MARCH 15, 2016
PETER SCHLESINGER’S LOVE AFFAIR with photography began when he was a teenager, taking snapshots of friends striking beatnik poses with a Brownie camera. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley — a suburban backwater where the lights of Hollywood were only a gleam in the distance. Then, in 1965, he took a drawing class in Los Angeles; his platinum-haired professor walked in wearing a red suit, a green-and-white polka dot tie that matched his hat, and a pair of thick black spectacles whose frames resembled two small telescopes. His name was David Hockney.
Schlesinger and Hockney soon became lovers — he was 18; Hockney, 28 — and Schlesinger found himself swept up in the world of West Coast bohemia — a gay arcadia whose idylls are best summed up by Hockney’s series of swimming pool paintings: flat, bright scenes in celebration of the sensuous form. In one, Schlesinger famously appears lifting himself from the impossibly blue water, his backside bare. Schlesinger’s photographs reveal pieces of this sun-blessed Americana: pot-bellied television sets in wood-paneled dens, pink diners, and drab interstates. From there, Schlesinger would move with Hockney to London, inaugurating a long romance with the cultivations and pleasures of Europe, old and new.
In A Photographic Memory: 1968-1989, Schlesinger visually traces his path along the epicenters of culture, from Los Angeles to London to New York, assembling over 20 years of documentation of what was, by the looks of it, a beautiful life. Published by the Italian press Damiani, A Photographic Memory is an exquisite art object in its own right — a more refined, clothbound version of Checkered Past, a 2003 book featuring many of the same images. A testament to the cultural flowering of that time, A Photographic Memory conveys all the fugitive, ferocious beauty of the new. There is a sense in the photographs that the world can be endlessly discarded and remade. Schlesinger describes, in Checkered Past, the London he encountered in the early ’70s: “The idea of youth had twisted this traditional nation into a new, exciting shape. The stars of this new establishment could be musicians from the working class, designers from the middle class, and models from the aristocracy.” In this time of social instability, what was emerging was a new nobility: the gentry of glamour.
At a time when industry was declining and art schools — more in Britain than any other country in the world — were producing more graduates than ever before, Schlesinger captures an emerging creative class, the dream-makers of a changing society. Part of the in-crowd that critic Peter York would, in 1976, diagnose as “thems,” Schlesinger photographed fashion designers, restaurateurs, rock stars, writers, and artists. Thems were proto-hipsters, Warholian business artists and postmodern aesthetes who seemed to anticipate the age in which a mere life would be reconstituted as a lifestyle, blurring the boundaries between art and everything else. (See as evidence: A Bigger Splash, the partly staged 1973 documentary, the characters playing themselves, that chronicled Hockney and Schlesinger’s dissolving relationship.) “Thems are the word made flesh,” York writes. “Thems put the idea into their living; they wear their rooms, eat their art.” In their obsessive self-styling, the elaborate costuming, they created stars of themselves and one another, mythologizing through the act of image-making. In many of the photographs, the subjects appear with cameras. A brief who’s who in Schlesinger’s work — Andy Warhol, Manolo Blahnik, Paloma Picasso, Antony Price, Celia Birtwell, Grace Coddington — reveals a catalog of people who would in many ways come to define our ideas of style and luxury.
Schlesinger’s arrival in London coincided with the birth of glam. As Darren Pih defines the movement, “Glam is characterized by its use of stylistic overstatement, reveling in revivalism, irony, theatricality, and androgyny, privileging surface effect and artifice over meaning.” Rejecting modernism’s self-seriousness, with its formidable air of authenticity, the aesthetic register of glam was playful abandon. It involved the continuous fashioning and refashioning of various, sometimes fantastical, personas, a jumbling of styles and eras in which, as Schlesinger put it, “Victorian long coats mixed with silver mini dresses.” Its acolytes ransacked history for icons and combined them all together. It was the glamour of ’30s Hollywood starlets distilled, sped up, and truncated. Schlesinger and his friends still idolized Tinsel Town glamour — he recounts dressing up as Audrey Hepburn in a green satin dress for the drag balls at Porchester Hall — but it was a love tempered by a distinct postmodern sensibility.
When Schlesinger writes that meeting Hockney “represented a world outside my own that I was eager to embrace,” one can imagine the straight-jacketed society of postwar America he longed to escape. The period he records, spanning the Stonewall riots to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, is when queerness was gaining not only public expression but also a new spectacular aesthetics. The Gay Liberation Front stormed the Festival of Light in drag; Antony Price’s “bridge-crotch” trousers accentuated the male bulge; David Bowie burst into outer space in glitter-encrusted androgyny — to name a few examples. What desires had before remained closeted and covert were now, newly decriminalized, put on brilliant display. Display was central to a nascent queer identity. What was the drag show, after all, but a technology, appropriated from the feminized world of high fashion, for the gaze? Schlesinger relishes in the frisson of looking. And thus it is no coincidence that many of the photographs take place in theaters of exhibitionism: the parlor, the museum, the shop window, the pool deck, the mantle place and banquet table. In them, we see the bold marriage of sexual and consumer desire.
And yet none of the era’s campiness comes through in Schlesinger’s photographs, which owe as much to that rarified, old-school glamour as its modern offshoot. Dense with romance, and only slyly libidinous, what emanates most in Schlesinger’s photographs is a sort of genteel leisure. His subjects appear in flowered parlors, rumpled beds, pool decks, fur vaults, Italian villas, English gardens, balconies, and yachts. Rarely glimpsed are the blackouts, the riots, the piling garbage, or the industrial decay; instead we get a dreamland of plates of ripe peaches and impeccable cakes, vases of amaryllis, and men posed like Grecian nudes. In his images of David Hockney, Cecil Beaton, Patrick Procktor, or Manolo Blahnik are echoes of the Wildean dandy, stylish outsiders. Just as Hockney’s work of that period has been described as 20th-century intimism, Schlesinger’s photographs are warm and clubby, depicting a space apart from the tastes and prejudices of middlebrow culture. There is a feeling of light fortuity as the subjects swim in a ceaseless stream of delights, untouched by the ugly tediums of the everyday.
But as with any constructed world, this utopia is haunted by fragility — the frailty of its own artifice. As Judith Brown explains in Glamour in Six Dimensions, glamour is “an experience that moves one out of the material world of demands, responsibilities, and attention to productivity, and into another, more ethereally bound, fleeting, and deadly.” At its essence, she writes, is deadly pleasure. The word itself finds its etymological roots in the idea of deception and occult knowledge — the seduction of the eye. But, as Brown goes on to note, glamour “allows one the illusion of duration, of stopping time to draw in, like a puff of smoke, the possibilities of a moment.” Glamour, then, is a form of transformation and escape, a fairy-tale spell cast to transport the bewitched outside of time and space, beyond the universe’s normal laws. And yet, we know that any artifice, however beautiful, will only be flickering. At some point, the costume must come off, and what’s left is only the mortal body. In Schlesinger’s photographs this ephemerality is sometimes manifested in the out-of-focus blur of a snapshot, or a fading afternoon sun.
Photography, as many have noted, is a melancholy art, a medium that never seems to escape the morose yet indestructible aura of a present-now-past. And perhaps for this reason, if we accept Brown’s definition, it is also a glamorous art, in its sorcerous ability to hold a singular moment for all the length of time required by a camera to swallow light. Schlesinger’s photographs are artifacts of a bygone era, many of its greatest stars now gone — Bowie being the latest. This is why the self-portrait that opens A Photographic Memory is so arresting: a picture of a young man in the dark, match-lit and naked, taken over a long exposure. His gold-brown hair sweeps across his forehead, his lips full, the slow drag of the flame lighting the hair, face, and torso in a private moment of self-discovery: a portrait of unadorned youth. And by the book’s end, after photograph upon photograph of lush parties and castles and beaches and gardens, we come to realize that time, which pities no one and only the young possess in plentitudes, is the greatest luxury of all.