Pusey Displays Long-Lost Celebrity Photographs

For over two decades, hundreds of portraits of the last century’s most influential performers, authors and philosophers sat uncataloged within Harvard’s archives.

These works by photographer George Platt Lynes document the elite of New York’s artistic circles in the 1930s and ’40s.

When Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts asked to borrow fashion photographs from the Harvard Theatre Collection for an exhibit last year, Harvard curator F.W. Wilson says he was reminded of the long-forgotten collection of Lynes’ work.

A year later, 60 of Lynes’ best prints hang in Pusey Library, demonstrating the ever-present significance of fashion photography, Wilson says.

Dramatic, hauntingly glamorous and sometimes surreal, Wilson’s selections feature Lynes’ trademark dark foregrounds with subjects lit from just behind the head. In one classic image, dancer Martha Graham stands with her arms placed above her head in an angst-ridden pose. Another, of Tennessee Williams, shows the playwright gazing off to the right in a black sweater with torn sleeves.

“That was a studio prop,” Wilson says. “Cecil Beaton, a very fashionable man who designed the costumes for My Fair Lady, was also photographed in that sweater.”

The collection was donated in 1981 by Frederick R. Koch ’55, who had acquired the photographs at auction. Although a few of them were featured in Vogue and other magazines, many were privately commissioned portraits or photographs of friends—the pieces that Lynes kept for his personal collection, Wilson says.

Most of them are high quality proofs, uncropped versions of photographs in which the negative’s edges are visible. Because Lynes labeled his negatives, archivists can identify the precise date and pose number of certain photographs.

Lynes developed the prints himself, making them more rare. The angles, the shading and the contrasts are the culmination of his personal attention to his subjects.

In the small number of self-portraits scattered throughout the exhibit, viewers can glimpse Lynes’ involvement in the photographic process. In some, he appears camera in hand. In another, he stands posed in a harlequin costume.

As a whole, the exhibition begins to reveal the story behind a dynamic personality and his significant influence on the field of photography.

Lynes’ early friendship with Gertrude Stein helped him find a foothold in the Paris avant garde art world even before he took up professional photography.

He stumbled onto his future medium when a Parisian friend offered him her photographic equipment in 1929. Within a few years he was featured in New York art galleries, and in 1946 he became chief photographer at Vogue magazine.

Openly gay, he carried on affairs with personalities like Lincoln Kirstein, founder of the New York City Ballet, according to Wilson.

In addition to the extensive fashion and theater photography displayed in Pusey, Lynes is best known today for his male nudes, of which Harvard does not own any examples.

Many of these are stored at what may be the only other archive with original Lynes photographs—the University of Indiana’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. Alfred Kinsey himself, a frequent patron of Lynes’ work, is displayed in the show.

Because of “the people he chose and photographed and had access to,” Wilson says, it is hard to divorce Lynes’ work from the sexual politics of his social circles.

Lynes associated with many other prominent homosexuals in the New York art world, according to several biographers. Kirstein, for example, introduced Lynes to many of the elite dancers featured in the exhibit.

Despite the prevalence of sexuality in the discourse surrounding Lynes, Wilson says this show is “not about sexuality.”

“We want visitors to appreciate Lynes as an artist,” Wilson says. “We hope people will see research potential—historians of art, photography, fashion. I don’t think there were very many photographers who had such a sense of composition and of finding the way to represent a person.”

—“Portrait Photographs by George Platt Lynes” is on display until Feb. 28 at the Harvard Theatre Collection in Pusey Library.

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