Flesh and Form: Remembering George Platt Lynes
By Matt Fink
While not dogged by persecution in the way of, say, Caravaggio, George Platt Lynes was a trailblazing mid-Century fashion and fine art photographer compelled to partially conceal during his lifetime a large, artistically significant portion of his oeuvre. Living an outsized, colorful life, his seems to have been, rather than direct institutional repression, a case of preemptive self-censure: he was careful to not publish his private studio work during his lifetime, at least not under his own name. Instead, Platt Lynes gifted a large amount of his erotic work to the Kinsey Institute just prior to his death from lung cancer in 1955, essentially hoping that the pictures would, once social mores loosened to the requisite degree, be viewed and appreciated, be it from the point of view of pure aesthetics, eroticism, or (ideally) both.
Life likely started to make sense for George Platt Lynes (b. 1907), an artistically-inclined gay man raised among New Jersey’s comfortable classes, after his feet first hit Parisian soil in 1925. He was soon mixing comfortably with the city’s bohemian elite.
In Paris, Platt Lynes solidified relationships with two men that would see him through much of his personal and professional life. These were Monroe Wheeler, who would go on to enjoy a successful career as an art curator, and Glenway Wescott, a poet and novelist. Taken together, the two slightly older men became for the brash would-be artist both an emotional anchor and a muse.
The photographer might have ended up a writer had it not been for the habit he had of exhaustively photographing not only his journeys with Wheeler and Wescott, but his companions’ unclad bodies. These early assays with the form are unabashedly erotic: the viewer’s eye in both cases is invited to caress every contour of sinew, bone and muscle, each carefully shaded buttock dimple…and each prominently featured, tumescent cock.
In 1929, Wescott & Wheeler (or W&W, for brevity’s sake) paid a call to Platt Lynes’ residence in Englewood, New Jersey, where he was convalescing from a ruptured appendix. It was there that he showed his two companions the photographic evidence of their budding romance. W&W agreed: their menage a trois’ youngest member had a talent and it ought to be nurtured. To that effect, Platt Lynes was supplied with lights, tripod, darkroom equipment and a new camera. Armed thusly to the teeth, he returned to Paris in 1930, where he further honed what was once but a hobby into a professional pursuit.
In 1934, a new ballet company opened in New York, headed by the now-legendary European choreographer/dance George Balanchine. Ever the social adept, Platt Lynes positioned himself as the only man to take this eminence’s portrait. Balanchine had high regard for Platt Lynes’ work (he once stated that “George’s pictures will contain, as far as I’m concerned, all that will be remembered of my repertory in a hundred years”), and the photographer, aside from his earnings with the company, now had access to a revolving door of well-built models.
His income insufficient for the maintenance of what by all accounts was a lavish lifestyle, Platt Lynes diversified his workload with contributions to a slew of high-level publications, including Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. Amidst this, Platt Lynes’ relationship with W&W continued apace: in 1934, the three men established a household together on East 89th Street. Despite the fact that this love triangle’s lines of affection weren’t always evenly measured, they lived together until 1943.
War broke out in 1941 with the destruction of Pearl Harbor, and Platt Lynes was summoned by his local draft board on Long Island. However, he was quickly turned away. The reason for the rejection is difficult to ascertain, but his brother Russell has suggested it was due to his sexual orientation. But while the hands of war never got anywhere near Platt Lynes, their grasp did have an indirect effect: in 1942, his studio assistant and lover, George Tichenor, was killed in action. Platt Lynes soon ameliorated the pain of his absence by hiring the deceased man’s younger brother, Jonathan, who likewise became his lover. So taken was he with this younger and (more alive) Tichenor that in 1943 he tendered his resignation from the firm of W&W.
Such gilded East Coast pleasures notwithstanding, Platt Lynes’ fleet-footedness proved as irrepressible as ever, helped this time by Hollywood and its mythic promise; ensconcing himself in the Hollywood Hills, he churned out bread-and-butter work (celebrity portraits) while simultaneously producing the beloved nudes, for which he now pressed into service the swarms of sailors brought to L.A. by the war.
And just as generations of gifted New Yorkers have answered Hollywood’s siren song, so too have they been shot out its dirty tailpipe with little ceremony, either by destitution or by the entertainment industry’s habit of strangling creativity with the rusty iron gauntlets of commerce. Platt Lynes, washing his hands of Los Angeles, returned to New York in 1948.
The last seven years of Platt Lynes’ life seems to have been, at least in part, a frenzied dog paddle to stay ahead of an ever-rising swell of badly managed finances. His carefully lit and staged style of fashion photography was falling out of favor, to be substituted by the more fluid, spontaneous work of, among others, Richard Avedon. He died of lung cancer on December 6, 1955 at New York Hospital.
Both unabashedly smutty and refined, Lynes’ nudes were, above all, a through line, an umbilical lifeline, in fact, for an otherwise chaotic, Dionysian and wildly peripatetic life, a thread long half-buried in the soil of intolerance, gradually disinterred over the decades since his death and displayed where it should be: before the gaze of an appreciative public in an unapologetic state of impeccable undress.
This article has been condensed and edited. To learn more about George Platt Lynes and his work, check our latest issue RISK