Sunday, January 31, 2010

From Beefcake to the Most Delicate Silhouettes

There was a happy day when, without thinking much about it, I could count on the publishers of photography books to provide me with my husband's birthday and Christmas presents. I needn't worry if I hadn't seen anything appropriate in the department stores or heard him mention a menswear designer he admired. Back then, he was an executive-type, always in need of something from Brooks Brothers. Easiest thing in the world. Whatever I spent on what seemed to me rather anonymous business gear, it was always money well spent, almost a business expense, so far as dear A. was concerned. As an hourly clerk working in a bookstore, I could ill-afford his good, if conservative taste in middle-class habiliment, but I could just manage a new shirt, an alligator wallet or a new silk tie. Hardly the stuff of romance, these pieces of practical finery, but I always felt, as when I saved to buy him a new briefcase he'd admired, that in some small way, I was doing my part to maintain his dignity and our primary income. But I'm not a wife, and back then, the word "husband" still had an irony attached to it for us that usage and experience have subsequently, surprisingly, worn away. (Who would have guessed?) The term one used most often then, perfectly acceptable amongst ourselves, if rather provocative in mixed company, was "lover," and I could hardly be satisfied giving my lover a tie, however happy it made him, now could I? After a few less than successful experiments with flowers, candy, beribboned champagne flutes -- as it turned out, neither of us ever became a wine aficionado, even at New Year's, pop records, comic aprons, and supposedly sexy silk drawers, I finally hit on something that perfectly suited his more salacious side, my budget and my line of work and started getting him nudes.

There was, back then, something of a boom in fag photography. In addition to the more refined offerings of the major art publishers in which establishment fashion and art types felt themselves finally liberated to share the record of their tricks and or print their blue studies of rent-boys-as-fawns, openly gay photographers were finding their more erotically and politically charged work collected and published in book form for the first time. Mapplethorpe having made hard-ons fashionable for the gallery set, there was also an ongoing effort to reclaim the gay cultural past by reprinting in large, handsomely made books, the lost studio-snaps of the likes of "Bruce of Los Angeles," and other quaintly camp pornographers from the Age of the Physique Pictorials, as well as the pioneering smut of the ancients, such as the exiled pedo-aesthete and dilettante photographer, Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, whose pictures of naked Sicilians with dirty feet were rediscovered and, long after all parties involved had probably passed over into forgetfulness, reborn as a indispensable record of lost, well-hung innocence. With the boom in respectable, book-bound porn, finding something for my lover in the way of artful ass to wrap up and slip under the tree come Christmas became as easy as buying the man cuff links. True, often as not, there was quite a bit of gushy, introductory academic prose made to justify the whole enterprise of making coffee-table-books out of "Old Reliable" excons flexing their tattoos and exposing their rather touching tan-lines, but one only read these books as an afterthought. I don't think anyone in the target market had to endorse all that windy historicism to enjoy browsing through a review of Korean War veterans in their bashful black and white all-together, or color Polaroids of drug-addled hippies slipping out of their cut-offs and tube-socks and grinning at the discovery of their tumescence as at an unexpected vision of love, peace and understanding. It was all such fun! True, there was the occasional grim beauty of a Nan Goldin junky, or an interleaved image or two of some sad adolescent girlfriend, but for the most part, the books I bought for A. provided us all -- and here I include all the friends who gathered over the years for various holidays at our house -- with hours of blameless quiet, which gave dear A. time to finish baking the pie.

But all good things come to an end. The day came when, bookshelves groaning under the weight of over-sized art books, and the Internet less expensively and more conveniently providing us with eye-candy, dear A. said, "Enough," and suggested he would rather have the new Josh Groban recording, or a porkpie hat for his birthday, or nothing at all for Christmas, as it would just be the two of us, and we really wanted to buy a flat-screen TV this year, or fix my shower floor, or finally get a back-splash put in behind the stove. (And that, my dears, is when one knows that one is married, for richer, for poorer, etc. and for life.)

So I seldom buy art books of any description anymore. My excuse for acquiring big, expensive books of nude photography has been taken from me, and sadly, not a moment too soon, as the boom has long since bust. Pickin's these days are slim.

But there are still beautiful, big art books that I still covet, books that fill me, for whatever reason, with something like the excitement of those other, earlier visual feasts of flesh, but that could not be more remote from that subject matter. A book published by Rizolli, just last September, Silhouette: The Art of The Shadow, by the art historian, Emma Rutherford, at $65.00, is really well beyond my present means, but that hasn't prevented me from keeping it for a week at my desk, carefully turning the pages in any spare moment and marveling at the treasures the author has collected up.

I've cut some silhouettes myself. I decorated my first college dormitory room with facing images in black and white of Balinese dancers I'd cut just for that purpose. My first roommate, a baseball scholarship freshman, named "Spike," failed to sufficiently appreciate my efforts, I thought. A couple of years ago, I cut profiles of some famous poets for a contest at the bookstore during National Poetry Month. I thought these not bad.

I can only appreciate how little I've mastered of the art now that there is, in Rutherford's book, a real record of just how extraordinarily well this sort of thing was once done, even by such rank amateurs as myself. Such beauties in this book! And such variation! A whole school of silhouette making, in which "bronzing" and gold paint and leaf were used to elaborate the features, or black ink was added in the most delicate flourishes to describe lace and elaborate hairdos, was previously unknown to me. The most amazing scenes of multiple characters and crowded setting, full of activity and motion, were done in silhouettes the like of which I'd never seen, or certainly never seen in such abundant example, before. This book is a remarkable record of a largely lost art, and a priceless bit of good curatorial scholarship. It would be a priceless prize for my library, had I the money to buy it before it is inevitably remained someday.

The story told in it is as interesting, in some ways, as the art itself, tracing what was a fad of an earlier century all the way back to Greek vases and the like. If Rutherford's prose is rather dry and without fuss, she has had the sense now and again to quote more amusing historical criticism of the form, such as in this:

"In his 'Shades: An Essay on English Portrait Silhouettes,' Sir David Piper (1970) describes how the silhouettist, bored with the painted black profile, 'went whoring after the third dimension.'"

And those gilded flourishes I find so fascinating? They are described in a quote from a contemporary craftsman as being "niggling, tortured," and a disservice to the sitter, so there we are. There's no accounting for taste. But the words aside, the book itself is a beautiful thing, and crowded with examples of amazing variety, from the most elaborate and artful aristocratic portraits, to the sweetest little silhouettes made as inexpensive memorials of common people, and, in one particularly charming example, even Queen Victoria's dog, Dash.

Emma Rutherford's is one, had I room on the shelf, and money in my pocket, I would happily add to our somewhat eclectic collection of oversized art books, and should it indeed make its way someday to one of the bargain tables, I will. The author needn't blush at the thought, as I'd put her next to Edward Lear's beautiful birds, maybe, or on the table with the volume of Cecil Beaton portraits and a collection of Phiz drawings I bought used for myself a Christmas or two ago. I'd promise not to put her in the steamroom atmosphere of most of the books I bought dear A. over the years. I fear all those glorious pages of Georgian ladies and gentlemen in profile would curl in such company.

Though some of those gilded old rou├ęs, and not a few of the ladies, might feel right at home in our collection.


  1. Hi Brad - Emma Rutherford here - I am sitting at my desk in London smiling at your post! I have read a few reviews of my book now and this is by far the best - thank you...sorry about my dry prose - I tried not to bring too much of myself to what is essentially a story which needs little fuss (a bit like the silhouettes themselves!). If you can send your address to my email - - I will see whether I can get a free book sent to you and I can nestle on the shelves next to Edward wishes, Emma

  2. Dry, as a Londoner, like a Seattlite, can appreciate, is not always a bad thing! I apologize if I seemed to suggest otherwise. I love your book!