JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 black and white photographs, mounted unframed behind glass, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1976 and 1988 or undated. Physical sizes range from roughly 5×9 to 7×10 inches (or reverse) and edition sizes are either 25 or unique. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Over the past year or two, there has been a growing swell of conversation in the photography community around the male gaze as applied to the female nude form, and a newfound questioning of the inherent dynamics of desire that infuse such imagery, even when the formal qualities of bodies appear to be the primary subject. This has led to a progressive but distinct change in how the work of heterosexual male photographers who make (or have made) such imagery is perceived, and a renewed interest in those female photographers who have thoughtfully engaged with the nude female form across the history of the medium. In effect, an important rebalancing has been taking place, bringing the perspectives of women (both in front of and behind the camera) into sharper focus.
Given this context, this exhibit of the work of the French photographer, novelist, memoirist, and critic Hervé Guibert comes along at an opportune time, as it allows us to add the nuances of the homosexual male gaze into the adjusted equation. Guibert was a prolific, risk taking writer whose work ranged from his essays as photography critic at Le Monde (in the late 1970s and early 1980s) to more diaristic journals, novels, and quasi-autobiographical books, all of which came to a premature end with his death of AIDS in 1991 at the age of 36. As seen in this show, Guibert was also an able photographer, whose sensual nude portraits of various friends and lovers are evidence of an artist who was keenly aware of what the acts of looking and being seen could represent.
Guibert’s photographs are the intellectual and aesthetic opposite of abstracted form-driven nudes. They are resolutely personal, full of rich highlights and shadows, where the gaze of the photographer is an almost tactile part of the images. When Guibert looks at Thierry or Vincent (two of his lovers/partners) or others, the contours of their bodies and the subtleties of their poses are given vitality by the artist’s intense attention. Yes, there is objectification, but it is part and parcel of the attraction that is taking place, and Guibert doesn’t hide his active stare. Even when he turns his camera on himself in two nude-from-the-waist-down mirror selfies, he does so in a way that makes them studies of his own self-appraising gaze.
Many of the images in the show are filled with intimacy and closeness, even when they chronicle everyday routines like sleeping in, washing up, or lounging around. Bedroom images pay attention to sleeping shoulders, lazily spread legs, and a pensive turn to the side, where tenderness mixes with simmering longing and male beauty is given a shadow of mystery.
Bathroom rituals are equally charged. Thierry bends forward with a drape of towel at his waist, the curve of his back decorated with the raised lumps of his spine. Vincent stands in casual profile against a white tile wall, his youthful face both statuesque and vulnerable. And an image of the nude Thierry washing his face in a basin echoes a similarly composed female nude by Willy Ronis, the country setting and open door bringing easy going languor to the looking.
Other works add a dose of playacting to the image making, creating roles and performances for both viewer and viewed. Thierry poses nude covered in gauzy drapery like a flowy bridal veil, the anticipation of the reveal giving the image its crackle. When he hides behind the bold pattern of an iron door, with a sheet hanging over the edge, the view of his naked body is coyly interrupted, delaying and frustrating the interaction. Another friend lies like a corpse on a table under the trees, his body like an offering. In each case, Guibert’s presence is heavily felt, although it lies just outside the frame.
While Guibert’s devouring gaze is muted by the silent simplicity of the rooms in which these images were made, the potency of his attention is deeply felt. There are echoes of the more pared down work of Mark Morrisroe in these pictures, but Guibert’s eye seems to mix sentimental romance with lustful intentions with a different kind of poise and restraint. The photographs feel like a kind of searching, where the touch of skin provides the electricity that is being sought.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $4000 each. Guibert’s photographs have little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.