us for a
few minutes around the room before he was called away to other matters.
"This one has one of my actual
bandages glued on down here," he said, pointing to a mushy
patch of debris in a large photograph of vague grays and blacks washed over
with a brick red liquid. "And you can see where the mold is
"Whose blood?" I inquired.
"Oh, a cats,’" he laughed.
Of course we knew the story. World
renowned, friend of the famous, fashion photographer, Africa traveler
and champion of the elephants - despite in recent times being charged by
one, trampled, badly injured and nearly killed, but recovered, now rising like
a phoenix to tell the tale and return to his work.
We had happened upon a fifty year
retrospective. Fifty years, we wondered? The man didn’t look a day over
sixty, and he wasn’t.
All the familiar images were there, and some
not so familiar. A gruesome picture of two disembodied human legs and some
bones in a cardboard box entitled "The Remains of William Olsen (Cornell
Graduate)". A large intricately worked portrait of Karen Blixen,
whimsical animals and figures painted and drawn around the border of the
famous face, glowing eyes in an almost skeletal head. And other
small gems - a diptych of Jackie Kennedy shot head on, her clear wide eyes
laughing into the lens and then holding a Nikon to her face to shoot the
photographer. A triptych of a young John Kennedy in cutoffs, maybe age
12, running, leaping with joy to greet someone with a hug.
The famous models were there also, wild women
posing in the wild with animals looking fierce and conquering. Brigitte Bardot
, Maureen Gallagher, Paula Barbierie, gorgeous as ever. And then a young
Beard, strikingly, classically, handsome, gorgeous too,
beautifully young, pictured writing with deep concentration in his journal, a
tanned Tarzan, back muscles rippling, seemingly oblivious to the jaws of a
huge crocodile wrapped around his lower torso. Another of a young African
woman, perhaps a teenager, a small shell hanging in the middle of her
forehead, intricately braided hair, jaw set, firm hand on hip, large perfect
bare breasts upturned, clearly not a model, but more beautiful.
And finally two images on the announcement.
Beard, age 23 dressed in a preppy jacket and khaki pants (He is a Yale
graduate,) leaning aslant like the tower of Pisa in a fuzzy landscape titled
"John Palmer’s 1700’s Vermont House, 1961" In the image
that follows he falls, a blurred figure about to hit the earth, the house in
the background now sharp and clear. What are we to make of the significance of
this ancient image, made when he was a boy, perhaps even before he went to
Africa? Has shelter, the house, the home, come more into focus for him?
Is the wandering world traveler, trouble seeker, romancer, visionary and
animal savior, ready to come to ground?
Heaven and the Potential for Hell
Our last stop is the exhibit of John
Dugdale’s work at the Stephen Cohen Gallery, fortunately not far away. We
head a few blocks over, the sun still high in the sky but now we are
acutely conscious that it is 2:15pm.
I once read a book about a woman who was born
with a disease that prevented her from moving or speaking. Diagnosed as
retarded she was put in an institution for twenty years until someone figured
out a way to help her communicate with her eyes, and discovered that while she
could not move or talk she was nevertheless highly intelligent. With
assistance the woman then wrote a book about her life and movingly described
how before the discovery of her intellectual abilities she had managed to
communicate with other disabled people in the institution who also could not
move or speak by using a type of extrasensory perception. Simply by being
placed next to a person she claimed she was able to have full and extensive
conversations with that person to the same degree she later acquired through
the use of words. (A system was arranged for her to "talk" by
looking at letters on a board.) Her story has always made me wonder
about the senses that we humans have never learned to develop. What other
faculties might we have at our command if say sight and sound were taken away?
John Dugdale, formerly a commercial still life
photographer who lost his sight due to complications from AIDS has been forced
to find a new way to "see." That he has accomplished this task
is not the remarkable thing. - there are in fact a number of "blind"
photographers, Flo Fox for example. What is remarkable are the images he
makes. For Dugdale, when he lost his sight, (he has at best 20% of
peripheral vision at the bottom of one eye; he can look down but not up) found
after an initial period of adjustment, that something else took over. He
calls that "something" his heart and intuition.
While Dugdale employs an assistant to focus the
ground glass (surely only a minor technical aspect of the work) the absence of
sight, or very much sight, has allowed him direct access to the core of
his creativity. His work now is more about an inner vision, one that finds
expression in an historical printing process, namely cyanotypes.
Cyanotypes are made by painting paper with
solutions of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide and drying it
in the dark. The negative, in this case an 8 x 10, is placed on the
sensitized sheet in direct sunlight, forming an impression on a blue
ground. Dugdale also tones his papers with tannic acid (tea) giving them a
distinct hue. An added beauty of this archaic process is the durability of the
medium. Many fine examples of work done in the 1840’s survive today.
Dugdale’s dreamily romantic images of
Italian landscapes and edifices or of nudes in lovely baroque settings, some
emulating the gestures found in Renaissance paintings, bring to mind the
pictorialist photographs of an earlier century, only with a contemporary
twist. Composed in a classical style the objects, bodies, buildings, and
flowers speak to us about timeless issues of life, death, family, friends and
affections. A certain light, a cup, a turn of the head, a haircut, a hand
squeezing the shutter control of a camera, place us firmly, irrevocably, in
the present. At the same moment we are transported to quiet light filled
memories, dreams of a parallel universe, one where all is formal perfect
beauty, beyond pain, beyond suffering, suffused with a poetry of being,
unmarred by the troubles of modern life. Heaven?
And speaking of modern life, it’s after 3pm
and we know we must beat a quick retreat to the freeway or pay dearly with our
time, with our patience, with our ability to love LA. Hell awaits on the
highway. We check the gas, read the map, and glance once again at the
vast billowing clouds sweeping across a beckoning sky of the same blue hue
mirrored in Dugdale’s cyanotypes and head South.
1. The Orange County Register, Accent, "Book picturing nudist families
raises protest" pg. 3, Friday, March 20, 1998,
2. Same as above
3. Photographer Jock Sturges,, "Jock
Sturges" by Jean-Christophe Ammann, Introduction to monograph, published
in conjunction with Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art, Frankfurt Germany, Scalo,
4. What is more troubling is a report by
former model Jennifer Montgomery who claims a film she made is based on a
sexual affair she had with Sturges beginning when she was 14. (Montgomery
refused to cooperate with the FBI investigation.) As reported in LA Weekly,
March 6-12, 1998, Pg. 28, Light & Shade, an interview by David Steinberg
with the photographer.
5. Photographer Jock Sturges, "About My
Work", Jock Sturges, published in conjunction with Frankfurt Museum of
Modern Art, Frankfurt Germany, Scalo, Spring 1996
6. LA Weekly, March 6-12, 1998, Pg. 29, an
interview by David Steinberg with the photographer.
7. Sturges refused to allow any of the
photographs of the young women to be reproduced with this or any article that
mentioned the subject of the lawsuit by the Christian Right or anything having
to do with obscenity issues, stating that the children would not want
their pictures reproduced in the context of such a discussion. The model
in the photograph shown is his wife.
Photometro, Volume 16, Issue 149, 1998
© A.M. Rousseau