John Coplans (1920-2003) began photographing his own body in 1984. He was 64 years old, hirsute, and overweight.
He already had quite a career behind him. Raised in South and East Africa, in a Russian-Jewish family, he left school at 16. He served as an officer in the British Army (King’s African Rifles) in Ethiopia during World War II.
Although he hadn’t been to college, he was avid for knowledge and drawn to art history. So he moved to the United States, where he worked first as an art historian at the University of California, and then as a curator at the Pasadena Art Museum.
Coplans was also a trenchant critic, and in 1962, he was involved in the founding of the magazine Artforum in San Francisco. In 1971 he moved to New York to edit it, which he did for the next six years — a period that saw the mandarin magazine grow in influence, even as its editorial staff splintered into warring factions.
Before taking up writing and editing, Coplans had painted. But in 1978, feeling it was too late to make a serious return to painting, and encouraged by his friend Lee Friedlander, he took up photography.
Six years later, the pictures he began to take of his own body made the art world take notice. Cropped, so his face was missing, and evenly lighted, the images were at once formally inventive and brutally plain-spoken. The sense you had of a distinguished older man, known for his military bearing and intolerant cast of mind, shedding his uniform, so to speak, and exposing himself so shamelessly made them all the more so.
The compositions, and the many contorted positions Coplans adopted, were surreally suggestive. They were the body made strange. And not just any body, but the most familiar body of all: one’s own body.
They called to mind what Matisse called the “invented plans and proportions” of African sculpture and the hieratic symmetry of Egyptian reliefs. But unlike, say, the classical symmetry of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of male bodies (which Coplans detested), the body close-ups of Coplans were the opposite of slick: They were made with a simple Polaroid. They emphasized gnarly toenails, flourishing gray pubic hair, a saggy scrotum, a monstrous gut, and all manner of surface blemishes.
The sense they gave off of thwarted physicality and psychic malaise linked them with the late paintings of Philip Guston (the last artist Coplans wrote about before abandoning criticism). And they also called to mind a famous set of cropped, somewhat unforgiving close-ups of fleshy female nudes taken by Irving Penn in 1949 and 1950.
But where Penn’s subjects were anonymous, Coplans photographed himself. And as Janet Malcolm deftly observed after seeing his pictures in the mid-1980s, their peculiarity lay in “an appearance of monumentality and solemnity that almost obscures their underlying, disturbing exhibitionism.”
Howard Yezerski, of Boston’s Miller Yezerski Gallery, knew Coplans well and showed his work every two years throughout the 1990s. This month he and co-director Ellen Miller have mounted a brilliant show focusing on Coplans’s photographs of one particular part of his body: his hands.
There are just 18 photographs in all: Five are basic-format Polaroids; five are large (in some cases very large) works printed from Polaroid negatives; there is an ensemble of nine Xeroxes; and finally there are two small drawings on lined yellow notepaper.
All are close-ups. In none do you see more than the beginnings of a wrist. But the variety within these images is surprising. And since human hands can never be divorced from their role as tools of communication, the impressive formality of Coplans’s images — their often symmetrical design, their textures, the absorbing interplay of light and shade, and of physical projection and recession — is complicated at every turn by a suspicion that they are trying, like distant semaphores, to tell us something.
The Xeroxes, in particular, are fascinating. Interlaced hands flattened against the copier produce abrupt, form-canceling contrasts in light and dark, and weird foreshortenings of fingers and thumbs. The space is compressed, literally: These hands are squashed. But the technology also produces, up close, a shimmer and blur that is at once sensual and deathly cold, like a painting by Gerhard Richter.
The abstracted human body was a mainstay of 20th-century photography, from Bill Brandt and Andre Kertesz to Edward Weston and Harry Callahan. In most cases, we were encouraged by these artists to find a new beauty in what we routinely take for granted. The effect, more often than not, was to induce a sensation of escape from the weight, the sweat, the unseemliness of actual bodies.
Coplans doesn’t exactly discourage the revelation of beauty. Many of his photographs are not just formally arresting; they’re ravishing. But at the same time, he insists — and not in a neurotic, prurient, or sneering way — on what is abject and mortal about the body. And that is what lends these works their special charge.Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.