“Long light: photographs of David Lebe” at the Philly Art Museum

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When David Lebe was studying photography in the late 1960s at what was once the Philadelphia College of Art – now the University of the Arts – he was working without a camera. He made pinhole cameras, a homemade box without a lens; and stills without a camera, placing objects directly on photographic paper and exposing them to light, creating silhouettes.

“A camera came between me and the experience of taking a photo, and I absolutely loved the photography,” said Lebe, who also hand painted her black and white prints with watercolors.

It was his light drawings that made him famous in the 1970s. The images were taken in the dark with extremely long exposures, using a flashlight to draw in the air. The result would be an image – often a posed male figure – highlighted in the light.

“Angelo on the Roof” by David Lebe, 1979. (Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

“For me, it was about energy and separation between ourselves and the rest of the world,” Lebe said. “Those of male nudes, it was a sexual thing. The energy you give off when you are around someone you are attracted to – that feeling of energy emanating from the body.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has the largest collection of Lebe’s works, estimated at over 200 pieces. “Long Light: Photographs by David Lebe”, on view until May, chronicles the evolution of his experimental style which has always been rooted in his experiences as a gay man.

After graduation, Lebe joined the faculty at UArts in the 1970s, staying for two decades. At a time when AIDS was emerging and fear of being exposed was rife, Lebe let everyone know he was gay.

“I don’t think there were any teachers outside,” he said during a visit to the Perelman building, where his exhibit opened last week. “Some teachers spoke to other faculty members, but no teacher was outside of their classrooms. There were certainly gays in the art school, but you wouldn’t know.

Lebe continued to make light drawings and hand-colored photograms, often of flowers. He also used his experimental formats to take sexually explicit photos of men, which are on display in a side gallery with a warning posted for parents.

In the early 1990s, Lebe quit his longtime teaching job at UArts and moved to rural Columbia County, upstate New York, with his partner, artist Jack. Potter. Both had contracted AIDS.

“I didn’t think I would have long to live. That was before there were any AIDS drugs, ”Lebe said. “Let’s get out of town and have one last adventure, and be together in a quiet place, a healthy place, and we just did. I didn’t expect it to be long term. We thought we were going to get sick and die.

The only AIDS therapy Lebe and Potter could devise on their own was a healthy lifestyle – focused on sleep, low stress, and a macrobiotic diet.

During this time, Lebe documented Potter’s morning rituals: showering, eating, and doing light exercise to show the slow pace of their lives. He took the photos but never showed them, believing he wouldn’t live to see them printed.

“They are here now on the wall. But, at the time, I was like, why am I doing this? he said. “It was a pleasure to do it, so I just did it. There was enlightenment during this time. You have lost a lot of weight. You didn’t have to worry about the future or being successful. It was rather wonderful and peaceful.

It was 25 years ago. Since then, drug therapies have been developed to fight AIDS. Lebe is now 70 years old, an age he never dreamed of reaching.

Once he started treatment and realized he wasn’t necessarily going to die right away, Lebe said the pressure of being a working artist returned to his shoulders.

He has embraced digital photography and is making new work based on the shadows of sunlight entering his home. Some of these new images have been loaned to the exhibition.

He said he retained some of the enlightenment of those early years in the Hudson Valley when life was hesitant. Now that he’s 70 years old, that sense of impending death returns.

“Every day is a gift,” he says. “It’s a cliché, but it’s true.”


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