Don Herron, Tub Shots @Daniel Cooney

JTF (just the facts): A total of 64 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white and grey walls in the two room gallery space. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made between 1978 and 1993. The prints are sized either 10×8 or 20×16 inches, and no edition information was provided on the checklist. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: One way to think about the history of photographic portraiture is to see the task as an endless struggle against unnatural posing. When faced with the imposing presence of a camera, our natural tendency is to stand taller, suck in our stomachs, make fake smiles, and generally try to present ourselves positively in some manner. The problem is that this good intention consistently leads to portraits that are hopelessly stilted and wooden, drained of every ounce of authentic personality and casual spontaneity.

Portrait photographers across the history of the medium have fought valiantly against this creeping tide of forgettable posing by generating their own aesthetic inventions for keeping their subjects off guard. Irving Penn squished his sitters into a tight angled corner, forcing them to adapt to the cramped surroundings. Philippe Halsman made his subjects jump, catching them in mid-air. Rineke Dijkstra found her subjects in their swimsuits at the beach, while Gillian Wearing had them pose with hand written signs with their innermost thoughts. Richard Avedon placed his subjects against blinding white backdrops, removing any sense of context or support. And Martin Schoeller got up so close, we could see the detail in every whisker, pore, and eyelash. In each case, while the approaches may have been contrived, they variously prevented their sitters from hiding behind bland facades.

Don Herron’s solution to the problem of boring posing was a particularly inspired one – he placed his subjects in their bathtubs (or a convenient hotel bathtub if they weren’t at home), in the nude. Shot consistently looking down, from the foot of the tub, the approach had the brilliant effect of putting the sitter in a confined physical space (like Penn did) but offering him or her plenty of options for creative personalization and performance.

Herron’s subjects were largely drawn from the East Village creative corps of the late 1970s and 1980s. And while famous faces do pop up here and there (Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, and many of the members of Andy Warhol’s Factory), most of those portrayed were further down in the celebrity hierarchy, where artists, musicians, performers, writers, clubgoers, and other bohemian types were carving out a life.

The simplest form of Herron’s structured approach came when all the compositional variables were minimized: the barest of tubs and surrounding bathrooms, the barest of bodies, the simplest of poses (sitting straight in the tub), and the clearest sparkling water – when these four came together, the distractions were minimized and we see faces, expressions, and muscled bodies with the most unadorned clarity.

But this was hardly ever the case. For those feeling modest, foamy bubbles, soapy water, and in one case dry packing peanuts provided plenty of coverage for delicate areas. Others used artfully placed props (white seashells, calla lilies, a horned skull, a large dildo, an open book, and even some very long and stringy hair) to hide private parts, or added costumes, masks, ornate necklaces, sunglasses, shower caps and other performative items to add some camp and punch to their bathtub personas.

The controlled environment of the tub usually kept Herron’s subjects largely in check, but even in that small space, there was just enough room for some glamorous vamping. Bodies twist to one side or the other exposing backs and buttocks, curl into fetal positions, shimmy and shake like dancers, and lie with sensuous languor, with a few even turned around entirely with playful glee. And the bathrooms themselves offered a wide range of settings. Of course, white tubs and white tile were the norm, but the knick knacks and decorations that surround the bathrooms gave the portraits another splash of personality. From painted tubs and tiles to a mannequin head, a ceramic cat, a starfish, a plastic shark, a toy machine gun, a selection of butt plugs, a silvery curtain, and lots of flowers, plants, and candles, these small secondary details helped to fill out who these people were.

So on one level, Herron’s tub portraits are a kind of offbeat documentary mugbook of the underground culture of New York in the 1980s, and the show is supplemented with a thick handout of comments, quotes, reminisces, and memories gathered from the subjects, putting the whole scene in context.

But on another, they represent another provocatively experimental step along the long road of photographic portraiture. Placing his subjects in the intimate confines of the tub was an ingenious method for harmonizing a large number of disparate portraits while still creating a flexible space for each sitter to show off whatever mood felt right, from stone-faced honesty to joyful exuberance. A grid of these pictures would sit well in any portraiture survey, providing a unique foil to better known series.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $3500 or $4500, based on size. Herron’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Little Big Man Books (here). Softbound with dust jacket, 10 x 7 inches, 292 pages with numerous color photographs. Includes a text ... Read on.

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