Primitive Behavior - The Bodies“And for a long time yet, led by some wondrous power, I am fated to journey hand in hand with my strange heroes and to survey the surging immensity of life, to survey it through laughter that all can see and through tears unseen and unknown by anyone."
Nikolai Gogal Dead Souls vol 1 ch 7 As I continue my mythology of contemporary man, the focus remains on conflict and frustration. Issues of sex and intimacy, mortality and loss, body image and soulfulness fuel the passion of these themes that are often guised in layers of guilt and shame. As I examine these issues an overwhelming lack of guidance emerges. As I walk through the dunes in Provincetown that serves as my studio, this feeling dissipates. These men and women are my role models, my heroes and heroines, leading me by the hand giving me the courage to look beyond and find the core.
As part of the Provincetown collective memory, these dunes have been a place of chance meeting, of celebration and joy. But as I immortalize my peers, I cannot forget the many who have crossed these dunes that are no longer with us. It is at these times that I become a combat photographer documenting the devastations of war. My heroes and heroines become wounded soldiers and fallen statues, casualties of the fight. I admire their rage and anger, their courage and compassion. They bring me to the brink of understanding. I must now complete the journey alone.
These photographs are documents of healing.
F. Yamrus 1995
Beat Poetry…with the drama of Greek tragedy, the arresting images of Frank Yamrus play out the ravages of Aids…. Provincetown, Massachusetts is a symbol of hope and loss for photographer Frank Yamrus. And one of his favourite places. “It’s the furthermost town on the tip of Cape Cod. The end of the earth for many. The small township has become the gay destination for many of us – our own carnival town for summer.”
This series strikes to the heart of the issues addressed in Yamrus’ work. “I’m a gay man and I have been going there for over 15 years. Historically the dunes of Provincetown are a place where gay men have congregated to have anonymous sex. It’s anonymity encouraged risk-taking behaviour because for over 50 years it was a place of freedom, escape and chance encounters.”
“By the early ‘90s, I had a number of friends who succumbed to Aids. One day while walking down the beach and admiring the beautiful men, my mind flashed to the other side of the dune that separates the beach from the ‘playground’. I now imagined these beautiful bodies, in the prime of their life, still and lifeless. This summer playground became a battlefield, strewn with statuesque fallen soldiers.
The haunted, mysterious quality of the photos is a response to this aspect of the imagined scene. “Initially, these bodies had to remain anonymous. To show the face would have not represented the anonymous exchange, which was vital to the dunes and the images. As the work progressed it became exceedingly apparent that identification of the bodies was paramount in completing the project, although contradictory to some of my initial goals. In many of the earlier images, the body becomes the landscape, melting into the earth and becoming part of it.”
Yamrus describes his models as angels, and his work as combat photography; an affirmation of the fragility of the human existence. “As a photographer, approaching the figure is a very difficult and challenging position. People have been painting the figure the for centuries and photographing it for over one hundred years. I wanted to present the figure in a fresh way, to make it my image. I have not only objectified, I have also monumentalized the body. It is never just a photograph of the subject. In a sense it is you that is revealed, not just the subject.”
The work has evolved and moved on to explore different themes of intimacy and longing. “I was initially working with one individual. In 1995, I ended a four-year relationship, and to insert another sense of loss into the photographs, I began to work with couples. I also attempted to work with small groups, but directing a crowd of people proved to be quite challenging.”
“It was not important to me to know my models’ HIV status. That was not the issue. Although the images are about loss, they are also about rebirth, and in this sense the water represents a double meaning as the dark, encompassing underworld and as renewal, a soothing life force.”
©1998 not only (Blue) and Jennifer Smith
Bodies, Rest and Motionby Steven JenkinsTie a string around your finger, the childhood maxim instructs, and you wont forget what you must remember. Devised equally through wisdom and whimsy, this mnemonic strategy carries with it an irresistible prepubescent appeal based on the affectation of importance, as if our memories at age six or seven or eight are suitably significant to merit a ring-like accessory for all to see, even if just a piece of string.
Six becomes sixteen becomes thirty-six, and we still want to believe that our memories -- those perfect moments, lingering sensations, veiled histories and lost loves -- are worthy of public recognition. As much as we covet our private, elaborately decorated realm of nostalgia in which memories blossom like stargazer lilies, we’re still attached to those bits of string that signal to the world: I have something to remember, I know of people and places and secrets I must not forget. Only now the string is a red ribbon, and it’s worn not around the index finger but on the lapel of a jacket – wool, denim or leather.
While the red ribbon remains an appropriately universal symbol of loss, remembrance and hope, artists have responded to two decades of pandemic trauma with far more complex and idiosyncratic forms of memorial. With his visually haunting, psychologically loaded series Primitive Behavior, photographer Frank Yamrus offers us a rare opportunity to eulogize those to whom it has been so difficult to say goodbye. Taken in the sand dunes that hug the shore of Provincetown, Massachusetts -- historically a site of amorous, anonymous coupling among gay men -- Yamrus’s eerily beautiful black-and-white photographs commemorates the fallen dead who once populated this landscape of furtive sexual escapade. At the same time, Yamrus’s eloquent images of bodies stilled in dappled sunlight remind us, the still-standing witnesses, that intimacy is vital, and that we must accept its conflicting consequence if we are to discover, for the first or one-hundredth time, what it means to live life fully in the adult world.
Though Yamrus never appears in his own photographs, the Primitive Behavior series can be considered autobiographical in that it traces an often perilous personal passage from carefree boyhood through hedonistic salad days to responsible manhood. Now in his late thirties, and dividing his time between Provincetown and San Francisco, Yamrus belongs to a generation of American men who, due in large part to the Eisenhower -- era success of their parents, were granted an extended adolescence, a freedom to evolve leisurely. Urban gay experience, which to a notable extent has shaped the aesthetic sensibility and thematic framework of Yamrus’s photographs, tends to encourage this prolonged period of youthful abandon while ignoring the attendant risk of stunted adult maturation. Studying these images of men (and women) who are physically strong yet emotionally vulnerable, filled with terror and sadness, rage and worry, you can see Yamrus struggling, and ultimately succeeding, to usurp domineering patriarchal notions of masculine identity with his own hard-earned definitions of self and community.
When he initiated the series in 1993, Yamrus intuitively sensed that by photographing lone, lost men in the cultural encoded setting of the sand dunes he could illustrate both the ravagement of illness and his own uncertainty regarding relationships, intimacy and the male identity. Utilizing a full frame Haselblad camera, and relying only on the fickle sun to his twilight scenes, Yamrus accompanied his models into the dunes – as would become his custom for the next five years- and emerged with pristine, immaculately printed images that exude palpable grief and tension just beneath their seductive veneer. Having previously photographed statuary, Yamrus was inclined to depict his trusting models (nearly always friends or acquaintances) as felled soldiers, stripped of rank and clothing following their fatal trysts. They are strewn across the battlefield of the sand dunes, victims of the big disease with the small name that lurks invisible but omnipresent in this calm yet macabre landscape.
It is no accident that the still, silent figures in Yamrus’s photographs frequently resemble corpses; these are, after all, images of mortality, and of bodies for whom making love is a vague memory. Caught in the bittersweet sorrow of their final moments, and prepared for an eternity beyond pain and uncertainty, these men and women enact primal rituals whereby they surrender their bodies to the earth and water in which they have come to rest. While early works in the series, such as RJ – Bronze and Scott – Exit, focus on bodies who resist death with nervous gestures and grasping hands, later entries such as Paul – Hush and Kurt – Infinity contain figures who lie in placid repose, having fully accepted their place in the ceaseless cycle of nature.
In 1995, eager both to tackle fresh compositional challenges and extend the metaphoric potentials if his imagery, Yamrus began to invite women and couples to participate in what was by then and ongoing act of creative memorial. Although the Provincetown dunes are not nearly as well-traveled by gay women as by men, Yamrus wanted to include them in his setting to acknowledge that the lesbian community has been equally affected by the legacy of dwindling T cells. Works such as Caroline – Essence and Kate – Matter certainly convey a sense of loneliness and mourning. Yamrus’s deeply unsettling photographs of couples, meanwhile, suggest that even when two or more figures come together in this tainted landscape, they never quite achieve authentic intimacy. In Susan – Honor and Tommy -- Pods, pairs of figures exist side by side yet seem a million miles apart, while in Terri -- China and Kenn -- Aside, the couples are inextricably bound together almost to the point of suffocation. Yamrus very rarely grants his doomed dune dwellers the comfort of strangers.
During this crucial transition period in the series, Yamrus also began to subtly undercut the intrinsic sadness of his subject matter. Rather than continue to conceal his models’ face behind weeds, water or their own hands, Yamrus reveals their closed eyes and mysteriously beatific expressions – as in G. Paul –Lotus – in an attempt to rescue them from the void of anonymity. Several images produced towards the end of the series focus even more closely on the human face, now caught in a blur of motion as if Yamrus, perhaps encouraged by recent medical developments, now believes that his fallen soldiers – including Tommy -- Nova and Paul – Straw will in fact be resurrected from the quagmire of the dunes, and that Eros will triumph over Thanatos after all.
Formally, with their emphasis on bodily abstraction and the natural world, Yamrus’s photographs are firmly rooted in modernist tradition. Whether consciously or not (though I suspect the former), Yamrus occasionally references such masters of the medium as Edward Weston and Ruth Bernhard in his elegant composition and cultural segmenting of the body, as in Steve-- Angels and Joel -- Pacific. Additional photo-historical references resonate throughout the series, lending Yamrus’s oeuvre a self-styled lineage that reinforces his thematically weighty intentions. The elongated neck of Brian -- Dune, for example, recalls, Man Ray’s 1929 portrait of Lee Miller, while the splayed figure Steve -- Ritual brings to mind the young girl lying naked and face down in a field of clover in Wynn Bullock’s 1951 image Child in Forest.
Yamrus’s pictures also will trigger somewhat more subliminal photo-historical associations in many viewers, brimming as they are with archetypal imagery and anatomical characteristics that recall canonical male nudes. Marc -- Rain and Brian -- Storm recall Australian photographer Max Dupain’s 1937 Sunbaker, although Dupain’s eponymous tan man relaxes on the sand without a care (perhaps dreaming of his pirate ancestry) while Yamrus’s fellows are weighed down by regret and missed opportunities. In addition to its obvious “de Milo” referent, Yamrus’s Samuel -- Venus also harks back to Minor White’s seminal 1950’s portraits of Tom Murphy, he of the truly remarkable navel.
Yamrus has produced his substantial body of work at a time when photographic inquiry is particularly receptive to the gay male gaze, as evidenced by the plethora of homoerotic imagery both in the fine-art arena and in advertising and fashion photography. Given this climate of flagrant male nudity and the mainstreaming of gay culture, it’s crucial to officially distinguish Primitive Behavior from the type of muscle-and-hustle imagery popularized by Herb Ritts (itself a watered-down version of Robert Mapplethorpe’s trend setting paeans to gay erotica). Given the unmistakably somber context of Yamrus's imagery, it’s highly doubtful that many viewers will objectify his admittedly handsome models as mere beefcake. Still, I wish to clarify that Yamrus- regardless of how formally seductive his photographs can appear-- has far more in common with Weston and Bernhard than with Bruce Weber.
Whereas the soft- and hardcore fantasies of Ritts and Mapplethorpe idealize physical perfection to a fascistic degree, Yamrus deftly uncovers human frailty hiding beneath a virile façade. In his introduction to Mapplethorpe’s 1980 book Black Males, Edmund White writes of the photographer’s infamous nudes, “These shapes have been isolated and abstracted in order to tranquilize anxiety.” Yamrus, in contrast refuses to “tranquilize anxiety;” even when he beautifies his subject matter, he knows there’s far to much at stake in the sand dunes (and beyond) to appease viewers, his models or himself with the empty promise of physical glorification.
Surveying contemporary photographers who share his thematic preoccupations, Yamrus counts among his kindred peers, John Dougdale, Robert Flynt, and Bill Jacobson. Like this stylistically disparate trio, Yamrus acknowledges the myriad, necessarily fluid roles that gay men have learned to play in our viral era, from lover, brother and activist to patient, caretaker and documentarian. It is the work of these artists that makes visible—and makes poetry of – the sentiments and gestures of memory represented by our finger-strings and red ribbons. With Primitive Behavior, Yamrus has forged a deeply personal meditation on masculinity, adulthood, intimacy and loss. If we indeed are to interpret the motion and flurry of the series’ final images as a return to life, it appears that we may be able to navigate through the desolate landscape of the dunes and live to tell the tale. Until then, the story will have to be told—and remembered—in Frank Yamrus’s photographs.
@1997 Steven Jenkins
Feral Portraiture by J.A. Hager for Provincetown MagazineAt first you see a pleasing design of grasses and water, light and shade, duplicities, mirroring, twinning: a reflection of a face in the water, the stubble of a shaved head complementing the texture of a cheek. The human shape is camouflaged, blended into the natural world, with shadows of grasses falling on the skin and the reflection of the face distorted by ripples. Then the viewer’s eye drifts to the center of the image and is confronted by another eye. Another reality behind the composition startles the viewer: It is a man lying with his face half submerged in water. The eye is narrowed, almost reptilian, “It was important to keep the eyebrows crisp,” photographer Frank Yamrus explains. “I kept telling the model to open and close his eyes.” The viewer has an unsettled feeling; “ Am I being watched, or is this a wounded or dead thing?” There is a quality of stealth, threat, primal eroticism present in the image, as if the eye of the predator is watching. The animal presence in the human form can also be “read” as prey, becoming part of the food chain itself, decomposing in the marsh.
Frank Yamrus shoots nearly 90% of his images within the circumference of a secret spot in the dunes. His studio is the elemental terrain of grasses and dunes, animated by the movement of tides. Through the sculptural human shapes of his models he works through his own obsessions, fears, shame and desire. There are no props or clothing and the faces of the models are usually blurred, hidden or only partially revealed. Thus the model becomes a “fallen soldier” vulnerable, prone, without defense of facial quirks expressing an individual personality or costume to project a persona. In its anonymity, the image becomes an affirmation of life, a testimony, an expression of the fragility of our human connection to the wild planet.
Yamrus thinks of himself in metaphorical terms—as a combat photographer recording our time in history; our peninsula in this coastal landscape which carries, among other things, the collective memory of furtive, anonymous sex between men. The “portraiture” conveys an ambiguity of sensuousness, homoeroticism and a stillness that suggests death or transport to another realm. Thus a playground in retrospect becomes a battlefield, a place that is more than likely a site of HIV transmissions between partners. There is an ambiguity in the play of water: water expressing the underworld and death, water as a life force. As a gay man, Yamrus is concerned with paying testimony to those who have left us a community stranded in its grief from the “mainstream.” Yet he also seeks to address issues of loss at every level, and not speak only to the gay community.
In one photograph, eyelashes on water, a face starts to emerge. Yamrus describes his work as “portrait based” rather than following strictly the long tradition of portraiture, which, perhaps, concerns itself with the individual and recognizing that person as distinct from all others. Yet he titles each photograph with the model’s name in order to acknowledge him or her. It is a silent collaboration; there is a hush, a stillness that falls over the scene he beautifully composes, sometimes full of serenity, sometimes laden with unrest and troubled passing. The figures in Yamrus’ work are often immersed in, or relating to, the passage of water. Water is a medium for crossing into death; water is essential for life.
In one image, the top of the frame is dominated by the lower part of a jaw with a stream of water cascading from it as in a baptism. Yamrus turns the photo on its head and a reflection glows eerily—in the negative white space of the eyebrows hollow eyes appear to stare out. The face in reversal is a stoic black death mask giving the impression that this soul in not passing quietly into the realm of the spirit, but instead haunting its former shape.
In another photograph a face and uplifted chin is glimpsed behind a screen of grasses, as if a curtain has fallen on a final act. This could be a fallen statue, though the figure conveys more of a sense of resurrection as the immobile figure faces skyward, chin leading into the heavens.
In many photographs the face is obscured or the gaze downcast, but the gelatin silver prints are so strong and carry such dignity that they belie the shame that may be implied by the hidden face. Instead they have a quiet grace and speak more about the courage of claiming one’s terrain, soul mates and history. This is especially true of Yamrus’ most recent work. It moves into relationships between two figures and into revelation as a face emerges strongly. In Tracey – Pond, a transitional piece for Yamrus, a full faces surfaces. “The lens of my camera started to pull towards the faces without my conscious intent and I needed to follow it,” he says. In this image a figure with an androgynous face and strong shoulders – drinking from or expiring into a pool of water – dominates the frame. Thus it is a powerful yet surrendered presence; the tone of the tableau is one of acceptance. And though the face is fully revealed there is still ambiguity and anonymity in the shaved head, and powerful smooth shoulders, and even in the gender-less name, Tracey. The photograph transcends gay issues or gender issues, and becomes more about our human plight and tenuous existence on the planet. The dunes are transformed from a place of chance meeting into a metaphor for the fleetingness of the human connection – a frontier through which Yamrus traipses with his camera, providing through its lens his own instinctive guidance.
@1996 J.A. Hager and Provincetown Magazine
No Less Glamorous...Provincetown is a metaphor for itself. It sits on the tip of the spinning cochlea that drowns Cape Cod fifty miles out to sea. It is land’s end, poised between the air and the Atlantic Ocean, a butterfly’s tongue before the crux of a flower. Cape Cod is a scarp of gravel and sand pinched off of the southern Massachusetts coast. At its very end, Provincetown, it spirals back on itself until it runs out of sand. It is a further safe harbor inside the natural safe harbor of Cape Cod Bay, but at the same time it is inherently unstable. Stability was traded for beauty. Storms and tides scratch off bits of the Cape and then pile up more dunes elsewhere. Here, the land takes on water; the water takes on light; the light is corporeal. The sunlight that bounces between the opposite reflecting surfaces of the Atlantic Ocean and the sky surrounds Provincetown like amber encases a fly. Even the most night-crawling visiting sybarite will be moved to mention “Cape light”.
Provincetown is a safe harbor fifty miles out to sea, a physical contradiction that predetermined its attractiveness to social outcasts and misfits, many of the night-crawling variety. At one time, the land route to Provincetown was so unreliable -drifting dunes and wild seas – that Provincetown was largely reached by boat. It was like an island. Its history was determined by its typography.
Sometime after the painters of Boston, New York and Philadelphia discovered in Provincetown – as in Gloucester, of Boston’s northern shore – an amiable retreat (read: cheap) with an exotic (read: shockingly common) population to paint toward the end of the 19th century, gay people discovered Provincetown. Gay people have always found the cracks, the margins, land’s end. For many of us, this is a psychic necessity, for some of us it is a fetish, but to all of us it is a relief. And we are welcome. The town is still a mix of artists and fisherman and gay people. Every gay person has seemingly glanced off of Provincetown, at one time or another in the lives and, like the weather, they scar the landscape, leaving traces and taking something away.
Provincetown is wild and beautiful, but to gay people Provincetown is safe – to us that is also wild and beautiful. The nature of that safety has changed as our community has changed. We were once safe only from violence, constriction and shame, now Provincetown is also a safe place to express ourselves whether we’re grieving or dragging or taking photographs.
Or meeting. Or falling in love. Or just having sex. The human body, the sexual body is one way of telling the story of gay people. Provincetown is where we’ve come because it was available and we had no other place to be that was nearly as gorgeous; Provincetown is where we tell our story. In other places of the world, we have had to have sex in bushes and public bathrooms and shadows. In Provincetown, we have sex in the sun.
Provincetown harbor gradually shallows until it is only fully under water at high tide. A seawall was built to make more of the harbor deep enough to be valuable to the fishing and ferry fleets, but it also created a beautiful tidal bath called “The Moors”. The Moors fill and empty daily according to the regularity of the tides. The water is shallow and, in the summer time, warm flowing in tidal rivers between strands of sea grass. The Moors lie behind the barrier dunes at the far end of Herring Cove Beach, which is where gay men tend to sunbathe. Wading in thigh-deep sun-warmed water, mostly men, but women, too, have been following each other down the tidal rivers for decades. The sex that has taken place in The Moors is the physicalisation of gay lives lived: violence, art, self-hatred, self-denial, self-abuse, oppression, freedom, Aids, love and death as well as orgasm or dick size.
Frank photographs literally in the midst of it, knee-deep in the story of gay people in Provincetown and, by extension, the world. Frank’s pictures exist in breach between this environment and the community. He photographs their relationship. I recognize myself looking, in his pictures, at my neighbors, my neighborhood, sex-partners, my beloved “family”. I remember rendezvous. I see in the curve of a clavicle some of the same beauty and sadness that inhabits the memory of the curve of my dead lover’s clavicle. I see the repose inside of a body in these pictures, the repose for which I am grateful when I find it in a body lying next to me. Frank photographs delineate a very commonplace, useful and terrible glamour that is made of the lives and deaths of our gay bodies.
He documents our passing and our continuing with vary elements of our lives: the body, light, water, earth and their communion. The changes in the gay community that have come from the HIV virus killing many of us are in these pictures, but the joy in our bodies is also in these pictures. The awe inspired by being in a perfect place is in his pictures, at least for the exposure in the frame. The Moors in his pictures are a place of worship without denying that they have seen a lot of pain. The pictures are large enough, as indeed are the Moors, to hold both.
The people in the pictures are naked. They are pretty. They are sexy. The pictures are printed lusciously and if you glance at them they can remind you of post cards on Castro Street. This is subversive. If you were of a mind to dismiss Frank’s work, he gives you every opportunity. You could lump his pictures into any sort of a derogatory association you’d care to. He seems to suggest them to you. He seems to lure you with the promise of being superficial like any number of photographers you could mention.
Now the big “but” is supposed to arrive.
The big “but” is “what’s so wrong with these supposedly superficial photographers?” Frank’s work, actually, would not function very well as postcards – not very titillating – but he is unafraid to be associated with those “commercialized” or “co-opted” photographers. Given the chance, by his talent, to disassociate himself from the “common rabble” he has chosen not to. “Chosen” may be the wrong word. He may not be able to disassociate himself from what is considered plebian. He crafts his work out of nature, body parts and sentiment. These are not unusual materials. These are everyday things. But no less glamorous.
©1997 Greg Campora
The Provincetown Photographs 1993-1998Part I
Between 1993 and 1998 Frank Yamrus produced two separate, but linked photographic projects with the titles “Primitive Behavior” and “The Motion Series.” Approximately 120 images comprise the project, which consists principally, but not exclusively, of images of the male nude. Among these 120 images one finds three distinct groups: the works made between 1993-1995 are the bleakest, most tragic, in a sense, with their subjects’ heads or eyes covered or blocked and the bodies lying either in water or land; in 1996 portraits, tighter images of his subjects’ faces, now fully visible, dominate; and, finally in 1997-1998 the bodies emerge from the setting where they had earlier lain, rising, in great activity, and finally, disappearing, leaving behind a nearly abstract image of the water.1
Two different artistic echoes resonate in Yamrus’ project. The first is a single work, the odd and haunting painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Giorgione titled “The Tempest” (1505). Like the obvious and immediate “facts” in a Yamrus photograph – the body, a scar on a shoulder, grass bent against a face, a head lying in water, a tattoo on an arm – the “facts” in the Georgione are easy to enumerate – a woman, nearly naked, nursing a child, a stormy sky, a bridge, a river, a gentleman, a well tended garden, a distant city. But these facts, like the specific details in Yamrus’ photographs, elude easy interpretation.2
Yamrus has made the task of reading his photographs somewhat easier by calling his project an effort to construct “a mythology of contemporary man.”3 They are, he continues, “men who are strong yet vulnerable, virile yet voluptuous, full of fear, frustration, anger and anxiety – yet coping, surviving and progressing.” These are men (and women) for whom AIDS forms the ground on which their lives are lived, their battles are fought.
The other artist echo, which seems even stronger, is a photographic one. The images created by those individuals who document the American Civil War – Alexander Gardener, James Gibson, David Woodbury, Mathew Brady and others – form a body of work that seems especially appropriate for understanding what Yamrus has achieved. This body of Civil War images possesses a currency far greater and deeper than their historical significance as documents and this is the quality that one finds informing Yamrus’ work.
Consider, first, O’Sullivan’s “Field where General Reynolds Fell” (1863). Five figures lie in the foreground and a sixth in the left distance. Their heads are thrown back and their mouths open. The hand of the dead reaches up; the arms of two others are flung back and a Gardner photograph of a fallen Confederate soldier uncannily predicts certain motifs one will note in Yamrus’ photographs. In Gardener’s image the soldier has been propped among boulders. A stream runs to his right. Soft grasses can be seen at the lower left. His head is pushed away from the viewer. 4
The two photographs I have described – and a wide group of others, as well – are actually quite lacking in detail. In them one does not see the action of war but its results. One sees the soldiers dead, not in the act of dying. Neither the proprieties of Victorian sensibility not the technical limitations of early photographic processes explain the qualities these photographs possess. The Civil War images and Yamrus’ photographs make distant and abstract the experience they record. 5
The Provincetown dunes serve as Yamrus’ studio. He keeps a house in Provincetown and has used this outdoor site, where small crystalline streams and small hills shape the landscape, for over 6 years. The dunes have been for decades, Yamrus has written, “ a place for chance meeting, of celebration and joy,” for gay men who look there for sexual partners. Here, some gay men experienced lust, some have found love, and some, finding one or the other, have come in contact with HIV. Yamrus had returned to this setting for six years to photograph, but also to tame it, to confront it, and most importantly, to make of it a place of pilgrimage, a holy place of sorts.
In the earliest works, those from 1993-1995, one has the impression that the photographer has stumbled across a scene where the victims of some cult-like ritual have been delivered. The bodies lie precisely, carefully arranged, physically unscathed. They comprise scenes from a drama but their narrative design is evasive. They hint at a reading which quickly skips away, much like the way a story line in a dream shifts and moves, teases and frustrates, and never fully allows a narrative pattern to emerge. 6
The earliest photographs reveal what Yamrus does best at setting the emotional tone of his project. These are troubling and disturbing images. The bodies lie, not at rest, but apparently dead. Of course, the dead do not just fall, naked, out of doors except in a nightmare world, a surreal territory like the one Yamrus imagines. In “Kurt – Muse” and “Marc – Rain” the bodies have been found on a battlefield and left there to return to nature. “Brian – Storm” provides a larger amount of the scene than the other works in this group. Here there is a receding low horizon that sweeps behind the model. This may be among Yamrus’ most disturbing photographs. The model’s hands, folded behind his back, hint at violence. What one notices as well in these photographs is how balanced, structured, and beautiful they are. It is their very beauty, which sets up a disquieting tension: these images resonate with pain, terror, fear, with suggestions of violence and assault.7
As Yamrus investigates various ways to place his subjects in their settings, shifts occur. The models begin to come to life, so to speak. They interact with their settings. They assume poses that suggest they posses some control over their conditions. “Scott – Exit” depicts a model struggling to dislodge (or to hold on to) some marsh grass. What is the “exit” in the title, one asks. Is it the grass that keeps him earthbound? Yamrus continues to turn his models heads form the camera (as in “Scott – Exit”) but involves the models themselves in this act of aversion. In “Steve – Angels” the model covers his face with his hands. Two images emerge which are quite disturbing. In “David – Fire” and “R.J. - Bronze” his models assume poses that might be called baroque. Twisted and bent, their bodies suggest enormous pain; anguish so great that screaming would hardly be an adequate response.
A psychological shift occurs when Yamrus allows his subjects to interact with their environments. No longer passive objects found in the landscape, (on some level becoming one with the landscape), they become separate from the place where they have been photographed.
In 1996 Yamrus introduced portraits, works in which the eyes frequently remain closed but from which the suggestions of violence have been replaced by notes of grace and security.8 These are portraits of individuals, not the abstract bodies he had earlier produced. They are, above all, not visual representations of death. They are at rest – an emotional place that is quiet, private, and safe. Danger and vulnerability, which had always seemed so present in the earlier works, are now gone. One can float, one can dream with little fear that death will strike one down.
These portraits of survivors, resting and gathering strength, are an important bridge in understanding how Yamrus brings his project to its completion in “The Motion Series.” Made in 1997 and 1998 the works from this group bring the photographs full circle from the extreme passivity of the earliest images to a group where all is motion and activity.
An important photograph “Untitled (Legs)” links the two extremes, activity and passivity.9 Here the model emerges gracefully from a pool of water. But there is action, first in the remarkable mirrored reflections on the water’s surface. And secondly, in a dazzling demonstration of Yamrus as a master printer, in the small spiral of light which literally dance across the surface of the print. The photographs that bring Yamrus’ project to its conclusion can only be called breathtaking. With works like “Untitled (Legs) “and “Untitled (Jump)” his models come alive; they break through the water’s surface, they dive, they do everything they can do to demonstrate that they are no longer playthings of some malevolent god. Quite simple, they assume control over their own fates. Even when his models fall, as they do in “Untitled (Fall)”, they choose to fall; they have not been struck down.10
One hesitates to use words spiritual to describe the impressions the final wildly expressionistic photographs produce. But if one returns briefly to “D.J. – Fields” and “Marc – Ascent” both from 1995, where the bodies appear to have been discarded, abandoned, left exposed following some unguessed – at crime, one finds in the last works a nearly intoxicating level of joy, elation, victory. In the most religious of terms, these are works that celebrate the resurrection.11 And it is not wrong to suggest that AIDS aside, the metaphor that informs “Primitive Behavior” and “The Motion Series” is the symbolic journey through death to life. In the photographs of this project, Yamrus starts with the dead Christ and then brings his viewer to the resurrection and beyond.
In the most recent works the body, triumphant, has actually vanished. Titles with clear religious meaning – “Faith,” “Revere,” and “Divine” dominate. One is left; with near abstraction when the surface of the water has been broken, when waves crash, and when the body disappears. These are spiritual works for the non-believer, photographs that probe deep emotional mysteries and which conclude with an ecstatic explosion of water and light into faith.
1. First exhibited under the title “Primitive Behavior” at Provincetown’s Cortland Jessup Gallery (August 1994), a selection was shown in October/November 1995, at the Gomez Gallery in Baltimore. UFO Gallery in Provincetown showed selected works in August 1996. In spring 1997, eight were among works shown in Houston Center of Photography’s “New Masculinities.” Yamrus was included in “Discoveries of the Meeting Place at the spring 1998 Fotofest. Sarah Morthland Gallery in New York City showed selection from “Primitive Behavior” in June of 1997 and from “The Motion Series” in early 1999.
2. See John Wood’s discussion of the questions raised by Giorgione’s printing in his The Photographic Arts (University of Iowa Press: Iowa City, 1996), p.58.
3. From Yamrus’ artist statement – Primitive Behavior Chapter One, 1994.
4. Matthew Brady and his World. P. 225. Gardner’s photographs of the dead soldier was actually “staged” or arranged, the body having been moved forty yards, his gun positioned uselessly away from his body. Remembering how the dead were frequently moved in Civil War photographs to heighten the dramatic/emotional pitch of the photographs leads indirectly to a recognition of how and why Yamrus has positioned his subjects (his dead) to achieve similar responses.
5. Yamrus has described (not only Blue, no. 13, February 1998, p. 118) his photographs as “combat photography” and called the Provincetown dunes, his setting, a “battlefield” in which he photographed “statuesque fallen soldiers.”
6. Dan Mirer, a Brooklyn based-photographer who exhibited his work along side Yamrus’ in Houston Center for Photography’s New Masculinities (Spring 1997) has suggested that Yamrus’ photographs also resemble crime photographs. His idea adds another layer of echoes to the tradition that echo in Yamrus’ work. But if they are crime photographs, they are particularly frustrating because they provide so few clues. The mode of death – if that indeed is what is recorded -is not made clear.
7. A friend, a painter who lives in Buenos Aires, finds Yamrus’ photographs charged with a political resonance that reminds him of the period of “the disappeared” in Argentine’s recent history. Describing one photograph, he wrote me recently that it “ was a shock to me, as it reminded me of a body floating in the river – I was with H_____ going to the island….and we were on this lancha collectivo – it is a bus boat….. when I saw a body of a man floating. You could see his shoulders, he did not have a shirt on, his arms were outstretch [ed] and his face was in the water, as if he was looking for something in the muddy water….. This happened more than 20 years ago, I still remember it very clearly…. Those bodies in the water (in Yamrus’ photographs) give me as unpleasant reminder of the period when people disappeared here in Argentina.” 8. In a portrait of me taken in August 1996 I am floating in a small pool, my head and a small section of my right arm are all that are visible. A thin line, the water in which I am floating, divides my face. If, in Yamrus earlier photographs are found hints of terror and pain, here all is calm and peace. I may be dreaming, I may be dead; but I am far removed from the anguish expressed in “R.J. - Bronze.”
9. This is one of the several works in the project, which features woman. Others that come to mind are from the earliest phase, “Caroline – Essence,” and “Caroline – Dusk.” The presence of women among his male models functions in three ways: they engage Yamrus in the photographic conversation of how to photographs the male and female nude. They also permit Yamrus to demonstrate that it is possible to photograph the female nude and avoid the pitfalls of the “male gaze” while producing works that are valid, meaningful, and in the case of “Untitled (Legs),” quite gorgeous. The presence of women among his men also creates a visual community united by their shared engagement with AIDS.
10. It is possible to see the arc of these photographs as visualizing the gay community’s confrontation with AIDS. From passivity there has been movement, through knowledge and hope, to guarded optimism, expressed by the visual gymnastics of the last photographs.
11. Yamrus was raised a Roman Catholic and the iconography of the “Stations of the Cross” in which the faithful prayerfully recreate the steps in Christ’s journey to his death and burial seems to lie behind his project.
1999 Edward Osowski