An Interview with David Lebe, Part 2

RK: It sounds like your work is set up for discovery – to be discovered.

DL: Well, yes. Also, I think there’s something else working here. I hope I can express it. I have a very strong feeling that there’s a visual language that’s very different from verbal language. It’s not something you can make a dictionary of and translate like English to French. You can’t say this color means that or this gesture expresses whatever. It’s on a different level of thinking and understanding. It’s on a more intuitive level. I don’t know if it can ever be translated no matter how smart we get or how much research is done.

RK: Or how much the critics try.

DL: Yes, or how much the critics try. There’s a visual understanding when you look at something that is its own kind of language. It doesn’t have an equivalent in the verbal, and I think a lot of that has to come out of an intuitive response. You can’t sit down and write out what you’re going to do, because it’s not words that you’re dealing with, and it doesn’t translate very well into words.

RK: So, you don’t try to force an idea or a narrative onto the work, but allow whatever it is that percolates up from pre-consciousness to guide you?

DL: Well, you have to have restrictions. You can’t be too loose. You have to have boundaries. And the tighter they are, sometimes the more creative you can be. And, you have to learn how to do that. There’s nothing worse than aimlessly walking out the door with your camera, just wanting to make pictures, having no idea what you’re going to do. But if there’s something you’re looking for, or if you say, “I can only photograph from my doorstep and I can go no further,” then you’ll have a better chance of making good pictures.

RK: In the Scribble series, each time you opened the shutter and walked to the background facing the camera, were you aware of what the configuration, what the gesture of your movement would be?

DL: Well, sometimes, and sometimes not. I often had a starting point. I have a lot of trouble with inertia. Once I’m in a situation, I’m fine. I might know that I’m doing a spiral or an upward motion, or I’m going to start out a particular way, and then once I’m moving, it just happens. Sometimes I’ll walk out there without any idea, and as I am walking out there, I’ll think, “Okay. I’m going to do this or that.” Or sometimes, once I get something that’s working for me, I’ll consciously repeat it many times–refine it. If I do a picture with a spiral, and I see it on the contact sheet and I find it interesting, I’ll go back and do spirals for a whole night. I don’t really pre-visualize what the picture will look like. It’s more the feeling of the gesture that I think about.

RK: Your work uses elements of your life–often self portrait, often details of your house, your friends, your objects, and yet, it’s neither documentary nor a narrative about your life.

DL: I often say that my work comes from my experience of living. That’s the catalyst. The way I experience life is the catalyst for making the pictures. And that I work with familiar things and familiar people seems correct. It’s hard to talk about, because it’s not something I do consciously. It happens.

RK: In the past, you’ve cautioned students against falling into the easy trap of just cataloging their lives.

DL: I think for work to be universally appealing or interesting to a large audience, it has to be very personal. If you get too general, you say nothing. Nobody’s interested. It’s boring. Being very personal or specific, you say something that somebody else can identify with. Often when people think about getting personal, they tell the story of their lives: what they had for breakfast, what their house looks like, or their cat, or their mother, and that tends to be boring, too. It’s like someone who just chatters on. Somehow you have to get to the essence of the experience. And maybe you have to use familiar things. I work using what’s familiar around me, but then it has to transform somehow. It has to go beyond just story.

RK: Transform?

DL: You have to allow an ambiguous place for the mind to fill in the thing that isn’t there on paper, the magic stuff.

RK: Is vulnerability important in your work?

DL: I think artists have to be vulnerable. There are artists who put up armor and they are great artists, and they do wonderful work, but in some way they don’t even realize they’re being vulnerable. They’re letting us in, even if they think they’re not. You have to be out there–if not consciously, then unconsciously. For art to happen, somehow you have to put yourself out there and open yourself up. You have to let others look inside.

RK: When you started doing homoerotic photographs, was it a challenge for you to show them to the world? To be that open? To be that vulnerable?

DL: Well, it paralleled my life. In a way, I used the pictures to make myself come out.

RK: You found it easier to come out in your work rather than saying, “I am gay”?

DL: It’s what I could do, could manage at the time. I felt the need to make photographs about male sexuality, which is what I was interested in, obsessed with, if you want to say that. It was my focus then, the crisis in my life.

RK: Let’s put this in context, what year was it and how old were you?

DL: …I guess I started doing homoerotic work right after college, 1970. I was twenty-two. By the mid-seventies, the need was more pressing. The pictures became more open over a period of five or six years. I kept feeling the need to make the art, and I was still a little afraid to. Eventually, I started making it thinking I didn’t have to show it, but of course once it was made, showing it seemed like the thing to do. Besides, it seemed cowardly not to.

And then I felt that politically it was the thing to do. I do believe the phrase “silence equals death,” which wasn’t around at that time, but I think the way to be effective on a personal level politically is by living your life the way you believe things should be. For me, that meant being open and honest about being gay–not being ashamed, not hiding.

RK: It was a very active time – the early seventies right after the Stonewall rebellion in New York, and there were a lot of gay groups throughout the country. What was happening as far as homoerotic images in photography are concerned? Did you have any models or were you, as far as you knew, totally on your own at the time?

DL: That’s a good question.

RK: There were certainly other people working at that time, though the work may not have been exhibited. Mapplethorpe was approximately the same age as you. He was starting to do homoerotic images but was just out of school, so you probably wouldn’t have been familiar with him.

DL: I remember when I first became familiar with him. It was around the time he was showing in that gallery on Broadway in New York, 1979 or ’80. That was after I had been doing openly gay work for a while. There had to be other people, if not other people, certainly individual photographs. I don’t have any model that comes to mind.

RK: Were you aware of Minor White’s homoerotic images?

DL: No. I didn’t know about those until several years ago with the show at the Museum of Modem Art. I don’t know anyone who did.

RK: How about George Platt Lynes?

DL: I was aware of his work, but not…the obviously homoerotic work–certainly a sensibility about it. The same with Duane Michals. I recognized a sensibility and wondered. It was a frustration.

RK: How were your more homoerotic images met with in the art world?

DL: I don’t know. The people who liked my pictures told me so, and the others shut up. So, you never really know, do you? My show and the catalogue at the University of Maryland stirred less controversy than expected. Most of my shows have been pretty quiet, and I’ve gotten pretty positive responses. But then the work didn’t get shown a lot, either. Sometimes, I think straight people are willing to show, and can accept, more outrageous gay images because they don’t relate to them personally. Also, outrageous images play to preconceived notions. Everyday, matter-of-fact images that anyone can identify with, perhaps, can be more threatening.

RK: But your images are not exactly matter-of-fact. Yes, there is an everyday directness to your work. Wherever a visitor to your house might look, they would see the same kinds of still life compositions as in the photographs. But they’re also personal and revealing, very much a part of your life. There is no mask, no persona. No other.

DL: Is that so different from other people? I don’t know. I wonder. Was Mapplethorpe like his photographs?

RK: One would presume that he was to a certain extent. His work is more outer-directed, more about appearance and attitude, than yours.

DL: I heard Mapplethorpe speak once. He didn’t have much to say except, “I took photos of these people because I knew them. They were friends of mine. I wasn’t trying to shock. I was just trying to photograph what was there.” Of course, that wasn’t what was there for me. It was something very different.

RK: You have a different eye. There’s a different kind of honesty about your work–quieter, more inner-directed. Let’s address the whole area of honesty–honesty about being gay, emotional honesty, and vulnerability in your work. Do you see them as connected?

DL: They are connected, of course. In some ways, I was able to do in photography what I couldn’t do in my life. It took me ten years to start to come out. Except for a neighbor, with whom I had a brief affair, no one knew I was gay, from the time I first understood at fifteen until twenty-five, when I came out to some friends. And they were quite miserable years. I was never able to justify the hiding. I always felt it was dishonest, not what I wanted to be doing, but I was doing it. And, also, I witnessed the painful effect the closet could have on artists I was close to.

RK: In what way?

DL: Well, Barbara Blondeau led a deeply closeted life….

RK: Your friend, your former teacher?

DL: Yes. I only discovered this just before her death. At that time, I was just coming out. We never could even acknowledge our gayness to each other, although we both knew. I witnessed her illness and death being made so much more difficult because of her secret life. Also, in spite of the fact that I understood her fear of coming out, I felt angry at being denied an important connection between us that could have been so supportive. All this was very distressing. It became a strong motivating force in my wanting to become openly gay in my photography, as a teacher, and in my life – something I wasn’t able to do yet. But I made photographs in private moments when I was alone, and slowly, I allowed my gay feelings to come out. In some ways my life followed that lead.

RK: This is similar to something we were talking about earlier concerning your other work–that rather than having specific ideas which you pursued, you set up a situation in which you let the images come out of you. You set up a process. It sounds somewhat similar.

DL: Well, yes. I think the first experience I had like that, where I understood that, was when I was a senior in college, and Ray Metzker was my teacher. There was a great deal of discussion about each picture, each part of each picture–composition, form, the flow of energy, tonality. Ray was a great teacher in that respect. He was the finest teacher I ever had and made a tremendous difference for me. But I can’t remember any talk about content or emotion or meaning, or how making pictures could relate to your life, or why you were doing this work. Not that I could have spoken about that if anybody had asked me. I couldn’t have. The point is, I was hardly even aware that those were issues, because we were so involved in the formal aspects of the pieces. So, I did this body of work that was heavy in shadows–figures that were disappearing, bleached-out figures, totally white or black–kind of secret images, shadow images. I was very proud of the work. I showed it around.

The first year I was out of school, I was at an emotional low point. I realized that this was really life. I was either going to be gay, or I was going to be something else, and I couldn’t be something else, and I really had to face that issue. I thought about suicide a lot.

I was going to a therapist for a brief time and he asked me to bring in my photographs. He asked me to talk about them, and he started asking me questions. “Well, what do you see here that is like what you’re feeling?” “What does this empty figure mean?” It all just sort of clicked together. I saw that the pictures were about hiding and being empty and having an empty life. I saw all those empty shadows, and I saw shadows that were hiding something very important. It was so clear; it was terrifying to me. It was at least a year after that before I could show the work to anybody. I would take the work out, start to show it and practically throw up, and I would have to put it away. I think that was a great lesson for me. If I allow myself to work with concentration and intuition, being honest to my vision–that is, if I keep making choices and decisions with integrity, intuitively and clearly, even if only thinking about formal, graphic ideas–then I could trust that there might be some meaning there that was related to my life, and that someone else could relate to their life.

RK: Let’s talk about the last six or seven years. You’ve done three groups of work.

DL: They all came out of AIDS. First, knowing people who had it, people who were dying and who had died, and being aware that it was likely that I was infected but not knowing. Then, later, in 1987, knowing that I was–the reactions I went through. The first body of work that came out of that experience was the Scribble series, a tribute to the spirits of the dead. We’ve already talked about that work. The next group was the Scott series, which were pictures of Scott O’Hara–very sexual, erotic pictures of one model. They came later, after I had been diagnosed and was dealing with AIDS for quite some time. Attitudes had started to change about sex, not just in the gay community, but in America and other parts of the world. When I was in my twenties, when I first came out, sex was a great celebration, particularly among young people in general…– the sexual revolution of the seventies. Then, in the eighties, because of AIDS, that started to close down. Personally, I started to close down, also–not for rational reasons, necessarily; I was psychologically blocked. I became angry, because there was a loss. I guess I did the sexual pictures as a defiance of that–to reclaim, to celebrate sexuality and reaffirm it. It’s a wonderful part of human life. I think that was the impulse to do those photographs. They are very up front and direct, out there – in a great part due to the wonderful model I had who felt similarly. In a way, it was collaboration.

RK: And the third group?

DL: I’m still working on them now. They’re still-lifes done in my studio–pictures of vegetables, food–and a lot of them incorporate light drawings, parts of the body floating in the air–hands, mostly. The truth is, I’m not really sure what they’re about yet. They came out of my interest in macrobiotics.

RK: Can you say more about that?

DL: Macrobiotics was a wonderful discovery, a total transformation in my life. Just after my life partner Jack and I met in 1989, we started exploring a macrobiotic diet as a way to deal with AIDS. At first, we thought of it as just another treatment to try, but it became a new way to look at the world. Our lives changed physically, emotionally, spiritually. We lost a lot of fear and became more centered, more peaceful. Strangely, these last years have been the happiest of my life. So these pictures are a celebration of the power of food. They came about because of AIDS.

RK: But they appear more than just a celebration of food–the elements that enter–almost energy fields …

DL: One of the things I’m slowly starting to see is the energetics of food, and the play of yin and yang to create balance. I’ve become more in touch with how I’m connected to the rest of my environment, the rest of the world. When that becomes clearer, that’s a very spiritual thing. I think that’s reflected in these photographs. I think the light drawings, in general, are my most spiritual pictures–even the early ones that go back to 1975, well before I had discovered macrobiotics.

I always had a sense that when I outlined figures in light I was dealing with a kind of energy–that I was talking about that border between the outside world and the inside world and the energy that happens there. And, maybe there isn’t such a separation, that it’s really a continuum with just a change in energy of some sort. It’s not like these new pieces just happened out of nothing that came before. There’s definitely a spirituality and a wonder. You know, I think art should be playful and life affirming. There’s so much death art.

RK: Cynical art.

DL: Cynical art. Intellectual art. To me, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about celebrating life, affirming life, the wonder of life, the mystery of life, To me that’s what it should be about.

RK: I see that concern as a strand running through all your work.

DL: Well, thank you. That’s good. I appreciate that.

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