George Dureau’s Singular Family Portrait

August 14th, 2016  |  Published in Summer 2016

George Dureau took photographs of amours and amputees. He took photographs of athletes and artists and the anonymous. Mostly, he took photographs of nude black men. He posed them gently into sturdy postures so that their bodies echoed the images of classic Greek deities. He called these people family. Now, Aperture has bound up a selection of black and white, square-format photographs into a book, George Dureau: The Photographs, that amounts to a family photo album. The modest volume—only the second book of the artist’s work ever and now the only one in print—curates Dureau’s unwieldy oeuvre into only a handful of pictures that celebrate their creator’s native New Orleans through that city’s marginalized citizens. One person at a time, Dureau’s camera has carved, out of light, a single and singular family portrait.

It is a family in which Dureau is patriarch, whatever those consequences might have on his legacy. Although his photographs diligently gauge each subject’s contours with a cool, powerful-yet-relaxed vision—Dureau began his art career by drawing, and these pictures appear somewhat like photographic versions of grisaille—they will require many readers to reckon with a bleary-eyed gaze of exploitation, one aided (or complicated) in part by a strong moral clarity. While it might be instinctual to consider portraits of limbless men and dwarfs as merely opportunistic, this reading withholds Dureau the recognition he is owed for preserving the ordinary heroism and beauteous dignity of his subjects. Dureau’s insistence on understanding those who did not look like him enabled him to create an intimate census of ’80s New Orleans.

Yet maybe he never did understand. Despite the head-on angles and well-measured light, these unverbalized portraits deny us any context and so leave us unknowing. In “Wilbert Hines, 1983,” a man drapes his right arm over a his left, which is prosthetic. Captured from the hip up, he wears nothing but a mutable expression. What could be a deepening glare might also be interpreted as resolute pride. The next two pages reveal twin portraits of Hines from 1977, before he acquired the artificial limb. He stands fully nude. The white backdrop is smoky with shadow. His left bicep appears dipped in the negative space, as though he is emerging from the background, able to walk through walls. Dureau’s tender effigies of amputees hint at a profound need to remember those who are dismembered, neglected members of society who can never be re-membered in the literal sense.

In his masterful introduction to the book, art critic Philip Gefter artfully ties together Dureau’s career and Robert Mapplethorpe’s, arguing that each left major influences on one another’s photography, that one did not thieve the other’s optic  phrasing. Both men were gay photographers working in the 70’s and 80’s, and both men cared to articulate raw sexualities in artistically dangerous ways. Yet Mapplethorpe’s portraiture relied on a theatricality, an “arctic elegance” that Dureau did not seek to uphold. Instead, Dureau’s photography radiates a warmness and a rigid fluidity, some subjects (like “Wayne Ducros”) so contrasted against the white studio backdrop it looks as though they were engraved in charcoal.

Gefter writes that Dureau imaged those who sat or stood for his camera with a “playful eroticism,” and this is true. Yet there is also a solemnity to them, especially now when some of the most commonly shared images of black lives are taken not by photographers but by police body cameras, by dash cam footage, by fiancés streaming their loved ones’ deaths on social media. Whatever Dureau’s legacy becomes, his photographs demand that these lives—most of them black lives—be seen.

It is worth keeping that in mind with this moving, concise survey of Dureau’s work. Because the unique privilege of a family portrait is in a way both its tragedy and its grace, which is that it will never be complete.

–Zack Hatfield






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