Long Light: Photographs by David Lebe at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

David Lebe, Angelo on the Roof, 1979. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

David Lebe has been exploring the radical possibilities of photography for over five decades.  Like Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz, Lebe belongs to a generation of American photographers who represented gay experience before and during the AIDS crisis. His first retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art attested to a career-long exploration of timeless subjects – desire, sexuality, friendship and mortality – through ceaseless experimentation.

As a student at the Philadelphia College of Art in the late 1960s, Lebe adopted a pinhole camera as an alternative to what he called the “abstractions of camera technology.” The elementary apparatus required long exposure times and transformed the act of taking a picture into an event. Lebe photographed friends and fellow artists and often included himself in the pictures.

Throughout his career Lebe privileged process – the eroticism and intimacy of image making – inwork that is about a direct, participatory encounter with the world. The artist occasionally hand-colored his pictures and later experimented with photograms –images made without a camera –by placing dried plants onto light-sensitive materials. Retouching the photograms with a wide palette of colors, Lebe transformed them into painterly abstractions.

David Lebe, Morning Ritual No. 6, 1994. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

The ‘70s was an era of post-Stonewall LGBTQ activism, and Lebe, who came out during that decade, turned his artistic attention to queer experience and gay bodies. Using a handheld flashlight and a conventional camera, he created light drawings by outlining the male figure in dimly lit settings. The images trace intimate interactions between the eye, the hand, and the subject and inscribe queer bodies in a halo of light.

As the AIDS crisis engulfed the country in the 1980s, the artist lost a number of friends and later was diagnosed with the disease himself. His representations of gay sexuality become more explicit during this period. Commenting on his pictures of the gay porn star and writer Scott O’Hara (1961-1998), Lebe has said: “They are about, in part, the refusal to give up on life or on life’s pleasures. A triumph of spirit over AIDS.”

In 1993 Lebe and his partner, Jack Potter, left Philadelphia for a country house in the Hudson Valley. Both had AIDS and wanted to escape the bustle of city life and adopt a holistic life style. Neither expected to live for long. As they declined, Lebe documented their daily routines in two series,Morning Rituals(1994-1996) and Jack’s Garden(1995-1997). The pictures are deeply moving affirmations of life in the face of mortality that celebrate the men’s intimate bond.  Fortunately, the couple were able to get access to antiretroviral drugs in time and still live in the same house in upstate New York.  Curator Peter Barberie’s painstaking and loving curation of Lebe’s work illuminates an anxious chapter in American history while transporting viewers out of their identity silos, no matter what they are.