The Body Made Light

David Lebe: Scribble #23, 1987/92, handcolored gelatin silver print, 43 3/8 by 30 inches. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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IN Wink: Self, Memorial Hall, Philadelphia (1974), a self-portrait David Lebe has called one of his first coming-out gestures, the artist appears twice. The David on the left is the one who winks, his face in three-quarter view, while the David on the far right looks directly into the camera, chin resting on his hand. Splitting the center between the two are a rear view of a statue depicting a tangled pair of nude wrestlers, buttocks on display, and the long shadow cast by Lebe and his camera. In the background, the discontinuous sky is shot through with an orangey pink—the same hue with which the wrestlers’ seemingly marble musculature is tinged. But the statue pictured is in fact bronze, not marble, and the delicately detailed sunset is Lebe’s own embellishment: the print is hand colored.

“Long Light” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the first solo museum exhibition for Lebe (b. 1948), frames him as an experimentalist less interested in capturing the real than in freeing his images from the constraints of reality. Through 145 photographs spanning five decades, curator Peter Barberie’s presentation reveals Lebe to be a restless artist, never settling for too long on any one process or subject, even as his preoccupations remain constant and his renderings imaginative. Whether he is documenting the desirous and mortal male form, the domestic and natural realms, or fabricating scenes from his imagination, Lebe’s photographs seek to show not just what is, but what might be.

The exhibition begins with his experiments in pinhole photography, a technique he began exploring in Barbara Blondeau’s class at the Philadelphia College of Art and continued to develop in the years after obtaining his BFA. The aforementioned Wink is one of many pinhole photographs Lebe produced in the first half of the 1970s, using lensless cameras with multiple apertures to create images that stretch across narrow, typically horizontal, strips. Through this technique, Lebe found he was able to reject the “decisive moment” of the photograph in favor of “the decisive twenty minutes,” as he put it in a 1994 interview with fellow photographer Richard Kagan.1 The earliest pinhole work here—Self-Portrait with Flag, produced in 1970 for Blondeau’s class—resembles a black-and-white stop-motion filmstrip; as these compositions proceed, however, making use of color film, a greater number of apertures, and, finally, hand coloring, they become increasingly complex. The resulting images’ suspension of the rules of time and space (and color) lends these quasi-panoramas a psychedelic quality. Bodies blur and repeat, the Philadelphia cityscape twists on itself, things that don’t touch in real life are made—or allowed—to do so. The vision of the world Lebe’s pinhole photographs offer ultimately doesn’t feel so decisive at all; it is instead a refusal of settling on a definitive version of any given scene. There is no reality, these images suggest, only parallel realities.

At 4½ by 55 inches, Seven Photographers Seventy-Five (1975), a group portrait of Lebe and six other Philadelphia photographers posing with their own work, is the longest and most ambitious of the pinhole photographs. Though the black-and-white print lacks the vibrant color and more dramatic spatial juxtapositions of many of his later pinhole works, Seven, in its relative subtlety, emphasizes the mutability of the human form in particular. Each of the photographers appears in two different positions and then recurs at various levels of opacity, so that the photograph is peopled not only with the obviously flesh-and-blood, but with several spectral figures as well, translucent doubles. Though this work predates the first reports of AIDS in the United States by six years, its suggestion of the body’s impermanence—and how the living, as well as the dead, are capable of haunting—is an uncanny portent of Lebe’s later preoccupations.

By the late 1970s, Lebe had moved away from pinhole photography and begun working with two other techniques that would dominate his output for the next decade: photograms and light drawings. Just as pinhole cameras had freed him from the decisive moment, Lebe’s photograms freed him from the camera itself. To compose these images, he arranged objects—typically parts of dried plants—on photosensitive paper and then exposed them to light, often hand coloring to finish, sometimes making a positive print from the corresponding negative. Though the earlier “Specimens” and “Garden Series” are rather simple, by the mid-1980s, Lebe had mastered the form and was creating more complex compositions. In his “Landscapes,” which feature heavily detailed backgrounds, the dried flowers and leaves are transformed into the flora of alien horizons—and, in #21, seed pods into a flock of winged creatures.

 

LEBE’S LIGHT DRAWINGS are his best-known works and the heart of this exhibition: one opens the show; another serves as the cover of the accompanying book; and of course the exhibition’s title, although it actually refers to the quality of light late in the day, suggests the process by which he created his most recognizable images. To make his light drawings, Lebe would open his camera shutter, usually in a darkened room, and draw in the air using a flashlight. His first efforts, self-portraits in which he traced his own nude body, are somewhat crude; looking at them, one can see Lebe learning how to manipulate the flashlight as a drawing tool. But by 1979, when he expanded the practice to include portraits of other men, his dexterity is apparent in the confidence and precision of his lines.

While many of his pinhole photographs (including Wink) have a certain camp sensibility, Lebe’s figurative light drawings are the first works in which his gay desire becomes fully legible. Even when his models are clothed, the sheer care the process demands is erotic: Angelo in Robe (1979), among the most elaborate of the light drawings, took forty minutes to complete. Angelo, who is seated and spreading his legs, doesn’t appear to have anything on under his robe—but this isn’t where Lebe has lavished his attention, choosing instead to highlight the intricate folds of the model’s garment, his curly hair, and the architecture of his bare feet (the soles of which seem to glow, illuminating the surrounding floor). The obsessively wrought quality of the drawing recalls John Berger on Degas: “A feature of Degas’s late works is how the outlines of bodies and limbs are repeatedly and heavily worked. And the reason is simple: on the edge (at the brink), everything on the other, invisible, side is crying out to be recognized and the line searches . . . until the invisible comes in.”2 In this drawing, as in others, Lebe has replaced flesh with light, showing us the body and, paradoxically, obscuring it: we see nothing but what Lebe decides to outline. The body is less important, perhaps, than its edge—what it touches. In the background are a shirt on a hanger and a small throw rug, each as brilliantly articulated as Angelo himself, as though the shirt he wore and the rug he walked on have been infused with some of his charge. By reducing the body to its shape and residue, Lebe’s light drawings take as their subject not the body itself, but the desire the body evokes.

In 1987, in the weeks leading up to the death of his friend and former lover Barry Kohn, who appears in the 1979 light drawing Barry in Rocker, Lebe took a new approach to this technique, abandoning the body altogether and drawing freehand with his flashlight. The works in the resulting “Scribble” series are variations on still lifes: photographs of illuminated vases from which, in lieu of flowers, ribbons of light emerge. Kohn was one of Lebe’s first friends to die of AIDS, and though Lebe had begun the series in response to Kohn’s illness, he set the project aside after printing only a few photographs, fearing, as he told Richard Kagan, that they were too “silly and frivolous” to adequately address the crisis.3 It wasn’t until a year later that he realized their importance: “The pictures were really a defiance of the fear and the pain, a kind of celebration of the spirits of so many who had died.”4 Lebe then printed and hand colored several more.

In this context, the gravity of the series is undeniable—and harmonious with its literal and figurative lightness. The “Scribbles” aren’t vases of condolence flowers; they are open urns from which light is prodigiously blooming. Viewing the works in close proximity to the figurative drawings, one quickly understands the latter’s freely flowing lines as a transubstantiation of the corporeal form. No longer do we see the body outlined in light, but the body made light, the body no longer body at all: pure spirit.

 

MANY OF THE works in the latter half of the exhibition are relatively conventional in comparison to those in the first: plenty of black-and-white portraiture, still lifes, scenes from nature. But even when Lebe’s approach is familiar, he remains committed to showing us what we might not otherwise see. Lebe’s portraits of Scott O’Hara, spanning 1989 to 1995, chart the progression of the spectacularly well-endowed porn star from all-American blond to dark-haired, sideburned daddy who sports a large “HIV +” tattoo on his left shoulder. Though the photographs don’t shy away from portraying O’Hara as an eroticized subject (he is masturbating in several), neither do they reduce him to a sexual object. The pictures aren’t really about his impressive anatomy, but about his personality: affable, unashamed, sex positive, and sexy. A particularly clever curatorial juxtaposition places a photo of O’Hara self-fellating (Scott, 1995) opposite another of an elderly writer (Ellis St. Joseph, Beverly Hills, 1989), who lifts his sagging breast to his mouth in order to tongue his own nipple. Lebe’s camera makes no distinction between these bodies or their experiences of sexual pleasure, looking on them both with affection and admiration.

Lebe’s “Food for Thought” series, meanwhile, offers yet another defamiliarizing take on the still life. Instead of flowers or fruits, the stars here are organic vegetables. In 1992 Lebe and his partner, horticulturist Jack Potter, adopted a macrobiotic diet as a part of their attempt to manage AIDS, which they both had when they met in 1989. In “Food for Thought,” Lebe offers a visual representation of the elevated status of these vegetables in their lives, shooting squash, cabbage, and kombu with the same tenderness with which he did the male nude. A few photographs are even embellished with scribbles of light, connecting them to the spiritual dimension of his other light drawings.

In 1993 Lebe and Potter left Philadelphia for Columbia County, in New York’s Hudson Valley, where they planned to focus on maintaining their health for as long as possible. During this time living in relative seclusion, Lebe began to photograph Potter’s morning routine, later collecting the images in the series “Morning Ritual.” They show Potter bathing, shaving, using a neti pot, injecting medications. Despite their relatively banal content, the photographs are heavy with the weight of illness and the knowledge not only of one’s own mortality, but also of a beloved’s. The anxious impulse to document the everyday makes the series seem as much an advance mourning ritual as a morning one. Our daily preparations are, after all, uncomfortably close to those that ready a body for burial; both involve acts of purification. And yet, as any depressive knows, it is precisely this routine that can bind us to life.

In 1996, Potter’s health precipitously declined, and Lebe shot a companion series called “Jack’s Garden. Like “Morning Ritual,” “Jack’s Garden” is in black-and-white; here, Lebe undertook the challenge of recording a garden’s beauty without the use of color. The images feel almost like descriptions of a view for someone who cannot rise from bed to see it, or photographic approximations of a garden in full bloom—which, of course, they are. In December 1996, Potter began the combination antiretroviral therapy that had become available that year and permanently changed the treatment of HIV/AIDS. Soon after, so did Lebe. The two still live in Columbia County today.

Lebe’s more recent works—which, since 2004, he has made with a digital camera—feel haunted. Not by the dead, and not even by the expectation of death, but by the contrary of that expectation, by decades unpromised and unanticipated. His latest project, a return to his early interest in shadows (a central preoccupation of his college thesis) and doubles (a motif of his pinhole photographs), is called “ShadowLife.” The ongoing series comprises mostly silhouettes of still lifes—flowers in vases, leaves—in which Lebe’s own shadow often appears, as well as otherworldly bursts where light has been refracted through colored glass. In ShadowLife 065 (2014), a silhouette of a bottle seems, impossibly, to contain an entire sky.

 

CONTEMPORARY CONVERSATIONS about HIV/AIDS and its artistic representations tend to focus, quite rightly, on inclusion: who is represented, and who is doing the representing.5 While the arrival of Lebe’s retrospective does not ameliorate the overwhelming white gay maleness of the AIDS archive, it does represent both a historic achievement for an artist with AIDS and an important resistance to the dangerous tendency to historicize the disease (Lebe is living with AIDS). His primary contribution to AIDS-related art, and to gay visual culture, is not what Lebe represents as a person, but his steadfastly speculative vision. For fifty years, in whatever he has looked at, Lebe has sought out what Berger called the invisible, tracing the edge of the known to invite in alternative, as yet unconceived possibilities. His photographs call forth a notion of queerness like the one that theorist José Esteban Muñoz proposed in Cruising Utopia: “a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present.”6 The very source of Lebe’s anxiety about his “Scribble” series—that the drawings didn’t focus on the rage and despair of AIDS—is exactly what distinguishes his work from that of many of his contemporaries.

This is not to dismiss anger as either a subject or a mode, but to affirm the value of imagining beyond it. The ostensible outliers in this show are a group of grainy black-and-white snapshots Lebe took at the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987, all printed on the occasion of this exhibition. The protesters pictured mostly seem joyful; even as some signs excoriate Reagan and male aggression, others declare their love, for both the dead and the living. That another, better world is possible is, of course, the belief that underpins all protest. Lebe’s photographs remind us to keep looking for it.