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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 blood.

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 young woman.

 "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 forming."

"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?

Intimations of 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.
 

(Footnotes)
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, Spring 1996

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

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