Looking Back

Ariel Shanberg

March 1, 2014

Back with Arms Above

John Coplans, Back with Arms Above, 1984. Courtesy The John Coplans Trust and Galerie Nordenhake, Berlin

We asked Ariel Shanberg, executive director of the Center for Photography at Woodstock, to tell us about a picture that meant something to him, and why.


Unflinching. Honest. Allegorical. Whim-sical. Bombastic. Aggressive. Defiant. The humble gesture of a giant, a roarissued in a whisper. The first time I encountered John Coplans’s 1984 photograph Back with Arms Above, it was hidden in a copy of William A. Ewing’s tome, The Body: Photographs of the Human Form (Chronicle Books). It hit me like a deluge. Coplans’s body fills the frame, leaving the scant space along his contour electrically charged. I was drawn into the image and threatened by what it both documented and revealed. The possibility of a work of art embodying all these facets was as intimidating and imposing as (I subsequently learned) the artist could be. This awakening was like discovering a secret realm existing beneath the stairs of my childhood home. His torso stands hunched in protest, an abstracted figure at once stoic and exposed. One of Coplans’s earliest images, it was created at the onset of a relentless visual investigation that began at the age of 64, following a career as a curator, scholar, museum director, and founder of Artforum. Coplans’s photograph stood before me like a photographic Stonehenge, containing within its pose a profound sense of wisdom and mystery that maintained its contradictions with elegant ease. His figure stands apart, refuting our gaze, defying the passage of time, and railing against the enduring cult of youth photography obsesses over. He is Sisyphus writhing as his task fails yet again. He is Samuel Beckett declaring the infinite contradiction of existence, I must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. Now, some 20 years since I first encountered Coplans’s photograph, it has yet to cease revealing new meanings to me, a priceless gift indeed.