A Group Photographic Exhibition At Etherton Gallery Plants One On The Old Pueblo.
By Margaret Regan
TRY, JUST TRY, to browse the big Kissing show at Etherton Gallery without having the lyrics of romantic pop songs drift unsummoned into your brain.
Take, for instance, Robert Doisneau's 1950 picture of a young man seizing his love on the streets of Paris and planting a big one on her lips. This dreamy black-and-white picture is a virtual catalogue of everything our culture deems romantic. If you can look at it without thinking of Hupfeld's lines, later immortalized in the movie Casablanca, or maybe of Lucinda Williams' ode to "Passionate Kisses," well, you're just immune to pop culture.
In fact, though this entertaining exhibition offers up all manner of kisses from maternal to lusty, it demonstrates that the songs and movies of pop culture have more than a little to do with our notions of kissing, or, as the academics would put it, with our cultural construction of the kiss. Consider that the show contains no fewer than 13 kisses photographed in France, most of those recognizably in Paris, the romance capital of filmdom. And if you forget Paris, you'll still find a solid number of beach kisses of the hot-and-heavy variety and farewell kisses at the train station (in Valeri Krupsky's 1982 "The Kiss" the woman left behind leaps up to the train window). Both categories of kiss, train and beach, are Hollywood staples. Movie stills form another subset of images in the show, and off-screen celebs pecking each other's cheeks still another.
The traveling exhibition, fortified by a few local contributors such as Frances Murray and Keith McElroy, shows exactly 108 versions of the kiss, from almost as many photographers. It's not arranged chronologically, but it can be read as a kind-of history of photography revealing the surprising fact that the kiss has been a recurring theme since the medium's beginnings. Starting with Eadward Muybridge's 1887 collotype, which scientifically dissects the motions of a child toddling towards his doting mother, the show goes on up to 1990s postmodern. Dan Fauci, for instance, has a 1995 silver print that's a picture of a picture of Madonna kissing somebody. And because the kiss is universal, themes are repeated: Besides the ubiquitous lovers, there are soldiers departing and returning, parents bussing children, brides and grooms. There's even a political kiss. (The only one missing, it seems, is the famous 1945 Times Square pic of the sailor kissing the nurse when peace broke out.)
If early on photographers responded to the real-life kissing all around them, nowadays they are forced to react not only to the photographic kisses that have gone before them, but also to the infinity of kisses on the silver screen and elsewhere in the mass media. George Hurrell's 1933 silver print is a classic Hollywood icon, showing the star-studded prelude to a kiss. John Barrymore in profile (is there any other kind of Barrymore?) bends toward the uplifted lips of Greta Garbo. A series of 1970s prints by Christopher Makos chronicles public-consumption kisses between a vacuous Andy Warhol and numerous other trendies, including Liza Minelli, the architect Philip Johnson and John Lennon (the Lennon picture is in the catalog but not in the show). There's even the famous posed full-body kiss of a naked Lennon clinging to an impassive, clothed Yoko Ono, taken by rock-and-roll photographer Annie Liebovitz just months before Lennon's 1980 death.
The photographers in this show sometimes ironically ape the pop-culture kiss, and sometimes deliberately subvert it. Keith Carter spoofs filmland melodrama in his "Bloodhound and Raccoon" (1988), in which the animals smooch in front of a backdrop painted with jubilant cherubs and swirling clouds. Other photographers deliberately strip the lovers' kiss of its romance, picturing it instead as the prelude to raw sexuality. A young couple glimpsed in the corner of a sordid hallway, he in leather, she in spike heels, in Mandy Vahabzadeh's "New York City," 1981, hardly seem to have angels dancing in their heads: Their slow burn is headed not for the heavenly but for the horizontal.
Other photographers of the erotic defy conventional categories, pushing into the homoerotic, autoerotic and even the bestial. There are kisses between men, in Bruce Crastley's "Beach Kiss, Fire Island," 1988, and between women, in Greg Gorman's "Sister #5," 1990. The noted Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe has an autoerotic image of a woman called "Mouse," 1964. Several contemporary photographers, including Liebovitz and Richard Avedon, experiment with the shock value of stars coupled with animals, Avedon arriving at a rather silly picture from 1982 of the beauteous Nastassja Kinski nakedly entwined with a snake.
But some of the most heartfelt work has nothing to do with deconstructing Gone with the Wind or overturning the gender hierarchies of Casablanca. Pioneering photographer André Kertesz captured a pair of fervent "Lovers" in Budapest in 1915. His intense image of their stolen kiss, probably in a public park, established a benchmark for all later photographers of passionate kisses. Ernst Haas did the same thing for future war photographers with his 1947 picture of a sobbing mother clutching her son ("Homecoming Prisoners of War, Vienna").
Their archetypal images will continue to shape photography, because, as this show persuades us, photogs will go right on picturing the kiss. After all, it's the fundamental thing.
Kissing: A Group Photography Exhibition and Mayme Kratz: Fragments of a Former Life continue through November 9 at Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with hours extended until 7 p.m. Thursdays, and 7 to 10 p.m. on the first and third Saturdays of the month. For more information call 624-7370.
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