Hazy Day Beach: Beach Haven is a picture 41 years in the making. When David Lebe made the photograph in 1975, then-primitive color transparencies could not match the image in his mind. By 2016, improved technology enabled Lebe to render his vision. It’s one of 145 expressive, abstract, contemplative, and sometimes explicit images tracing the artist’s evolution as a photographer and gay man in Long Light: Photographs by David Lebe at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA).
This is the first survey of Lebe, now 70, who lived in Philadelphia from 1966 to 1993. Curated by Peter Barberie of PMA’s Alfred Stieglitz Center, it organizes Lebe’s body of work into chronological and thematic stages, including technical exploration, celebrating sexual orientation, and firsthand impressions of AIDS. It’s an important perspective: Lebe came of age before AIDS and has witnessed its transformation from fatal to survivable chronic illness.
As a student at Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts), Lebe became fascinated with pinhole images, shot through miniscule apertures. He made pinhole cameras with several openings, which allowed him to take panoramic views over time by covering and uncovering apertures.
Lebe’s most ambitious pinhole, Seven Photographers Seventy-Five (1975 negative, 2015 print), was composed with a nine-aperture camera and features Philadelphia photographers of the day, including himself. Visually, it’s a little like a comic strip, but without discrete frames or narrative arc. Subjects make multiple appearances in different guises. They magically traverse the setting, acquire props, disappear, and return. The eye scans right to left, but it’s impossible to tell what’s happening or in what order. It would be fun to see how Seven Photographers was made.
These pinholes invert a photograph’s power to stop time. Rather than isolating one instant, Lebe grabs many, signaling time passing. The feeling is enhanced by knowing how long ago the images were made: The young people in Hazy Day, wearing styles of the ‘70s, no longer caper on the sand.
“The result was not a smooth uninterrupted view,” Lebe writes of the effect, “but a scrambled, pieced-together effect, the pieces fading into each other. . . . With these images, the way I thought of how space and time were captured by a camera, and were then represented in a photograph, changed.” Lebe’s pinholes are like memories, haphazardly springing to mind, untethered to time or logic.
Let there be light
Lebe may be best known for drawing with a beam of light, illustrating in darkened rooms over long exposures. Like the pinholes, the process is more easily described than imagined.
The subject of Angelo in Robe (1979 negative, 1995 print) sits in what appears to be a loft apartment. The light defines his tousled hair, facial bones, and two legs, one planted under him, the other extended along the wood floor. His position suggests dejection, but the scene glows cheerfully: The reflection from Angelo’s body illuminates the wood grain of the floor, and the room around him is implied by light from a small rug and jacket, hanging on the wall. Gallery signage indicates the work took 40 minutes to create—long in terms of shutter speed, but short considering the complexity of the image.
Lebe revealed himself in the light drawings: “The line of light came to represent, for me, a kind of energy, defining the border between persons or objects and nothingness—the inside and outside world . . . the sexual electricity we can feel along our skin when physically near someone we are attracted to. Those particular pictures were like a neon advertisement announcing the thrill of my existence as a gay man—and of all gay men. They were a way of coming out. ”
Sexual orientation and the AIDS crisis became predominant themes for Lebe, who was diagnosed with the disease in 1988. The light drawings became more abstract (Scribbles series, late 1980s) as he watched friends sicken and succumb: “The outlining dropped away. I drew freehand with the light. It was [as] if bodies had become pure energy.”
The specter of AIDS inspired several series and, though the subject is dark, Lebe’s depictions are tender, even wry. In Morning Ritual (1994-1996) he recorded his partner’s routine upon rising. Tight close-ups show horticulturist Jack Potter as he shaves and showers, along with a waiting tray of antiviral prescriptions.
A walk in the garden
When the couple experimented with a macrobiotic diet, Lebe composed Food for Thought (1992). Organic Squash is a jolly snowman of health—three gourds stacked tenuously atop an overturned mixing bowl. Wild Kombu in Bottles is a row of vases featuring rolled sheets of dried seaweed. Other compositions in the series are winking still-lifes of turnips, Chinese cabbage, daikon, soybeans, and rutabaga—all dutifully identified for viewers not conversant with exotic produce.
Jack’s Garden (1996-1997) is an exquisite series of gelatin silver prints. With precise framing and depth of field, Lebe directs the eye to ephemeral treasures in the garden cultivated by Potter at their New York State home. Coreopsis buds twinkle like stars in Coreopsis at Sunset (1996). A shaft of light in Clematis Tangutica (1997) finds two spiky-headed stems, tall aliens amid leafy darkness.
Drawn primarily from the museum collection, Long Light is essentially Lebe’s visual autobiography. Viewing is almost like taking a walk with Lebe as he describes his life so far.
What, When, Where
Long Light: Photographs by David Lebe. Through May 5, 2019, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. (215) 763-8100 or philamuseum.org.