In the thought-provoking exhibition, “Love Songs: Photography and Intimacy,” at the International Center of Photography, two series of photographs by Nobuyoshi Araki face off on opposite walls.
In the first, “Sentimental Journey,” from 1971, Araki charts his honeymoon with Yoko Aoki, his young wife. The sequence includes shots of her undressed, and one image shows her in orgasm. But the most intimate portraits, with Aoki fully clothed, expose her interior life. In the most poignant, she is sitting in a train compartment and looking off to the side, with an air of resignation and foreboding. I thought of the last line of Henry James’s “The Bostonians,” where the newly betrothed heroine weeps tears and the narrator remarks, “It was to be feared that … these were not the last she was destined to shed.”
The Araki marriage, however, seems to have been happy. The tears to be shed were his. In 1994, Aoki died of ovarian cancer, an illness Araki chronicled in “Winter Journey,” from the hospital room all the way to the coffin and the household shrine constructed in her memory. The prints are time-stamped, as if each station of the journey was impressed on his soul. The couple’s beloved cat patrols in many of the pictures, and magnolia flowers are featured in others. The pet and the blooms conjure up the spirit of the departed wife.
Love and loss. The ditty that played in my head as I walked through “Love Songs” is the one that begins, “You don’t know what love is … until you’ve loved a love you had to lose.” There are 16 artists in the show, which has been adapted by the independent curator Sara Raza from an exhibition at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (M.E.P.) in Paris. Many of the photographers are charting the end of a love affair. As songwriters have recognized, the pain of a breakup is more emotionally penetrating than the joy of a happy romance. But what can be readily conveyed in music is elusive in photography, where the subjects too easily become performers, and the desired feeling of intimacy turns theatrical.
Scrolling through photos on Instagram or Facebook, you get the sense that the people smiling joyously with their arms around each other are actors. Or rather, that they have embarked on these relationships mainly to advertise them: They are impersonating themselves. Karla Hiraldo Voleau tackles the theme of simulated intimacy in “Another Love Story,” 2022. Arranged month by month, the pictures chronicle the artist’s discovery that her lover has continued a relationship that he had told her was over. The installation includes transcripts of phone calls between Hiraldo Voleau and the other woman, who was also kept in the dark.
Underscoring the unreliability both of lovers and of social media posts about love affairs, Hiraldo Voleau displays pictures she took of her ex-boyfriend where his face is not discernible and mixes them with photos made after the breakup, restaging old scenes with a hired look-alike. Tellingly, I could see no difference between the shots in which she is with her real lover and those with the man pretending to be him; in all these pictures, the subjects are acting for the camera.
Leigh Ledare in “Double Bind,” 2010, sought to show how a lover projects upon the beloved by photographing his ex-wife, five years after their divorce, in an isolated cabin in upstate New York. She had recently remarried. Two months later, Ledare persuaded her to visit the same dwelling with her new husband, Adam Fedderly, also a photographer, who portrayed her with his own camera. Ledare displays their photographs together, identifying the authorship by the color of the frames. In montages, he intermingled the photos with magazine cutouts, adding three vitrines brimming with more glossy clippings. It’s an ingenious setup that once again illustrates the inherent ambiguity of photography. I could not distinguish between the visions of the two men.
Intimacy is difficult to capture in a photo. I didn’t glean much from the posed portraits, many of them nude, that Collier Schorr made of her close collaborator, Angel Zinovieff. Nor was I so interested in the artsy shots that Lin Zhipeng took of his young male lovers. But I paused in wistful fascination before the sequence of photos by Hervé Guibert of his boyfriend, Thierry Jouno, both of them young, taken in the late ’70s and ’80s. There are nude images of Jouno, some X-rated. But the most intimate were a portrait of Jouno laying his head on a desk while cigarette smoke rises above, another of him grimacing as he looks in a mirror, and, in three posed pictures taken from different distances in a rustic room, Jouno standing, heartbreakingly handsome and obviously adored, his naked body concealed by gauzy veils. Surely some of my interest came from the knowledge that both Jouno, who directed an institute for the blind, and Guibert, who was a gifted writer as well as a photographer, would die of AIDS in their mid-30s.
The shadow of mortality also falls on “Proud Flesh,” 2003-09, by Sally Mann, her photographs of her husband, Larry, who suffers from late-onset muscular dystrophy. She made them with the 19th-century wet-plate collodion process. Back when it was the state of the art, photographers expertly overcame the pitfalls of the technique, but Mann embraces the flaws. Like her naked husband, many of the pictures are blemished and distressed. The darkness and blurring created by this archaic process add to the elegiac mood.
Ergin Cavusoglu’s “Silent Glide,” 2008, and Fouad Elkoury’s “On War and Love,” 2006, both set a romantic breakup against a landscape of decay or strife. In Cavusoglu’s staged three-channel video, a writer ends an affair with his married publisher, who is visiting him in Hereke, a Turkish seaside town once known for its production of silk rugs but dependent now, in addition to carpet manufacture, on shipping and a cement factory. Cavusoglu devotes as much attention to the degradation of the town as he does to the collapse of the affair.
Similarly, in “On War and Love,” 2006, Elkoury chronicles in a diary format the dissolution of his relationship with a younger woman, a parting that coincides with a war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. The photos are interspersed with texts, documenting the Israeli air and naval assault on Beirut and Elkoury’s emotional turmoil in Istanbul, where he travels from Lebanon in a futile attempt to persuade his lover to stay with him. Instead of resonating with each other, however, the two stories, when juxtaposed, distanced me from each of them.
“Love Songs” left me wondering if the theatricality of posing and the ambiguity of still images undercut the capacity of photography to document intimacy. Various art forms afford different advantages and limitations. Novels are best at describing the complex charms and vicissitudes of love, which is why so many of these artists resort to texts along with images. “Love Songs” is as much about what photography can’t do as about what it can.
Love Songs: Photography and Intimacy
Through Sept. 11, International Center of Photography, 79 Essex Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan, icp.org.