The Camera Does Lie

By the Archives

December 2, 2010

Fact and Fiction in a Famous Photo

Cadmus, French, and Tooker
Paul Cadmus, Jared French and George Tooker, 1948. ©George Platt Lynes II

On view in the exhibition Lost and Found: The Lesbian and Gay presence in the Archives of American Art is a photograph by George Platt Lynes taken between 1945–48 of the painters George Tooker, Paul Cadmus, and Jared French in a studio in Greenwich Village. In the foreground Cadmus is in the midst of painting What I Believe, an allegorical picture that, like Lynes’s photograph itself, conjures up an ideal artistic community.  (It is currently on view in the exhibition Hide/Seek at the National Portrait Gallery.)  Behind him, in the next room, is Tooker at his easel, and in the far distance is French. 

Lynes’s picture seems to reveal three kindred spirits harmoniously working in harmony. The only problem with this utopic vision is that, as Tooker wrote me in a letter, the photograph was a fabrication; Tooker never made art in this studio which was shared by Cadmus and French. And yet knowing the fictive nature of the picture does not so much negate its message of artistic community, as make it more complex. Any concept of community has to encompass shared aspirations and disappointments, conflicts and compromises, intimacies and betrayals.

Above all, Tooker’s disavowal of the picture makes us wonder about the precarious position he found himself in that day, consciously posed by Lynes between two older and more experienced artists as if he were a bridge or barrier between them.  In fact, Tooker was Cadmus’s current lover, but Cadmus had been lovers with French and, despite French’s recent marriage to the painter Margaret Hoening, Cadmus and French continued to be intimate (supposedly Cadmus once boasted “I had Jerry in the daytime and George at night.”) Apparently neither Tooker nor French were as enthusiastic about the arrangement as Cadmus later claimed to be.  Tooker remembered that French refused to shake his hand when they met for dinner in public. Yet, as Tooker himself admitted to me, French’s painting was as crucial as Cadmus’s in forging Tooker’s own personal style.

This story about Lynes’s photograph is a perfect example of why archival material such as artist’s letters are so crucial to the history of art.  Without Tooker’s recollection of the circumstance of the taking of the picture we would assume that Lynes’s photograph documented the actual working habits of the three painters.


Artist and art historian, Jonathan Weinberg is guest curator of Lost and Found. He plans to donate his letter from George Tooker to the Archives of American Art.

Comments

Hm, I am interested in the title that you write, that the camera sometimes lies. This becomes the verdict that landed on some people. Those who hate the camera.

We find very interesting exhibition. Especially since is normalized to a bus crushed by society. It is important that society learns homexuales people are like everyone else. For years this condition is hid now in my country Spain is a right. a greeting and thanks

We find very interesting exhibition. Especially since is normalized to a bus crushed by society. It is important that society learns homexuales people are like everyone else. For years this condition is hid now in my country Spain is a right. a greeting and thanks

Wow. It is interesting to have the letter point out the inconsistencies of what we see in the photo and get a true understanding for what took place. Archival material really helps to paint the true history of art. I wonder what would have been done if there was photoshop back in the day. Thanks Jonathan and Cheers.

I was also attracted by the title of the article. It is true that the photo and the images in general, can (to a certain point of view) lie. It is a vast subject and the information in the article are usefully illustrate one of many points that cover this topic ...
In addition, it is clear that the correspondence exchanged by mail is an important element in the history of art ... but also made history in general (this is the case in science, politics ...).

The fact that the scene is "contrived" doesn't bother me. From one point of view, nearly all art, and interior design for that matter, is utterly contrived.
The trick, in most cases, is to contrive it so completely that it doesn't FEEL contrived. It seems this photo passed the test.