Platt Lynes, George 1907–1955
Platt Lynes, George
George Platt Lynes, born in East Orange, New Jersey, on April 15, was the son of Joseph Lynes, a lawyer, and Adelaide Sparkman, a Southerner who was raised in New York. Joseph changed his profession to Episcopalian minister after George's birth and moved the family to Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Although George had a brother, Russell, three years his junior, George was the more pampered of the two, possibly because he was sickly. An undistinguished student, he attended the nearby Berkshire School, studied French in Paris, and then briefly attended Yale in 1926. He also studied book selling at Columbia and tried that occupation. Platt Lynes was always self-taught. He died of lung cancer in New York City on December 6.
In the early twenty-first century Platt Lynes is known chiefly for photographs of nudes. Mainly male nudes, they were a dominant theme in his work after the early 1940s, though he also photographed nudes for most of the 1930s. These pictures always were intended for private viewing, but some achieved exhibit status in his lifetime. When Platt Lynes was in his early forties, Dr. Alfred Kinsey began amassing hundreds of his negatives and positives, along with examples of his other artistic and commercial works. However, the nudes did not earn Platt Lynes a livelihood.
Literary creation, not photography, was Platt Lynes's first calling, and he was encouraged by Gertrude Stein, who befriended him in France before he was twenty. By 1930, however, he was dissuaded in that enterprise by the two lovers who invited him to return to France and join them in 1928, Glenway Wescott and Monroe Wheeler. Madly in love with Wheeler, Platt Lynes began a three-person affair that would last, off and on, for about fifteen years.
The relationship also served him professionally. Wescott, who was established as a writer when they met, eventually worked with him, writing texts to accompany Platt Lynes's photographs on mythological themes. Wheeler, who became the director of publications and exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, facilitated Platt Lynes's early entry into important MoMA exhibitions. The first occurred in 1932 ("Murals by American Painters and Photographers"), in which he displayed a triptych arrangement ("Landscape") that included classical idealized nudity that was made ambiguous by other superimposed images that direct the viewer's gaze toward a central phallic edifice. More significantly, in 1936 MoMA showed "The Sleepwalker," a photographic montage of male nudes in a surrealist mode.
Surrealism, the style of many of the early works, suited Platt Lynes both practically and stylistically despite André Breton's diatribe against homosexuality. Through surrealism, as well as through Platt Lynes's mythological thematics (1937–1940), he could both legitimize the still not tolerated male nude photograph and satisfy an esthetic principle: He was usually against including both full face and genitalia in an image. The unlikely supplanting realities that surrealism customarily aimed to achieve could make the male nude photograph possible in an era when it seldom could appear in print.
Not only did Platt Lynes adopt the stylistic norms of the friends he made in French art circles (Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Hoyningen-Huene, Berenice Abbott, and Paul Outerbridge, among others), he used them in his creations in such a way that he eventually was able to launch full-fledged photographic programs that found an outlet in the male nude. An example would be the mythological and the ballet photographs, especially those depicting a new version of the ballet Orpheus (1948), for which Francisco Monción and Nicholas Magallanes performed dance poses naked before the camera. This series, which is recognized as the culmination of the ballet photography that Platt Lynes began to cultivate in 1935, provides a link among dance, mythology, and male nudes as photographic thematics. It had its deepest roots in Platt Lynes's association with his wealthy schoolmate Lincoln Kirstein, the founder of the New York School of American Ballet developed by George Balanchine, who until a financial disagreement in the mid-1950s sponsored Platt Lynes's ballet photographs. The point was usually static form, not movement, a norm that seemed to be in conjunction with the Greco-Roman idealizations that are the foundation of many of Platt Lynes's male nudes—in other words, with the antipornographic bent of his male nudes.
The cast of characters in the nudes included dancers, models, gymnasts, and even studio assistants, men with beautiful bodies who sometimes became involved in sexual affairs with the photographer. In the case of George Tichenor, Platt Lynes grew enamored of him to the point of long grieving over his death in World War II, an event that occasioned a subsequent affair with George's brother, Jonathan. However, sex may not have been the usual end of Platt Lynes's male nude photographic enterprise, just as pornography was not, although the photographs are considered in art history to be exemplars of homoeroticism. Platt Lynes photographed himself nude and posed in the nude informally for his intimate friends and formally for Man Ray. Women were the subjects of some of his nudes, including close acquaintances and family members, such as his sister-in-law.
PORTRAITS AND FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY
His portraiture, which helped support the photographer financially, began as casual and grew to be formal. His portraits depict close acquaintances: lovers such as Glenway Wescott and Monroe Wheeler and the poet René Crevel, as well as Alfred Kinsey and friends from the world of art, literature, music, film, and theater such as Christopher Isherwood, Jean Cocteau, Katherine Anne Porter, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Johnny Weismuller ("Tarzan"), Aldous Huxley, Edna Ferber, Thomas Mann, Edith Sitwell, e.e. cummings, Igor Stravinsky, Marsden Hartley, E. M. Forster, and Yul Brynner (nude). In the case of Porter, who was many years his senior, it is said that she wanted to have an affair with Platt Lynes in spite of his professed leanings, and Platt Lynes did reside with her briefly.
Fashion photography in New York was Platt Lynes's source of revenue, and the abandonment of it led to his financial undoing. It was his chief means of sustenance during the time he experimented with nudes (1930s), and one sometimes finds studio trappings in the nudes similar to those found in fashion shots. It is rumored that he may have had brief affairs with the fashion models Laurie Douglas ("Douggie") and Helen Bennett.
Although Richard Avedon and Irving Penn picked up some of the New York commissions that Platt Lynes abandoned when he left to become a Vogue director in Hollywood, it was photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber who undertook the cultivation of sophisticated male nude photography in the years after Platt Lynes's death.
Crump, James. 1993. George Platt Lynes: Photographs from the Kinsey Institute. Boston: Little, Brown.
Leddick, David. 2000. George Platt Lynes: 1907–1955. New York: Täschen.
Pohorilenko, Anatole, and James Crump. 1998. When We Were Three: The Travel Albums of George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler, and Glenway Wescott, 1925–1935. Santa Fe, NM: Arena Editions.
Woody, Jack. 1980. George Platt Lynes Photographs: 1931–1955. Los Angeles: Twelvetrees Press.
Woody, Jack, ed. 1985. Ballet: George Platt Lynes. Pasadena, CA: Twelvetrees Press.