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Lynes, George Platt

LYNES, George Platt

LYNES, George Platt (b. 15 April 1907;d. 6 December 1955), photographer.

George Platt Lynes dedicated his formidable technical expertise and extraordinary imagination to the visualization of homoeroticism, creating a visual vocabulary of gay desire that continues to influence art and fashion. His career is significant, as well, for its reflection of the institutional history of the arts in relation to homosexual identity.

The son of an Episcopalian minister, Lynes emulated Aesthetic precedent and aspired to be a poet. Sent to Paris to study French in 1925, Lynes visited Gertrude Stein. His good looks and self-confidence helped integrate him into Stein's influential circle and into the avant-garde in New York, which by the 1920s had developed semisecret LGB networks under the influence of medical theories of homosexuality as a personality type characterized by, among other things, artistic sensitivity. Regardless of whether such theories are true, they helped attract homoerotically inclined individuals to these networks, where they developed their artistic talents.

After returning from Paris in 1925, Lynes published pamphlets of avant-garde prose, including Stein's work, and later opened a bookstore specializing in modern literature. In New York's literary circles, he met the novelist Glenway Westcott and his lover Monroe Wheeler, who later became director of exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. This threesome began an erotic and intellectual partnership that lasted for fifteen years and was crucial to the development of Lynes's career. While traveling together in France in 1928, Westcott and Wheeler convinced Lynes to abandon writing and to concentrate on what had been a hobby: photography. Lynes's earliest photographs document a social network strongly determined by homosexual identity. His first pictures include portraits of Jean Cocteau and Stein with her companion, Alice B. Toklas. Portraiture remained an important aspect of Lynes's photography, and he later made striking images of the writers André Gide and Christopher Isherwood, the arts patron Lincoln Kirstein, the painters Marsden Hartley, Paul Cadmus and Jared French, among others.

Lynes's portraits are remarkable for their use of Surrealist-inspired costumes, poses, and settings, always for an effect that enhances the glamour of the sitter. This skill brought Lynes to the attention of fashion magazines, which were rapidly increasing both their readership and their use of photograph illustrations in this period. Lynes, without sacrificing elegance, imbued fashion models with an eye-catching novelty that made his images stand out in the magazine format, earning commissions from major New York fashion magazines and the retailers that advertised in their pages. His theatrical lighting and minimal sets on which models pose with a few carefully chosen props became a standard for fashion photography in the thirties. The theatricality of Lynes's fashion photography reflected his lifelong interest in ballet, and another important body of his work documents the innovative costumes and choreography of ballet troupes associated with George Balanchine.

As Lynes's career developed, he became increasingly committed to another category of work: nude—often explicitly homoerotic—photography. From the first, his portraiture had included photographs of his intimate friends, including frankly homoerotic images of couples like Cadmus and French, which have only recently been made public. Some of the female models and certain props and poses from Lynes's fashion shoots reappear as nudes, and he was rumored to charge his commercial clients for sets primarily intended for his late-night erotic studio sessions. Lynes's commercial ballet imagery expanded the borders of acceptable public presentations of the male body. And again, models, props, and costumes from his ballet images reappeared in more frankly erotic work. Taken together, Lynes's nude photography records with great beauty and visual wit his community of handsome men erotically engaged with one another. It was this accomplishment that, around 1950, prompted Alfred Kinsey to collect Lynes's erotic photographs; today the Kinsey Institute holds the definitive collection of Lynes's work, with over six hundred photographs and hundreds of negatives. Ultimately, Lynes decided that it was by his erotic imagery that he wished to be remembered, and he destroyed records of much of his commercial work.

Lynes's career exemplifies several developments in the relationship between art and homosexuality during the twentieth century. His trajectory from would-be poet to successful commercial photographer coincides with the rise of mass-media imagery as an influential source of ideas about eroticism. His participation in a variety of homosexual networks points to the growing importance of these subcultures both within and outside the avantgarde. Lynes's concealment of his large body of homoerotic art, however, reflects the limitations on expressions of sexual identity outside his immediate social context. Lynes's collaboration with Kinsey contributed to the pioneering effort to document homosexuality at a time when such work was actively discouraged. Only recently has more open interest in visual expressions of homosexual identity allowed widespread recognition and appreciation of Lynes's art. His reemergence as a focus of both popular and scholarly interest suggests the prescience of his vision of homoerotic desire.


Crump, James. George Platt Lynes: Photographs from the Kinsey Institute. New York: Little Brown, 1993.

Ellenzweig. Allen. The Homoerotic Photograph. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Leddick, David. George Platt Lynes. Cologne: Taschen, 2000.

——. Intimate Companions: A Triography of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus, Lincoln Kirstein and their Circle. New York: St. Martin's 2000.

Christopher Reed

see alsohartley, marsden; visual art.

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