What We're Reading: The Legacy of George Platt Lynes

By David Schonauer   Friday February 8, 2019

He was one of the most successful photographers of his time.

Much of his work, though, was hidden from view. In the 1930s and 1940s George Platt Lynes was known for his commercial and fashion photography. His images appeared in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and were included in one of the first photographer exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1932.

But very few people knew of his personal work — photographs of nude men that, after his death in 1955, were stashed away in the archives of the Kinsey Institute, hidden from view, as they had been in his lifetime. Recent books and a new exhibition have revealed how influential that work was.

“Because of prevailing attitudes toward homosexuality, which included criminalization and strict obscenity laws, Lynes – himself a gay man – had to keep this incredibly influential and important body of work hidden away,” writes Rebecca Fasman, Manager of Traveling Exhibitions at the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University, who has curated the exhibition “Sensual/Sexual/Social: The Photography of George Platt Lynes,” on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields through Feb. 24.

In an essay at The Conversation, Fasman notes that the new exhibition explores the dynamic between Lynes’ commercial and fine art photographs, along with the relationship between Lynes and Kinsey. Included are a number of images that have never been displayed before. “They fill a gap in art history and serve as a window into a time in American culture when gay men like Lynes faced obstacles to unfettered self-expression,” notes Fasman.

Ballet performer Jean Babilee in “L'Amour et son Amour,” 1951

Lynes was born in New Jersey in 1907 and attended the Berkshire School in Massachusetts, graduating in 1925. He wanted to be a writer but after inheriting photography equipment from a friend he took another path.

A friend from school, Lincoln Kirstein, brought in Lynes as the primary photographer for the School of American Ballet, which he had co-founded with choreographer George Balanchine. Lynes remained so for the next 20 years. “Beginning with his ballet photography, Lynes would follow an impulse to upend established norms,” notes Fasman.

Tennessee Williams, 1944

As a commercial photographer, Lynes shot portraits of many of the most influential creative people of his time, including writer Tennessee Williams, artist Marc Chagall and composer Igor Stravinsky. But his true passion, notes Fasman, was photographing the nude male form.

“Lynes’ interest in Greek classical representation of the male body – especially his focus on musculature – grounded his male nude photos in an accepted aesthetic tradition,” writes Fasman. “But Lynes’ photographs also present the male form as beautiful and desirable, adding a completely new element of homoeroticism.”

Lynes’ models included his friends, lovers and studio assistants. Some were professional paid models, including a young Yul Brynner. At the time, photographing the nude was legally risky. Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who had published “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” in 1948, was busy building his collection of cultural material related to human sexuality when he learned of Lynes’ work from the novelist Glenway Westcott and Monroe Wheeler, who for many years headed the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibitions and publications department. Wheeler was Lynes’s lover, and Wescott had been Wheeler’s lover before that. The three had been a ménage a trois from the late 1920s through the early 1940s.

“The Comstock Act, which criminalized the sending of ‘obscene’ materials through the United States Postal Service, was still in effect. So sometimes Kinsey would travel to New York, where Lynes was living, to transport the materials by hand. Other times, they would use private, expensive shipping companies to ship the materials,” writes Fasman.

When Lynes was diagnosed with cancer in 1955, Kinsey offered his Institute for Sex Research as a repository for the photographer’s work. Today, the Kinsey Institute holds the largest collection of Lynes’ work outside of the Lynes estate.

Anonymous models from 1952

Anonymous nude from 1945

Lynes’s work was never forgotten, however. It influenced a generation of photographers who created the visual culture we live in today, in which the eroticized male is seen and accepted as both art and commerce.

“People like Robert  Mappelthorpe, Bruce Weber, and Herb Ritts all investigated the history of male imagery,” said art and photography critic Allen Ellensweig, author of the “The Homoerotic Photograph,” in in 2011. At the time, Rizzoli had just published “George Platt Lynes: The Male Nudes,” with an afterword by Ellensweig.

A self-portrait of George Platt Lynes from 1952

Ellenzweig adeptly put Lynes’s male nudes into a cultural and historic framework: The work is, he said, “sui generis, a project so unalterably his own, with so little promise of any serious recompense, that it is significant he pursued it with such passion. But that, of course, was the point. He was a passionate lover of beautiful young men—a category more various that those three words imply.”

Adds Fasman, “Subsequent generations of photographers acknowledge how important Lynes is to the history of photography. But because of the times in which he lived – and the way he hid the work that he was the most proud of – his name became less familiar to the general public.”
At top: A male nude taken by George Platt Lynes in 1930


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