The forgotten legacy of gay photographer George Platt Lynes

From the late 1920s until his death in 1955, George Platt Lynes was one of the world’s most successful commercial and fine art photographers.

His work was included in one of the first exhibitions to showcase photography at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932, and he showed at the extremely popular Julien Levy Gallery in New York City. His photographs for Vogue and Bazaar, his shots of dancers at the School of American Ballet and his portraits of some of the most important creative figures of his era were lauded for their innovative use of lighting, props and posing.

But in his view, his most important works were his nude photographs of men. Yet during Lynes’ life, few even knew of their existence.

Because of prevailing attitudes toward homosexuality, which included criminalization and strict obscenity laws, Lynes – himself a gay man – had to keep this incredibly influential and important body of work hidden away.

These nuanced photographs of the male form ended up sparking a friendship between Lynes and Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, the founder of the Institute for Sex Research, later renamed the Kinsey Institute, at Indiana University. Upon his death, Lynes gifted over 2,300 negatives and 600 photographs to the Institute for Sex Research.

The dynamic between Lynes’ commercial and fine art photographs, along with the relationship between Lynes and Kinsey, is the subject of a new exhibition I recently co-curated at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields titled “Sensual/Sexual/Social: The Photography of George Platt Lynes.”

On view through Feb. 24, 2019, the exhibition features many pieces that have never been displayed before. They fill a gap in art history and serve as a window into a time in American culture when gay men like Lynes faced obstacles to unfettered self-expression.

Groundbreaking photography

George Platt Lynes was born in New Jersey in 1907 and attended the Berkshire School in Massachusetts, graduating in 1925.

As a young adult, Lynes had a passing interest in photography, but his dream was to be a writer: He published a literary journal called The As Stable Publications and opened up a bookstore in New Jersey. Neither endeavor proved fruitful, so when he happened to inherit a studio’s worth of photographic equipment from a friend, he decided to focus on photography as a career.

One of Lynes’ friends from his Berkshire School days was Lincoln Kirstein, who had recently co-founded the School of American Ballet with choreographer George Balanchine. Lynes and Kirstein became reacquainted and Lynes became the primary photographer for the school, later to be called the New York City Ballet, for 20 years.

Beginning with his ballet photography, Lynes would follow an impulse to upend established norms.

Whereas most photographers would take photos of dancers during their performances, Lynes would take photos of the dancers off-stage, often bringing them to his studio. He wanted to encourage the viewer to focus on the interplay of light, shadows and the body. These images are considered to be some of the finest ballet photographs ever taken.

George Platt Lynes’ 1951 photograph of ballet performer Jean Babilee in ‘L’Amour et son Amour.’ Gelatin silver print, 10-1/2 × 12-1/2 in. From the Collections of the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University. © Estate of George Platt Lynes.
“I consider that George Lynes synthesized better than anyone else the atmosphere of some of my ballets,” Balanchine wrote after Lynes passed away. “[His] pictures will contain, as far as I am concerned, all that will be remembered of my repertory in a hundred years.”

Lynes’ fashion photographs were no less groundbreaking. He started photographing for fashion magazines in 1933 to supplement his income. But through his innovative use of props and lighting, he soon found himself one of the most sought-after photographers in the industry.

Inspired by Surrealists, Lynes would juxtapose seemingly disparate ideas and objects to create something new. He posed models in odd, sometimes humorous settings. In one image, included in the exhibition at Newfields, Lynes has placed a basket full of hay and birds atop the head of a model who wears a glittering, beautifully tailored dress, and displays her perfectly manicured nails.

A George Platt Lynes’ photograph that appeared in a 1948 issue of Vogue. Gelatin silver print, 10-1/4 × 12-3/4 in. From the Collections of the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University. © Estate of George Platt Lynes.
Lynes often shot fashion spreads in his apartment in Manhattan, which was lavishly decorated and provided a more personalized atmosphere than photographs shot in a studio. Lynes was also a master darkroom manipulator, working with his negatives and prints to achieve the look he wanted.

Portraiture was another of Lynes’ specialties. Lynes had an active social life, and was known for throwing lavish parties that were attended by the stars of the avant-garde.