David Lebe, Long Light

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2019 by the Philadelphia Museum of Art (here) and Yale University Press (here), as a catalog for the exhibition Long Light: Photographs by David Lebe which was on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from February 9 – May 5, 2019 (here). Hardcover, 142 pages, with 50 color and 80 black-and-while reproductions, including 1 gatefold. With a foreward by PMA director Timothy Rubb, an essay by the exhibition curator Peter Barberie, and a list of plates. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Some artists are unaccountably overlooked. They soldier away and have only negligible financial reward or critical recognition to show for a lifetime of effort. David Lebe seems to be one these unfortunates. Despite a steady record of making distinctive photographs since the mid-1970s, I had never seen any of them nor even heard his name mentioned until this show and catalog opened my eyes. I doubt my blindered ignorance is unique. His native city of New York, where he was born 71 years ago, has been shamefully delinquent. None of the major museums here own his work or has ever exhibited any examples. His last solo New York show was at the Marcuse Pfeiffer Gallery in 1985.

It’s baffling that he has been so camouflaged when his photographs have intersected with so many art movements and social developments during his career. He isn’t a visionary maverick so far ahead of his time that his contemporaries couldn’t understand what he was doing. He was experimenting with a pinhole camera a few years before Barbara Ess and others were attracting regular notice in New York for reviving the practice. His photographic drawings with a pen light are marvelous, convivial as well as innovative, perhaps the most successful uses of this technique since Gjon Mili’s celebrated films and photographs in the late ‘40s. The explicitly gay content of Lebe’s autobiographic work—a boyishly promiscuous series that implies he was enjoying lots of casual hook-ups during the ‘80s, and a harrowingly realistic one about living with HIV during the ‘90s—coincided with the liberated post-Stonewall zeitgeist and then with the AIDS crisis. Why then, haven’t the Whitney and the Guggenheim, where curators pride themselves on being responsive to provocative imagery about sex and the body, heeded the contributions of Lebe? It’s as if during the ‘80s and ‘90s they had room on their walls for only one gay male photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. Others need not apply.

Peter Barberie, the PMA curator who organized this show and wrote the informative catalog essay, doesn’t speculate on the reasons for the neglect. Lebe’s decision to base himself in Philadelphia, however, and to abjure both the conventions of 35 mm. street photography and procedure-based conceptual art during the ‘70s, was likely fateful for his career.

In a video made for the exhibition (and available online), Lebe describes himself as an artist who starts a picture with a few rough ideas rather with a blueprint in mind. “My work comes out of my life. I don’t illustrate an idea. I set up a situation with boundaries to work within and then within those I try to work very intuitively…..I understand what I’ve done only after I’ve done it.”

Philadelphia was his home for almost 25 years. The city’s interiors and exteriors form the back-ground for much of his work. In 1966 he enrolled at the Philadelphia College of Art and studied there with several faculty members (Ray Metzker, Tom Porett, and Barbara Blondeau) who had graduated from the Institute of Design in Chicago. The creed of ceaseless experimentation that prevailed at the ID, where Moholy-Nagy was a founder, carried over to the PCA. Lebe was encouraged to build his own pinhole cameras, several with multiple apertures and semi-circular chambers. He made 20-minute exposures that allowed him to portray separate places or people simultaneously along a rectangular strip. Switching between black-and-white and Ektachrome (after 1973), he also began painting his prints by hand.

After years of hiding or denying his sexuality, Lebe came out to a few friends in 1973. One of those, writes Barberie, was the writer Jane Futcher. “She remembers that when he said he had something important to tell her, she was afraid he was going to profess a romantic interest in her. Instead he said he was gay, and she promptly told him that she was, too.” A pinhole portrait by Lebe of Futcher standing in front of a traditional bar called “The Gay Nineties” commemorated their mutual confession and sealed a lifelong friendship.

The series of light drawings begun in 1976 and continued into the late 1980s signal a new comfort in his own skin. Representing his most confident body of work, many are sensual portraits of young lovers and a few are graphic. In one of them, titled Self-Portrait #6, Pissing (negative 1977, print c. 1996), one hand of his electrified figure rests on his hip, the other holds his penis. A stream of urine shoots out—the only straight vertical line in the picture. Against the blank black background, Lebe’s body appears to float like a balloon.

According to Barberie, who answered by email my questions about process, the light drawings were made “by moving a flashlight through the air during long exposures with the camera on a tripod. This took lots of practice but he got to a point where he could control his movements and also understood how they would be recorded by the film. He generally used a 35mm camera, which still surprises me. Sometimes he used no other light source at all, but often there is indirect light from a source in his studio or, for the works made outdoors, by ambient light.”

The fluid lines of light give all the figures, nude or clothed, a jaunty, cartoonish air. Angelo on the Roof (1979 negative, 1995 print), the image from the retrospective most popular with visitors, depicts the back of a young man as he surveys Philadelphia’s downtown at night from a rooftop. His torso is featureless, dark and translucent except for the white lines that define its contours. Lebe has given him a scruffy haircut, though, a curiosity and an innocence. He could be Tintin staring out at the bright lights of a big city.

In contrast to these carefree and improvisational photographs is a 1994-96 series begun several years after Lebe had discovered that he and his partner, the ceramic artist Jack Potter, had AIDS. Lebe had been hired as an instructor by the PCA (renamed the University of the Arts in 1985) and taught there until 1990. Shortly thereafter, he and Potter left the city and moved to the Hudson Valley where they built a house and began an unorthodox recovery regimen of drugs, herbs, and macrobiotic foods. Death for one or both was an omnipresent likelihood. These photographs, titled Morning Ritual, differ from everything else Lebe has done. Shot in a black-and-white documentary style that recalls Larry Clark’s early work, many of them are tender close-ups of Potter’s bony frame, as he checks his skin for sores, carefully shaves his face, injects medicines into his stomach, or is photographed by his partner. At the same time, Lebe began a series titled Jack’s Garden, another series of close-ups but this time of the plants, flowers, and grasses that Potter tended as he struggled to recover. By some miracle, both he and Lebe survived.

It would have been politic for Barberie to exclude or at least downplay the photographs Lebe took in the 1990s of the porn star Scott O’Hara. I’m glad that he didn’t. Instead, facing the contents page in the catalog is a naked half-profile portrait of the gay writer, AIDS activist, and provocateur. The expression on O’Hara’s face indicates that below of the bottom of the frame he’s jerking off. A tattoo on his left shoulder reads “HIV +” . Three squiggly figures near it seem to be swimming sperm. (The defiant tattoo can be read as a sarcastic response to the conservative columnist William F. Buckley, Jr. who proposed in the ’80s that anyone with the illness should be branded so on their buttocks, as a safety precaution.)

As Barberie notes, Lebe was similarly unapologetic about his own desires and argued in a 2013 essay about the importance of porn for gay men in the 1980s and ‘90s. The O’Hara photographs were in his mind about “the refusal to give up on life or life’s pleasures” as AIDS was scything the gay community. O’Hara was a divisive figure before and after he contracted AIDS, which he called “an undeniable blessing,” and is presented here as he wanted to be seen. The show-stopper here, which must have been a delicate operation for the PMA to display, depicts him acrobatically sucking his own cock.

The series will inevitably remind many of Mapplethorpe’s Man in Polyester Suit (1980) or Peter Hujar’s even earlier (but unexhibited) triptych of Bruce de Sainte Croix masturbating (1976.) Barberie prefers to cite David Wojnarowicz as Lebe’s role model for making art on the theme of AIDS, although he admits that the former’s is “confrontational and angry” whereas the latter is “contemplative and loving.”

Lebe should have been included in The Male Nude: A Survey in Photography, a landmark group show at the Marcuse Pfeiffer Gallery in 1978 that also featured work by Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, and Lynn Davis. Even if he had, though, the opportunities for a gay artist to earn mainstream attention were few. Not many New York photography galleries in the 1980s or ‘90s welcomed the physical content and experimental methods that Lebe’s light drawings or porn star portraiture represented.

The years since the millennium have brought Lebe full circle, back to the lessons he absorbed during his student years at the PCA. On May Hill: Maple Leaf Shadow (image 2006, print 2015) is like an homage to Ray Metzker. What seems to be a simple treatment of a simple subject is on closer inspection deceptively layered with spatial ambiguities. His ongoing series Shadow-Life, are still-lifes of flowers in vases and self-portraits as silhouettes. Balletic studies in tense imbalance and natural beauty, they bear the sunlit imprint of Metzker’s and Blondeau’s formal articulations but are beholden to no one.

The PMA’s photo department has often gone its own way, diverging from what curators in other cities were promoting as current and worthwhile. Following along a path blazed by Michael Hoffman and Katherine C. Ware, Barberie in recent years has, without supportive write-ups from New York critics, produced several out-of-the ordinary shows. In 2017 it was a retrospective on wildlife photographer Michael Nichols, a genre that never gets critical respect. Last year brought a belated salute to octenagerian book artist Keith Smith, which I regret missing. David Lebe is yet one more gratifying discovery, one that the art world has overlooked for 50 years and might have remained uninformed about for another 50, if not for the PMA’s vigilence.

Collector’s POV: David Lebe does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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