George Platt Lynes, courtesy Throckmorton Fine Arts
We now live very much in the Age of George Platt Lynes, a miraculously queer photographer who died in 1955 at the age of 48 of lung cancer. Whenever you see a stop-in-your-tracks image of a young, well-built, sexually enticing man in an isolated setting—in other words, what you’re looking at is the man, either alone or with another man, nude or with as few clothes on as possible, and that’s it—you’re staring at a George Platt Lynes image.
It can be a gym-sleek ad for GNC, a hot fashion shot for Armani, one of those Abercrombie & Fitch creatures dripping innocent sweat and sex, 2-Xist or Calvin Klein, Dolce and Gabbana, or Dolce and anything: all George Platt Lynes. He did it first, and better, and he knew how to knock your eyes out with a kind of sweet effortlessness that took a genuine dollop of genius to create.
Who was he, and how did he do it at a time when you could not even send nude shots of the men he photographed through the mails without risking arrest?
Platt Lynes came from the polite bourgeois of American early 20th century life: his father was the Anglican rector of St. Paul’s Church in beautiful Englewood, N.J. Lynes was sent to private schools, to Paris where he became friends with Gertrude Stein, who loved handsome young men very much and wanted them to become her acolytes, and then to Yale. With Miss Stein’s blessing he dropped out of Yale: he was going to become an artist come Hell or high water. At first he attempted writing a novel, then painting, then he discovered photography which was in its infancy as an art form, that is, no one was around to tell you too much what you couldn’t do.
At that point, George, who was in his early 20s, realized that New York was the place he wanted to be; he was socially, professionally, and sexually aggressive and all the wondrous worlds of New York, in the early 1930s, were starting to spin at his feet: Lincoln Kirstein, George Balanchine and the New York City ballet; Carmela Snow, the legendary features editor of Harper’s Bazarre, who inspired Diana Vreeland and later Truman Capote; Gertrude Stein and her friends in Paris and New York; and a bevy of rich Park Avenue ladies and their mostly gay friends who ordered portraits from Lynes and connected him through a network of class and sex to a kind of dazzling world where your dinner guests might include one night (as his did) Dorothy Parker, Moss Hart, and Somerset Maugham.
He also connected with the two most important men in his life: the writer Glenway Wescott and the Museum of Modern Art curator Monroe Wheeler. The three of them comprised the most famous gay menage à trois in American history. It went on for basically a decade, and its social and sexual web included the painter Paul Cadmus, lover and brother-in-law of Lincoln Kirstein; the writer Christopher Isherwood; and Barbara Harrison, a very wealthy woman who married Wescott’s good-looking younger brother Lloyd, and whose money often supported the three of them.
So, through the 1930s and into the 1940s, from the Depression through World War II, as a photographer of fashion, the arts, interiors, and retailing, Lynes experienced an almost dizzying vogue. He made money, and unfortunately spent it even faster than he made it. He lived a luxe life with an apartment on Park Avenue, travel to Europe and Hollywood, and impressing a hoard of young men that he went after. He became part of what became known as New York “Cafe Society”: culturally snotty; sexually sophisticated (Cole Porter wrote the background music); and held aloft by a curious combination of money and discretion. If you did not ask too many questions and had a certain amount of looks and talent, you got into it.
All of this came to a screeching end for George by the beginning of the 1950s, when his style of photography—staged, dramatic, with lots of bare skin showing—was supplanted by a newer breed of photographers who were often straight, used more portable SLR Nikons, and put their fashion shots out on the streets: Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and the English photographer David Bailey. By this time, Platt Lynes had moved into a walk-up flat in Hell’s Kitchen, was living off loans from his always-forgiving younger brother Russell, but was taking even more shots of male nudes.
All the while as he worked as a fashion drone, the male nude had been the center of George Platt Lynes’s creative life. He knew that these were the pictures for the most part he could not sell, show, or even lend out to the wrong person. The one person who became really involved with them was Alfred Kinsey, the creator of the famous Kinsey Report on Human Sexuality that pulled the lid off homosexuality in America. Kinsey, closeted queer himself, openly courted the work of gay artists, and he bought Lynes’s male nudes by the score. And, just before his death from lung cancer, Lynes specified in his last will that Kinsey, at his Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University, would receive all of his printed male nudes as well as their negatives, and preserve them, archived for safekeeping, in a trove of what is now 600 images.
You can see a selection of them at Throckmorton Fine Art, 145 East 57th Street, 3rd Floor, until September 10. (www.throckmorton-nyc.com ) This show is in coordination with GEORGE PLATT LYNES: THE MALE NUDES, published by Rizzoli, edited by Steven Haas, with a foreword (very brief) by George Platt Lynes II (Russell’s son). The book was published as a collaboration with the Kinsey Institute.
The photographs, not very large, all black and white, are wonderful; endearing; a little heart stopping even. Platt Lynes wanted it to be made plain that he was not doing pornography but art, it was only the stupidity of his time that kept these beautiful images of men locked in a closet. Lynes never was. He was so open about being gay, from the very first when he told his father at the age of 21, in 1928, that he was in love with Monroe Wheeler, to when he told the Draft Board during World War II that he was a homosexual, even though he still wanted to serve. At the opening of the Throckmorton show I was introduced to Elizabeth Lynes Hollander, George’s niece, who said about her uncle: “We knew how special he was. I was 14 when he died, but at his funeral no one talked about how special he was.” She went on to tell me a story about how, as a small girl going to a shooting session with Maria Tallchief (the Balanchine ballerina and one of his wives) who was literally being sewn into a tutu so tight that the dancer could barely breathe, Elizabeth made an outcry about it, and George said to her: “Hush, my dear. This is Art.”
For more information about Perry Brass, go to www.perrybrass.com . His latest book is The Manly Art of Seduction, How to Meet, Talk to, and Become Intimate with Anyone , a Kindle bestseller. At his website you can learn how you can order books directly from his publisher Belhue Press, and have them signed for you.