RED IS A DANGEROUS color to mess around with. Blood, Chinese weddings, Commies, embarrassment, the cause of Harvard Square's redestruction, one half of Stendhal's best book, one third of the American flag, and one quarter of Ronald Reagan's hair dye are some of the highly charged subjects associated with this band in the electromagnetic spectrum.
One wonders why anyone would try to cut through such semiotic superabundance for the sake of crafting a new madder metaphor. What is it about scarlet and its ilk that would simultaneously produce two completely unrelated books of photography devoted to pictorial variations on the same red object? Kenn Duncan's Red Shoes comprises 42 photos of the famous in fuchsia footgear, Kevin Clarke and Horst Wackerbarth's The Red Couch is the record of the amazing overland odyssey of twin crimson chaises through the heart of America.
Though both books use their respective red objects as gimmicks to tie the photographs together, the snapshots and the snapshooters hail from widely divergent areas of the KodaColor World. Duncan specializes in dance photography, that magic art of dissimulation that turns aging Nuryevs into air-bound youths, or transforms a Natalia Markarova into a Natassia Kinski. These f-stop Michaelangelos glory in sweat, stretches, and lots of straining muscle, and a big hunk of Duncan's photos are devoted to lesser known celebs for the sake of their better built bodies.
Clarke and Wackerbarth represent two other extremes: Clarke the intellectually artistic, and Wackerbarth the commercially artistic. Previous collaborators on a West German exhibition project, both men share an ideal of photography that demands intellectual as well as purely aesthetic content. The surprisingly copious text was written by William Least Heat Moon (chosen perhaps because his first book was entitled Blue Highways).
Red Shoes is the lesser of the two books in every way; fewer pages, less expensive, and less ambitious. Duncan has not so much created a metaphor as unleashed a myth from the collective subconscious of the American moviegoer. The post-Jungian archetype of Red Shoes is featured prominently on its cover: Dorothy's Ruby Slippers from the Wizard of Oz. As you will recall, the Ruby Slippers were both Dorothy's validation sticker into Oz and her ticket out, the tangible insignia of an intangible fantasy. Capitalizing on this inspiration, Duncan's are symbolically restricted to role-playing and fantasy fulfillment, and his subjects snatched exclusively from the performing arts and inserted into a bare studio. Some of the stars are content to glide on their images: Makarova as a buck 'n' wing ballerina, Marcel Marceau as the eternal mime, and Joan Rivers in one of those flouncy $2,0000 haute couture gowns that on her becomes transformed into WalMart weekend specials.
Other personalities are a little more adventuresome: the sedate Dick Cavett appears as a circus acrobat, Liv Ulmann becomes a, Erte' print, Jean Marsh strips down to a mega-clcavaged chef, and Chita Rivera reincarnates as Jean Harlow. Every one of them wearing red shoes and synopsized by an National Enquirer cutline. Two particularly obnoxious examples:
"He had just completed the filming of A Strectcar Named Desire with Ann-Margaret... What a treat. He could be the prince of any city" (Treat Williams).
"Remember the "Pinup Girl?" Well, she has returned once again and is divine." (Bette Midler)
This sycophantic praise-mongering is right in step with the tone of photos. Duncan is a slave to his subjects, a photographer who glorifies rather than analyzes, who retouches instead of revealing. Impeccably crafted and consummately executed, Red Shoes only serves to massage some show-business egos and provide a temporary fix for the People Magazine crowd.
Wackerbarth and Clarke take the different tack of tacky. Since symbolic red sofas are not a literary or cinematic commonplace, they started right off with a metaphor in search of a meaning. Least Heat Moon's informative but overly journalistic commentary describes the origin of the sofa project in an unused college swimming pool, revealing in a reverent tone that the photographers initially envisioned suing the Red Couch "to disturb the commonplace into something new, and then photograph the results." The presence of the sofa in every picture imposes self-consciousness on the photos, becoming a big red photographic sic; even the most naturalistic portraits of Americans on the couch seem deliberately contrived artistic statements. The sofa, whether positioned in a patrician living room, balanced on an Alaskan canoe, or dumped on Rajneeshian haystack demands that the viewer look at the aesthetic and intellectual content of a medium that is often considered simple substitute for sight.
Where Duncan indulges his subjects. Wackerbath and Duncan challenge theirs, putting them on the couch for photographic psychoanalysis, squeezing sides out of their subjects that they often would rather not provide. Wackerbarth had to surrender the negatives for his portrait of Larry Hagman that looks far cheaper and sinister than J.R. could ever be. The injury behind the photo of the Illinois Nazis is almost as interesting as the picture itself: a deep woodpancled room with the Nazi's arranged defensively in the rear, conspicuously ignoring or suspiciously eyeing the camera.
The photographers included about twelve too many sittings of average Americans in their native environment: farms, construction sights, gravel pits. The photos that work are the most incongruous: a beach arcade owner plomped smugly against his daily haul: Steven Jobs riding the Couch down the Macintosh assembly line; meat magnate Wally Mander sitting cross-legged in his slaughterhouse, and my favorite, part-time "model" Tina L Hotsky reclining on a New York streetcorner under the watchful eye of the NYPD.
Wackerbarth always looked for a different angle on the couch: homosexuals in the act, a surrealistic family portrait of a man, woman, and a coyote, and midget actress Zeidah Rubinstein of Poltergeistian fame holding a ruler and magically shrunken sofa. Despite all this ingenuity, the Red Couch never manages to attain true metaphoric nirvana, but it manages to reach the state of a truly useful photographic tool for two talented photographers.
It is not mere coincidence that both books chose red objects as photographic themes. Red gets your attention and refuses to back down: stop signs, sunsets, the Russian flag, and fire engines are colored not for visibilities sake, but to stop action, halt movement, and freeze thought. If Santa wasn't dressed in red, how could little children believe in his omniscience? Could Superman bring truth and justice to the world if he had a yellow cape? Clearly not.
Duncan, Clarke and Wackerbath are hardly the first to tie together essentially unrelated works with a single object: Rod Serling and his cigar made a career out of it. The only way to transcend cliche is to go for it: modesty is no virtue in conceptual art. Duncan's mediocre ambition appears in every picture, while the overreaching bravado of hauling two red couches in a van for four years is captured in nearly every shot. Inevitably, the quality comes from the men and not the metaphor