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 Thomas  Eakins
           & the dawn
       of the
       photograph

 by D. H. Mader

WITH THE PHOTOS of Thomas Eakins -- a large body of which have recently been made available to the public for the first time -- we stand on the threshold of two new eras, one in the history of photography, the other in the history of homosexuality.

Along with Frederic Remington and Winslow Homer, Eakins (1844-1916) was one of the great American realist painters of the late nineteenth century. His largely urban subject matter, however, has proven less popular and durable than their Western or New England scenes. Today Eakins is perhaps less known for his paintings than as a cultural icon in America's long struggle against provincialism and prudery. This role is epitomized in his dismissal as art instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1886, for having lifted the drape worn by a "nude" male model in a class which included women, in order to explain the points of anatomy which the drapery concealed.

As a realist, an artist committed to precisely recording in his paintings what he observed in reality, photography was a godsend to Eakins. It allowed sequences of movement to be frozen and analyzed, studied and retained, not in the mind's eye but on negatives and prints, as a reference. This was, in fact, the earliest role granted to photography. For the first half-century of its existence, it was not considered an art form in itself, but merely a technique for recording reality in the service of science or art. In Eakins's case, it was a matter of science and art, as he believed precise depiction required precise scientific observation. Thus the controversial lifting of the drape, and his attachment to photography.

Many of Eakins's photographs, both static nudes and his famed motion studies like "Standing jump to the right," were clearly created with these technical requirements in mind. But at some point, as he was making reference photographs for "arcadian" scenes he would later return to his studio to paint, Eakins became one of the first artists to cross the threshold into treating photography as an autonomous art. He invoked the same principles he would have used in a painting to compose photographs as aesthetic documents of their own. This can best be seen in the photographs Eakins made in 1883 for his painting "The Swimming Hole." Although their use as reference studies is clear, as one figure or another is copied into the painting they modeled, they are also among the first photographic images we have which seem deliberately composed to also be viewed for their own sake, as artworks, not mere records. By 1890 in Europe, Wilhelm von Gloeden (also trained as a realist painter) would go farther down this road, creating art photographs which had no other use than to be looked at for their own sake. But in far-off America, Eakins had been there first.

Although Eakins by no means painted or photographed only males, his heavy concentration on male subjects, swimming and wrestling, has long been noted. It is a subject which is not broached by the five women authors in Eakins and the Photograph, the recent catalogue of Eakins's photos from the Bregler collection which are being made public for the first time, not even in the essay which tantalizingly promises a discussion of his photos as "an avowal of artistic community."

One must turn back to Allen Ellenzweig's The Homoerotic Photograph (1992), which did not have the advantage of the newly catalogued images, for a proper insight into the homoeroticism in Eakins's work. But the newly available images confirm Ellenzweig's contention that Eakins's nudes of his male students reflect an age-differentiated homosexuality, quite different from today's triumphant and nearly ubiquitous age-consistent "gay" paradigm. Eakins's images are Grecian not merely for their shepherd boys and panpipes, togas and Greco-Roman wrestling, but for their avowal of a male community between an older master and his younger pupils, in the Socratic mode. Although in Europe Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld and others were busy developing and promoting the new, age-consistent model of homosexuality, this was a threshold which Eakins did not cross. As forwardlooking as his photos were aesthetically, here his work remains a window to the past; looking through it reminds us that homoeroticism has more strands, and older ones, than the "gay" model which is taken for granted today.



Caption:
Eakins's images are Grecian not merely for their shepherd boys and panpipes, togas and wrestling, but for their avowal of a mate community between a master and his pupils


PREVIOUS PAGE, TOP: Eakins' photograph of his nephew Ben Crowell, circa 1883 [Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution]; PREVIOUS BOTTOM:
PAGE, `History of a jump,' 1884-85; THIS PAGE, TOP: Photograph of students for 'The Swimming Hole.' Eakins may be the lower right figure [Hirshhorn Museum]. MIDDLE: detail from `The Swimming Hole,' 188385 [Fort Worth Art Center]; BOTstudents wrestling, circa 1883 [Metropolitan Museum of Art]; BOTTOM LEFT: an unidentified model, circa 1883, for the painting 'Arcadia' [Hirshhorn Museum].

LEFT: 'The Wrestlers,' oil on canvas, 1899, Columbus (Ohio) Gallery of Fine Arts. BELOW: Eakins' photograph for 'The Wrestlers,' 1899.





Von Gloeden in print


Ulrich Pohlmann. Wilhelm von Gloeden: Taormina. New York: te Neues Publishing,  1998.  ISBN 3-8238-0365-4


From GAYME, Vol. 3, No. 1, Pg. 54-56, April 1996.
Copyright © NAMBLA, 2008

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