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Pensione #1; Venice, 2000

 

T H E   S E E R   A N D   T H E   S E E N

ARTIST SEEKING MODELS 

essay by Marlena Donahue

 

Viable art is not naive enough to presume it will reinvent the wheel. Originality and the shock of the new have been rendered redundant in our post-modern, post-structuralist 21st Century.  There is, alas, almost nothing new under the sun. This is particularly true in photographic art, which has been so thoroughly mined by popular culture and mass media. 

Given this state of affairs, it is the rare photo that can hold our interest beyond the commercial, decorative, or titiliating. In this book, Lincoln Russell creates just such rare photos. With confidence, humor, and unassailable technique, Russell’s ARTIST SEEKING MODELS weds two of art history’s most visited traditions: the female nude and the artist’s self-portrait.

Each image holds its own taut drama, but the collective theme involves contemporary nude women who walk, read, gaze, relax, pose, and ponder in places like a living room, a hotel room, a kitchen, the vast expanse of a theater. The nudes are frequently in the presence of a fully clothed man (Russell), but neither the women nor the ubiquitous Everyman notice each other; and, though dressed, the male observer seems the one observed. One of the most lyrical and subtle works in the suite is a spare pensione where a draped woman looks away from us through a window while the artist’s reflection in a mirror confronts our gaze.  

We have seen the artist and his model countless times, but there is no photographic work that precisely parallels this; both classical and eccentric, lauding the canon of beauty, then winking an eye at its pretense. In painting, one thinks of Delvaux’s surreal tableaux where somnambulist, passive women walk in dreamy spaces and suited men stare: male id confronts the super ego. There’s a bit of this in Russell's work. A cinematic parallel might be the unapologetic eroticism of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut— long limbs, masks, the cut of white shoulder, the free interchange of dream and real time.  There’s some of this as well, but Russell’s work is neither so maudlin nor so forced.

Distant photo relatives might be Weston’s abstracted nudes (referenced in Russell’s stunning Orchard; Richmond 1997), or Kertész’s distortions (Russell’s 10,000 Rocks; Lee, 1996). Also called to mind are the conceptual photos of Cindy Sherman, who deconstructs the ironies of photography and gender by making her body both the subject and the object of the lens. But none of these quite hits the complexity of this artist's wry elegance or his knack for showing us intangible things like desire deferred, connection in disconnection, a world that is surreal and silent yet lusty and in-your-face at once.

The book was culled from five years of photographing luscious ladies in gorgeous places like Venice, Paris, Manhattan and the countryside of Russell’s own bucolic Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts. What’s that silly adage?  “Tough work, but someone has to do it…”  Don’t be fooled by this. The easy grace, the luxuriant longing you sense, the way that light swathes and guides narrative, the lucidity and variety of the platinum tones achieved, all of that is deliberate, thoughtful, schooled, and the culmination of twenty-five years of experience and dues-paying by a widely published photographer who’s mastered his métier.

On the one hand, the exacting command of process in these images speaks to order, clarity, precision of execution: a traditional perfectionist calibrating every detail. We can almost feel Russell the stage designer planning pose and gesture in a clean classical image like Tapestry. In that same photo, however, the eccentricities of panavision as well as the eccentricities of Russell’s vision turn the women’s arms into what can be described only as evaporating wings. This becomes a signature in many of these photographs and, as a counterfoil to preciousness, it really works. The point is that against Russell’s assiduous process, there is this spunky rule-breaking, a way he courts the uncertain and the rambunctious, envisioning emotional spaces just shy of the forbidden.

One speculates that these rich oppositions emanate from who Russell is, from his life. The son of teachers and scholars who pushed literature, classical music, Shakespeare, in Russell’s view worked too hard, toed the line too closely, and (as only he can put it)  “preferred sensible shoes”.  Practicality still annoys their son; one imagines he prefers to go barefoot. Russell’s maternal grandparents were affluent intelligentsia who added to the life of the mind a sense of privileged ease. Somewhere in this heady childhood mix, Russell became a sort of black hole of information: he can romp across literature, wine, ancient mythology, the history of music, the chemistry of photo emulsions, the meter in an opera by Mahler— not necessarily in that order but at that speed.   

This boundary breaker and explorer left high school, went to Mexico in the late 60s, came back, graduated, worked at a string of odd jobs, then landed first in the mail room and then in the chemical research department of Polaroid.  (There is some irony in the fact that Russell would return to Polaroid years later, commissioned to demonstrate SX-70 cameras and film.)  Research at Polaroid was followed by the study of journalism at Boston University. He journeyed to Morocco, made a photograph of a mosque that won an award, and then in 1977 he hung out his shingle. Success came quickly in the form of corporate work, portraiture, and architectural photography.

Through all of his bread and butter activity, however, Russell continually made photos for himself— street scenes with a Leica—and as early as 1977 he began to experiment with panoramas. In 1996 he decided to turn his exclusive attention to fine art photography.  "I did not see myself as an artist per se with all the role-playing that involves, but I always saw myself as having an artistic vision or leading an artistic life. Design was a given form me, I never worked at it or thought about it, it was just there. I do recall reading National Geographic and thinking, that is something I could do, it would allow me to travel, to get in on the inside…It is amazing what a camera permits you to do, how it opens doors.”

Russell first made a name for himself with insightful documents of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Since the late 70s, Russell has traveled with the world renowned BSO and it's equally famous conductor, Seiji Ozawa, across the globe, become an intimate friend of the fabled maestro, and published a handsome fine art book on the subject.

A show at the Berkshire Museum in the late 90s featured images from the Seiji book, some of the fist nudes in this suite, and very early works dating back to the 70s that show Russell testing the limits of the panorama format even then. Early wide-angle experiments caught crowds at a papal visit, turned a red car into a streak across the frame. Even then, Russell was interested in the ironies of capturing motion in the essentially still art of photography and marking the passage of time in a medium whose essence is to stop time.

In ARTIST SEEKING MODELS, a more mature and technically grounded artist returns to these issues and to the panorama format that he has investigated for more than two decades. For these images Russell uses a rotating lens camera with an enormously wide, 146-degree angle-of-view. As the lens pans from left to right, time passes— as long as 60 seconds in some of these images. Vanishing points change. The same figure can appear twice, simultaneously entering and leaving, looking toward and looking away. The long exposure allows the artist to compose and then place himself into the work, giving up the safety photographers have always enjoyed behind the camera. The long exposure and the moving lens also capture motion. All sorts of accidental distortions and permutations are possible, the final results of which are first seen only in the darkroom.

“It’s a strange alchemy because I never know exactly what will happen; it’s like making something that you carefully plan, hope to control, and then having the courage to back away and let the process unfold. One of my favorite photographers, Cartier-Bresson, talks about waiting for the decisive moment. I decided I would try to make the decisive moment happen.”

The audacious sensuality and sheer beauty of this book will raise questions about the objectified nude, sexual voyeurism, and the male gaze undressing the female form in stone and pulp for millennia. As an art historian who studies and teaches issues of gender, these are relevant concerns to me.  They have been raised in current conceptual photographs by Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and others. Here it must be said that Russell’s women are neither idealized media types nor eternal icons of the Praxiteliean goddess. There is something about them that is so darn common. They are just women; pretty enough, short and tall, hard-edged, overly round, plain, exotic, saggy, lusciously real, and in certain and important respects more naked than nude.

One thinks of T.J. Clark’s distinction between the female nude of classicism and the naked women of realism. Russell’s women vacillate between these extremes and are infinitely more authentic and enduring because they do. The artist gives us post-feminist women absolutely possessed and comfortable, in charge of their bodies, claiming their psychic and narrative moment in the same way that Manet’s infamous model took her empowered, controversial place on the grass some hundred years back.

One more art cliché must be addressed here. Regarding the myth of the artist/Pygmalion/genius, Russell manages a clever inversion of tradition. Ironically, the artist strikes this writer as a transient visitor in the very world he invents/controls. He may place the models, orchestrate the light, incline the vase just so, and enter the scene. And even with this, the artist is in his world but never of it. Things happen around him. Of all the dramatis personae in ARTIST SEEKING MODELS, the clothed and tenuous Russell seems the most fragile. A more apt metaphor for the futility of hierarchy I cannot imagine. Maybe this content is unconscious—overt or covert, this sort of rich allusion makes old things new again.

In closing, it must be said that Lincoln Russelll does something here that marks every real artist I have spoken to in eighteen years of art-writing: he risks himself.  “As I approached my 25th year of making photographs, I decided to bring together the most challenging circumstances and see if I could make it work.”  Panorama photography is impossible to rein in without great skill and discretion— anything less ends up looking like corny student work and calendar art. The black-and-white platinum surface is intimate, rich, less forgiving of error than silver, and demands years of experience to envision, anticipate and print.  Russell mixes and masters both. 

“This work has been about more than form for me….I was asking things like could I go to places where I am a stranger, photograph such loaded subject matter successfully, so that it was not salacious; could I revive clichés and make them interesting, even funny, could I leave the safety of being behind the lens; if something made me nervous, could I turn that tension into something beautiful? Could I tolerate uncertainty, could I go to the place of ‘what if?' I think these aren’t just art questions, they are life questions.”

Indeed Lincoln, they are.