by Sukanya DebSep 09, 2022
Love Songs: Photography and Intimacy, curated by Sara Raza, is being displayed at the International Center of Photography, in the heart of New York. The 16 exhibiting artists hail from around the world, and through their lenses, have captured various stages of love, including budding romance, marriage, honeymooning, the simplicity of domestic bliss, the anguish of separation, the anticipation of loss, and the terror of one's partner’s mortality. Within these photographs are aesthetic glimpses of poetic adoration, passion, unprocessed emotion and other facets of the deeply human experience that is love.
The offering of photography at Love Songs spans 70 years, from 1952-2022. The featured artists include Nobuyoshi Araki, Ergin Çavuşoğlu, Motoyuki Daifu, Fouad Elkoury, Aikaterini Gegisian, Nan Goldin, René Groebli, Hervé Guibert, Sheree Hovsepian, Clifford Prince King, Leigh Ledare, Lin Zhipeng (No. 223), Sally Mann, RongRong&inri, CollierSchorr, and Karla Hiraldo Voleau—all highlighting the softness and complexity of human relationships.
The theatrical intimacy and scenography of love, as we recognise it visually, is presented in L'oeil de l'amour (The Eye of Love) (1952) by Swiss photographer and photojournalist, René Groebli. The photographer invites audiences into the liminal space of romance, on his honeymoon in Paris. Groebli archives the rituals of a romantic getaway, which include lazy days spent in a hotel room with deep and loving closeness. We catch glimpses of his wife dressing and undressing, their unmade bed, a bottle of wine on a table, and the hand of his beloved holding a lit cigarette.
A testament to the vow “in sickness and in health” is presented through the works of Nobuyoshi Araki, Hervé Guibert and Sally Mann. All three apply the medium of photography to eternalise their love, almost as an act of defiance that flies in the face of death itself. Araki exhibits two series, Sentimental Journey (1971) and Winter Journey (1989-90), which together form a visual documentary of his love story’s metamorphosis into a tragedy, ending in his wife succumbing to ovarian cancer at the age of 42. What will strike viewers within these photographs filled with images of travel, is that Araki’s muse, Yoko Aoki, maintains an averted gaze; perhaps a graceful acceptance of her mortality.
Guibert’s series Thierry (1976–1991) documents his passionate 15-year long relationship with Thierry Jouno who he met in 1976. The series evokes a sense of theatrical intimacy captured in hotel rooms during their travels. Both Jouno, who oversaw an institute for the blind, and Guibert, who was a talented writer as well as a photographer, succumbed to AIDS in their mid-30s.
Sally Mann's Proud Flesh (2003–2009), photographs her late husband Larry, who suffered from muscular dystrophy. Like certain works discussed above, this series also carries with it the looming spectre of mortality. She created the photographs using the wet-plate collodion technique from the 19th century, and while photographers skillfully avoided its drawbacks in its heyday, Mann here celebrates its shortcomings. Many of the works are marred and disturbed, which perhaps is a metaphor for the imperfection of life and our inevitable destinies.
Sickness is not the only bringer of loss in this exhibition. Ergin Cavusoglu’s Silent Glide (2008) and Fouad Elkoury’s On War and Love (2006) are juxtaposed together, and both set a dissolution of romance against a landscape of urban dilemmas and political turmoil. Cavusoglu's work is presented in a three-channel video installation, in which a writer puts an end to a fling with his married publisher in a seaside Turkish town. The port town, once famous for its craft of silk rugs, now actively participates in industrial development through shipping and cement manufacturing. In this video art installation, the losing charm of his former relationship is presented as a microcosm of the decaying town.
Elkoury uses a diaristic format to archive his split with a younger lady. The dissolution coincided with the 2006 Lebanon War. His works on display are layered by text, archiving the Israeli air and naval assault on Beirut. In the photographs, viewers can observe Elkoury’s emotional turmoil in Istanbul, set against a backdrop of implied conflict. He travels from Lebanon in a futile attempt to persuade his lover to stay with him. Perhaps, his shattered relationship is a metaphor for the war in Lebanon; a testament of emotional resilience and the urge to save something already lost.
Beyond political turmoil, the politics of love also feature heavily in the photography exhibition, especially within the works of Clifford Prince King. These celebrate queer Black love and liberation, stirring the rigid boundaries of conventional cultural obligations, gender roles, preconceived notions and expectations of identity and race. On display are intimate, coloured photographs that present contrived moments, inspired by real and imagined personal experiences. Lin Zhipeng (No. 223)’s Colors of Love (2005-2021) also engage with the politics of love, chronicling Chinese youth defiantly exploring their sexuality and advocating for freedom of sexual choice, against the backdrop of an authoritarian regime. In a similar vein, the works within Motoyuki Daifu's Lovesody (2008) challenge the social conventions of marriage and family. They present a candid glimpse into the chaos of newfound love, especially when it is accompanied by impending parenthood.
Leigh Ledare's Double Bind (2010) explores the intricate play of perspectives and interpretations between past and present lovers through identical scenographies, first taken with his ex-wife and later with his new lover. Similarly, Karla Hiraldo Voleau delves into the complex web of relationships in the online realm, uncovering tales of betrayal in Another Love Story (2021). Recovering from the pain of infidelity, Voleau casts a model to play the role of her former love interest and visited spaces they had spent time together, to reenact intimate moments from their relationship before the revelation of betrayal.
The most recent works at the exhibition are by Aikaterini Gegisian and Sheree Hovsepian. Gegisian’s narrative of photographic collages on paper, titled Handbook of the Spontaneous Other (2019) are mosaics, composed of relics from the nostalgic 1960s and 1970s—like vintage adult magazines, journey diaries, and editions of National Geographic. Meanwhile, Hovsepian brings mixed-media assemblages that echo fragmented silhouettes of femininity. Drawing her sister into her art, both as muse and reflection of her own self, Hovsepian weaves tales of familial bonds, mirrored identities, self-adulation, sensual allure, subordination, and age-old myths surrounding the feminine essence.
Love Songs reinforces the profound importance, and certainly, the complexity of romantic relationships. The sublime curation feels deeply hopeful, even as it presents glimpses of devastating personal loss. Many who experience this artistic offering will likely be left with a resounding reminder, long after the exhibition concludes, that love sustains life, despite death.