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Great Expectations

“This place is infuriating,” George Platt Lynes wrote of Yale to Gertrude Stein in 1926. “The conventions begin nowhere in particular and are perfectly endless. This afternoon I had expounded to me the only way that one might be eccentric and live. By insinuating oneself quietly into ‘the group,’ by writing and publishing a few ‘charming’ lines in the Lit, (a supposedly-literary monthly which avowedly refuses to be alive), by submitting so thoroughly to the custom and convention that the student has created to protect himself from all but a little harmless comments that one has experienced it all, one may depart a little (very little) from the accustomed ways…And. i cannot do it. And there is no other way…so much for yale!”

Lynes had met Miss Stein, as he addressed her in his early letters, the previous summer in Paris. He had been at Yale for a little over two months. Clearly he was enamored of Stein’s particular brand of talent mixed with bohemian lifestyle?this was before the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and before Stein had become a household name. He solicited her opinions of his work, including poems in his letters that Stein seems to have thought little of.
In the twenties, Lynes fancied himself a budding writer, a future member of a vanguard community, and his letters from this period are insistent in their literary pretensions (single-word sentences punctuate his letters, an arch dismissal of middle-class expectations circulates throughout). Judging from his epistolary style it would seem he had already assumed he would be the eloquent voice of an insurgent generation. Unrevered and utterly miserable, he left the university just before the end of his first term.

Lynes’ career seems predicated on this shirking of his Northeastern upper-middle class roots?his father, too, was a Yalie?for the more progressive lifestyle lived out in Paris and New York by such avant-garde luminaries as Stein, Paul Cadmus, and Jean Cocteau. In fact, he gave up his literary ambitions, possibly at Stein’s suggestion, for photographic ones, an interest sparked by the gift of a Dearborn camera in 1927 and the publication of his first formal portrait of Stein in 1931.

It was an auspicious career move. Lynes’ poetry, or what remains of it in manuscript, is derivative and boring. His photographs are original?he invented the backlighting so artfully used by the likes of Richard Avedon?and shocking for his time in their display of frank homoeroticism. To contemporary viewers, when the male body is more ubiquitously sexualized, it may be difficult to gauge how controversial these images were. Set in the context of the ’30s and ’40s, it is easy to see his photographs not as dreamy elements in a surreal tableau, but as intimate portraits of idealized figures depicting inexplicable and closeted desires. Looking at the photographs, admiring their candor, it is no wonder that Dr. Alfred Kinsey (the author of the ever-cited “Kinsey Report”) acquired many of Lynes’ nudes in the early ’50s for his institute in Indiana.

The exhibition “George Platt Lynes Returns to Yale” uses funds from Jonathan Edwards College and photographs from Beinecke Library, and is housed in both locations. This splitting of Lynes’ work makes both exhibits somewhat small, with the sad consequence that the viewer is never able to confront all the images at once. Comprehending Lynes’ work becomes something less public than intimate, a personal exploration of the materials at hand. The exhibition demonstrates Lynes’ virtuousity. There are sumptuous and seamless fashion shots where perfection seems to be met in the shimmer of light falling off fur and tropical wool, where men and women of ideal proportions confront a world of flawless interiors.

Then, too, there are images of Lynes’ literary friends, ranging from an austere, bibliophilic Evelyn Waugh, to a short-trousered, domestic Christopher Isherwood, to a mannered, abject Dorothy Parker. Lynes wanted to be a writer for most of his young life. As a consequence, in the years after Yale he befriended budding and established talents, using them later as photographic subjects. Encapsulating the likes of Andr

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