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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, McBrides 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 theres 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 theres 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, theres 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. Its 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 teens 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 McBrides 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.
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.