JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1974 and 1988 and printed in 1993. Each is sized roughly 15×19 and no edition information was provided. Many of the images were included in the 1992 photobook Stills published by Twin Palms (here). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: When we describe photography as being “cinematic”, we are often referring to a type of visual storytelling that relies on motion or the passage of time, or perhaps to a specific set of shots and camera angles that are regularly used by cinematographers. Individual photographs can be built up into cinematic narratives and series, and when we reverse the flow, film stills can be drawn out of a movie to stand alone as single frames. As distinct from photographs, film stills generally capture the high points of cinematic action or drama, when the moments become so charged with energy or symbolic significance that they resonate on their own.
James Herbert’s tactile black and white photographs are drawn from his many short films made in the 1980s, but they don’t really operate in the way we have come to expect film stills to behave. Using a process where individual frames were projected on a wall and then rephotographed and enlarged, Herbert’s images seem to deliberately avoid singular moments and memorable iconic views, instead opting to show us the fleeting and the ephemeral, the in-between scenes where more subtle emotions quietly reveal themselves.
Languorous nude figures, both male and female, populate Herbert’s photographs, the shadowy moments charged with simmering eroticism. Youthful bodies lounge around, alone and in tangled embraces and couplings, their easy going comfort with being naked giving the scenes a sense of gentle tenderness. We watch as they quietly touch, or wait in anticipation, or simply rest or smoke or stand around in the heat.
In many ways, Herbert’s images are a foil for Larry Clark’s pictures from Teenage Lust, which were made at roughly the same time. But while Clark’s photographs have an overt brashness and gritty explicitness to them, Herbert’s intimate views dissolve into a grainy softness that might be called painterly or pictorial, the poetic romanticism of the aesthetic making his impressions seem even more like fantasies or amorous daydreams rather than frank documents of youthful sexiness. A few of the images are even classical in their themes, with graceful intertwining limbs and artful drapery that wouldn’t be out of place in a Greek frieze. And cracked windows, gauzy curtains, rumpled bedsheets, and empty rooms provide backdrops and settings that artfully match the mood.
Aside from one earnest kiss (that recalls Edvard Munch’s woodcut of a similar embrace) and a few tentative touches on beds and in the backseats of cars, most of the connections in Herbert’s pictures seem relatively calm – these are the before or after moments that surround the intensity of passion, where the nudity seems relaxed and the gestures are easy going and accepting. His male nudes are particularly restrained and fluidly natural, exhibiting very little showing off of bodies or deliberate posing. They exude a sense of thoughtful leisure, from leaning against a wall and standing in the sunlight to dozing with a dog and bending to check a foot in a doorway.
In the end, Herbert’s nudes settle into a niche that walks back from the street-wise realities of Nan Goldin, coating youthful authenticity with a patina of dappled lyricism. His pictures are steeped in a swirl of carefree living, the slow afternoons filled with relaxing, open-ended exploration, the pressures of real life pushed far away.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $4500 each. Herbert’s photographs have little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.