When David Lebe came to Philadelphia in 1966 to attend the Philadelphia College of Art, he knew he would major in photography.
Raised in lower Manhattan, Lebe began collecting photography books when he was 15 — he’d memorized every image from Robert Frank’s The Americans and their precise order in that book — and was a regular visitor to the Museum of Modern Art.
- Blockbuster art: Impressionists, Gainsborough portraits, the Confederate truce flag, moon-gazing
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Shortly after Lebe’s arrival at PCA (now the University of the Arts), he realized a few photographers had escaped his notice, especially those who moved between various mediums, among them Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
He learned about Moholy-Nagy soon enough. Three of Lebe’s PCA teachers — Ray K. Metzker, Thomas Porett, and Barbara Blondeau — were graduates of Chicago’s Institute of Design, which Moholy-Nagy founded. They encouraged the same broad experimentation that he brought to his work and that he had taught in the 1920s at Germany’s Bauhaus.
Looking at the earliest photographs in Lebe’s retrospective “Long Light: Photographs by David Lebe,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it’s clear he didn’t need any prodding.
What began as a class assignment from Blondeau, asking students to build pinhole cameras, turned into a full-blown, five-year occupation for Lebe, who made several cameras with multiple apertures in order to capture some of the images here.
For Self-Portrait with Flag, taken in 1970 for Blondeau’s class, Lebe opened all the apertures to produce a horizontal image of himself lying on an American flag. It both literally and figuratively embodies the 20 minutes it took to make the picture.
Five years later, he used a nine-aperture camera to produce Seven Photographers Seventy-Five, a horizontal group portrait of his Philadelphia photographer friends. It’s a time capsule in every sense, expressing Lebe’s mid-'70s approach to his photographs as participatory social events.
Lebe, who came out as gay in 1973, continued experimenting, and began to hint at his sexual preferences in his work. One night in 1976, he began a series of pinhole photographs he would eventually call “Light Drawings,” taking a flashlight and using its beam to “draw” contours of objects and his own nude body in a darkened room.
He then moved on to a series of photograms of plant parts and animal bones called “Specimens,” which he hand-colored to sublime effect. When he returned to his “Light Drawings” again, in 1979, he was committed to the series, spending some 10 years “drawing” male figures in sessions that required as many as 40 minutes to complete.
A section of Lebe’s show at the Art Museum bears a text warning of the images it contains. Here we find Lebe’s sexually explicit photographs of the porn star Scott O’Hara, taken between 1989 and 1996.
Peter Barberie, the museum curator of photography who organized the exhibition, wisely discerns the difference between Lebe’s images of O’Hara and Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of similar subject matter, begun in the 1970s.
“Whereas Mapplethorpe’s photographs are often overtly staged or cropped to objectify body parts and isolated sexual actions,” Barberie writes in the show catalog, “Lebe’s are about his subject’s full presence in the world.”
I’ll add that Lebe’s pictures of O’Hara also have none of the icy formality of Mapplethorpe’s photographs and instead suggest a casual inside joke between friends, as though O’Hara is playing up his porn-star fame for Lebe’s camera.
And yet, the photographs make it plain that the subject has HIV — O’Hara had a tattoo on his biceps that said “HIV+” — so the full weight of the unfolding AIDS crisis is there, too. He died in 1998 at 36, a decade after his diagnosis.
In recent years, Lebe has turned his attention back to plants, a subject he shares with his ceramic artist/horticulturist partner, Jack Potter. (There is a tender series of photographs of Potter, “Morning Rituals,” in the exhibition as well.)
At their house in Columbia County, N.Y., where the two moved from Philadelphia in 1993, expecting to die from AIDS — life-saving drug therapies were only beginning to emerge — Lebe has been photographing wildflowers in their natural landscapes and home-grown squashes in quirky arrangements. His penchant for subdued light and shadows gives these works an elegiac quality.
Leaving this exhibition, I was reminded of the exuberance that empowers young artists, and of the Wordsworth ode “Intimations of Immortality.”
Through May 5 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perelman Building, 2525 Pennsylvania Ave., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. 215-763-8100 or philamuseum.org.
Donald Martiny and Kevin Finklea are making new moves in their solo shows at Pentimenti Gallery.
Martiny has been exploring the shapes of physical gestures, using thick mixtures of polymer and pigments. He has gotten much more expressive in his paint application, letting the paint “fly.” His paintings are attached to aluminum backings that follow their free-form contours.
Finklea calls his works “painted wooden objects,” and they’ve become ever more objectlike in this recent body of work. Some pieces now hang from sturdy metal hooks, like maritime artifacts. Finklea has been painting with rare and ancient pigments for years. In a future show, it would be interesting to know the specific colors he employed in each work.
Through April 27 at Pentimenti Gallery, 145 N. Second St., noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays. 215-625-9990 or pentimenti.com.
Grizzly Grizzly is hosting one animated short documentary and segments of two others by the award-winning San Francisco team of Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman.
In the full-length Last Day of Freedom, a man meditates on his brother’s mental illness. The excerpted Run with It recalls an incarcerated man’s relationship with his uncle. Daisy’s Story presents a mother’s anguish over her son’s plea to a crime he did not commit.
Prints of Hibbet-Jones and Talisman’s hand-drawn stills from the documentaries are also part of this ambitious and elegant show.