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Coming of AgeReview - Coming of Age
Photographs
by Will McBride
Aperture, 1999
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Dec 2nd 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 48)

This book of photographs of young males comes with an Introduction by Guy Davenport and an Afterword by William Simon.  Davenport talks of the artistic traditions that celebrate young naked boys, and tells us that, “McBride’s sensibility is a moral response to a recovering Europe” after the Second World War.  Simon discusses the meaning of adolescence, and concludes that this book “commands our attention as a complex metaphor for all who struggle to find, confirm, maintain, or only dream of a recognizable self in a world which envelopes us all in an atmosphere of pervasive liminality.”

 The flyleaf tells us that McBride was born in the US in 1931 but moves to Germany in 1955.  The photographs collected here are diverse: they span the 1960s to the 1980s, some are in color while others are in black and white, they were taken in Germany, Italy, Spain, Nicaragua, and India.  In fact, only a few of the images feature nudity.  The boys are photographed in a variety of contexts: playing in streets, posing in studios, at the beach, learning to be a bullfighter, crouching in the desert sand, at a disco, down and out in an abandoned apartment, and of course the cover shot of naked young men cleaning themselves at washbasins.  Alongside some of the images are quotations from various famous authors, short statements by McBride himself, or in one case, quotations from letters written by a young man to McBride from prison.

 So there’s no obvious theme to these photographs apart from their focus on young males.  Instead, there are several different series of photographs here.  Some do indeed, as William Simons suggests, focus on boys on the cusp of manhood – most obviously the series of the young bullfighter.  Another series has several images of the same boy taken as he grew up, from puberty to manhood.  Another series, “Overpopulation,” done in Germany at the end of the 1960s, has lots of young men naked in large cardboard boxes.  They make for eye-catching images at least.  The Indian series seems to romanticize the strangeness of another culture, although again there’s a power in quite a few of the photographs.  This weird mixture of work does not seem to make much sense as a whole.

 However, there’s no denying that McBride has a talent for catching people at telling moments, and for creating arresting compositions.  Some of the more journalistic photographs are the most successful.  “Greetings across the wall, Berlin, Germany, 1962” has a man and a rather large woman standing at the top of playground scaffolding, waving flags and handkerchiefs.  On the other side, a group of boys stands at the top of a metal slide; the highest  up is  a boy of maybe 10 years, in a suit, with his hands in the jacket pockets, staring solemnly at the photographer while his friends are distracted looking at something else out of the picture.  It’s a great image, contrasting the two sides of the wall, catching a moment of humor and separation.

 “Village defender, Nicaragua, 1983” has a young boy, maybe 9, holding an old rifle, wearing a dirty white T-shirt, staring at the photographer with suspicious adult eyes.  The series, “R,” from the 1980s, depicts a teen’s depression and solitary despair, and does it well, but the photographs capturing him with his friends are possibly more interesting, since they capture more of the culture and way of life of the group.

But many of the posed images are also strong.  A nude of a boy, David, maybe fourteen years old, in black and white, from 1968, holding a peach, is maybe a little clichéd, but his doleful eyes and beautiful body are captivating.  The series of Uli, at different stages in his adolescence, also has a striking intensity.

The literary allusions and the suggestions that McBride’s work is about universal boyhood are off-putting.  Fortunately, most of his pictures have enough in them to rise above such pretensions.  Even if it is hard to pin down any overall meaning to the work here, that should make little difference to the assessment, because the power and intelligence in his best photographs show that McBride is an important photographer.

© 2001 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life. He is available to give talks on many philosophical or controversial issues in mental health.


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