“I’m the damned soul of my damned camera, and God, how it hates me sometimes” – George Platt Lynes
George Platt Lynes is recognized today as a master of 20th century photography, influencing artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Herb Ritts. Though Lynes was commercially successful in New York fashion and portrait photography, his art practice is largely characterised today by his remarkable photographs of nude men, from the 1930s until his death in 1955. Using inventive lighting, posing, and cropping techniques within his carefully staged studio settings, he was able to visually translate both the physical and psychological nuances of his subjects.
Lynes attended the Berkshire School in Massachusetts and traveled to Paris for preparatory studies shortly after. In Paris, he met Réne Crevel, Man Ray, and Gertrude Stein, with whom he began a decade-long correspondence. Largely self-taught, Lynes eventually entered Yale University in 1926 and left after his first year to move to New York.
Initially exploring writing and bookselling, Lynes soon found his aesthetic through the facility of the camera. His first informal portraits were done in the late 1920s, but evolved to official society photography, contributing to significant museum shows, high-profile fashion magazines, and solo exhibitions. Indeed, his glamorous portraits of literary, film, and art world personalities are indicative of the types of personal relationships he had with cogniscenti. His friendship with New York art dealer Julien Levy led to his first exhibition in 1932. Eventually, Lynes’ commercial success in portraiture and fashion photography enabled him to open his own New York studio in 1933.
At this time, Lynes was a central figure in the New York photography world. He quickly became known for his highly stylised images characterised by expressionistic lighting, surrealistic props, and suggestive settings. He was soon receiving commissions from Harper’s Bazaar, Town & Country, and Vogue. In 1935 he was asked to document the principal dancers and productions of Lincoln Kirstein’s and George Balanchine’s newly founded American Ballet company (now the New York City Ballet).
By 1946, Lynes moved to Los Angeles to head Vogue magazine’s Hollywood office, but by 1948 financial pressure forced him to return to New York. There, he photographed celebrities such as Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russel, Gloria Swanson, and Orson Welles.
Unfortunately, his earlier success was difficult to reclaim, and by late 1951 his failure to pay taxes led the government to close his studio and auction off his cameras.
Lynes’ later photographs, particularly his nudes, are marked by a significant change of style. He abandoned the highly staged tableaux of his earlier nudes in favour of a straightforward, even minimalist, aesthetic. Featuring few if any props, these later images are simple and honest portraits of naked men.
In 1949, Lynes began a personal and professional friendship with Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, who, having published his controversial book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male the previous year, was beginning his research on homosexuality and gay male erotica. Although buying and selling nude male photographs was illegal at the time, Kinsey eventually managed to purchase over six-hundred of Lynes’ prints along with several hundred negatives for his new archive.
After being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1954, Lynes destroyed many of his negatives and prints, including his fashion photography, as well as his nudes. Although Lynes seemed to fear how his images might be received, surely he would be pleased to know that many of his works have not only survived, but continue to find new audiences.