(Originally published in the San Francisco periodical Photo Metro, 1991)
Fraenkel Gallery’s exhibition, The Kiss of Apollo: Photography and Sculpture 1845 to the Present, cast a hushed spell over those who entered its realm. Rich metaphors about touch, memory, and the depths of romantic pacts were visible in the camera imagery of sculptures – a medium itself a strange monument to things that are fleeting – shuttling, thus, the viewer across many levels and types of vision.
On first impression, the show felt like a memorial and a caress for lost loved ones. I found myself staking out the most bodily sensual images as way to examine my feelings about those who are gone. The powerful theme of transitory nature was assembled with astounding clarity and grace, especially since the show’s heavily romantic character involved the process of a double or triple remove, such as, tracing the gaze through a photographic framework, interpreting the objective aspects of sculpture, and finally, the subjective and selective aspects of history.
In part, the emotional impact of reading photographs depends on how well signs and symbols are combined. After all, the technologies of sculpture and photography yield very specific kinds of effects. Statuary models, for example, freeze animation thus wresting a contradictory sense of suspense. Whereas, photographs heighten a sense of tracing and pointing to objects that are no longer present. And, history imbues symbolic subtext to all our narratives, no matter when told.
Most of the photographs in the exhibition could be read as unique and stunning objects that could be procured by those with the money to do so. They also served other functions, however. As culturally specific artifacts with powerfully traceable histories, the audience’s temporary experience of these objects and their contents provided the theatrical undercurrent of the exhibition, of “be here now,” no matter the moment.
The luxurious book published by Bedford Arts documents the collection of images, therefore, outlasting the show. Here Eugenia Parry Janis, a formidable essayist, uses all her senses to describe the photographs of sculpture, down to sound metaphors in her closing remarks, such as “the language in the rustle of silk.” Several excerpts serve as excellent guide posts to what photo collector Sam Wagstaff called “the pleasure of looking and the pleasure of seeing.”
The camera image, however vague and strange it might be, retains something absolutely essential in reinforcing our experience of actual three-dimensional models, perhaps because most photographers realized they had to invent a means to replace the lost sense of touch. This produced another tantalizing experience, especially with the human figure. In photographs, sculpture appears before us in an arrangement of light that stimulates tactile values but remains something forever beyond our reach.
In viewing photographs of sculpture, we play the perceptually frustrated lover striving to find comfort in signs, gestures, aspects, fragments, and angles of vision from which to imagine the full-bodiedness of actual possession or understanding. The endeavor could hardly be more romantic, for it combines public display with the greatest intimacy.
The curious manipulation of the human form through photographic viewpoints that cause a sculpture’s gestures to appear to act out a story that lies outside of the intended subject of the work itself, in an intimate ‘situation,’ which photographers would appear to have contrived between themselves and the piece in question . . . Many photographers have entered into such private delusions with sculpture. Some appear to have confronted the modeled pieces as if they were fellow players in the psychodramas of the photographer’s making.
Recording sculpture with a camera, thus, has the power to join human beings into special pacts with objects. This could be said of all photographs of course. But in this projecting mode, the camera artist not only registers the thing but records it with the explicit aim of showing that [s]he has made a contract with it.
Through this new technology, dedicated to the here and now, sculpture offered the viewer a means to contemplate the romantic obsession with the then.
This engaging collection of images well portrays a specific culture’s idealizations through time. Along a continuum of human design and yearning, artifice serves as evidence, and artifact, of very deep affection.