Text and photographies by David Paul Lyon.
Perhaps the most formative experience of my life, surpassed only by the birth of my son transpired at the impressionable age of fifteen while on a family visit to the Des Moines Art Center in Des Moines Iowa. It had been a rainy Saturday when my parents, sister and I had piled in the car and traveled into the city to take a look at the current exhibition of work by Chuck Close.
Neither of my parents had a significant interest in the arts. My fatherʼs interests mostly revolved around outdoor activities like hunting and fishing and my mother spent her free time either garage sale hunting or shopping at the local mall. In hindsight it is clear to me that the visit revolved around the passionate interest that I had shown in art for the previous couple of years. Even at that early age I was committed to following a career as an artist. At that point however I was, as one can imagine still directionless and in the exploratory stages of even settling on a medium.
After having taken a diligent look at the temporary exhibition of work by Chuck Close of which I had been duly impressed we entered the gallery of the permanent collection. Back behind the display of Jeff Koonsʼ “Hoover Vacuum Cleaner Double Decker” I saw the painting that for me changed everything. Francis Baconʼs “Study after Velazquezʼs Portrait of Pope Innocent X” hung in what I felt was a forgotten corner of the gallery. What I saw and felt in that moment was for me an epiphany.
Until that point, despite my passionate interest in art I had seen nothing more transformative than what was embodied in that work. The haunting ghost-like image of a screaming pope painted on an untreated canvas with obscuring streaks of paint stopped me dead in my tracks. Iʼm not sure how long I stood before that painting, but for me it felt as if time had stopped.
The title of the piece was as well for me deliciously blasphemous. “Pope Innocent” struck me as the perfect left jab to the gut of the Vatican. Only years later did I find out that Diego Velezquez original painting was of the actual Pope Innocent X. The original portrait by Velezquez that the study by Bacon is of, now strikes me as even more sinister than the painting by Bacon. Pope Innocent X, painted by Velezquez, sneering from his papal throne in what was likely a more flattering portrait than how he actually looked is a chilling work of art. The irony of the title of Francis Bacon’s painting however, was not lost on me. This was still a couple of decades before the Catholic Church sex scandal emerged, but even at this young age and despite having the good fortune not to have been abused in any way by a member of the clergy, I nonetheless knew that something with the Catholic Church was amiss.
To my fatherʼs dismay, at the age of about thirteen years old, two full years earlier, I vocally raised my doubts about the validity of the Catholic Church and Christianity as a whole. The hypocritical position the church as well as itʼs members took on exclusion based on a persons prior experiences, sexual orientation or cultural background as well as the church members own hypocritical actions outside of that brief moment when Mass was being held, struck me as a complete dismissal of the human values Jesus Christ taught nearly every time the Scripture was cited.
In the attempt to get me to change my mind my parents sought the help of the Monsignor who oversaw our parish. Monsignor Schwarte was an extremely intelligent and well traveled man who had been a missionary in Africa for several years whom I respected immensely. Through our discussions about his travels and experiences, myself citing the inevitable fact that there are so many people from so many different cultures around the globe, that to have all of them to subscribe to Christianity is a futile effort and the churches position that those who follow any other doctrine are doomed to eternal damnation was a direct contradiction to what I felt a humane and just God would allow. Over the course of several weeks and many extensive discussions with Monsignor Schwarte and contrary to what my parents had hoped for, my position against the church as well as exceptionalism of any kind at this time became permanently galvanized.
Soon after having seen “Study after Velazquezʼs Portrait of Pope Innocent X”, since these were still the days before the internet became a part of our daily lives, I attempted to research the work of Francis Bacon in both our school and public library but yielded no results. Many years later when I was in my early twenties I chanced upon an exhibition of his work at the MOMA on a visit to New York City. Besides being struck by the consistent intensity of his paintings what surprised me the most was what the artist said regarding that series of pope paintings which was that it was “an excuse to use these colors, and you canʼt give ordinary clothes that purple color without getting into a sort of false fauve manner.” Francis Bacon, who also surprisingly resembled Mickey Rooney more than the dark angel I had always imagined him to be, said this in my opinion to be perceived as nonchalant and to avoid attempting an earnest explanation of his actual motivations.
In the subsequent years following the experience of seeing this, for me formative work of art and as the memory faded from itʼs immediate vibrancy, I chose photography as my artistic medium and subscribed myself to the doctrine called straight photography endorsed by another significant influence, Edward Weston. After finishing high school I enrolled at the Art Institute of Boston and passionately studied the Zone System, developed by Ansel Adams and learned the basics of the archival printing process. When I had reached the point where I felt I had a solid knowledge of the medium of photography and after having seen the early work of Mike and Doug Starn, I left the Art Institute because I felt the funds I would need for tuition would be better spent creating a significant body of work.
In the following years I created a technique using Polaroid film that was deliberately unconventional. I continued to enroll sporadically in photography courses during that time but since the general faculty reaction to my efforts were between cool and dismissive I ceased to seek their approval and rather made a radical attempt to distance my work from what their perception of art photography was.
Within a few years, after having attempted to live in Barcelona, Spain I found myself living in Munich, Germany. During the eleven years that I lived there being represented first by Cynthia Close formerly of Artworks1 and subsequently by Brigitte Woischnik formerly of Foto Factory2, I achieved moderate success as an artist as well as a commercial photographer making photographs commercially for magazines and advertising agencies as well as exhibiting my photographs and selling them to private collectors. The photographs that I sold to collectors were Cibachrome reproductions, mounted on aluminum plates and coated with Auto lacquer of the polaroids that I made regularly. Despite being unconventional in process and very well executed as well as beautiful, they were however universally accessible and in retrospect, generally unchallenging.
I had another epiphanic moment during this time after having delivered a commissioned series of prints to a private collector in Mannheim. She informed me that she was withholding payment of the series, which was for me a significant amount of money, because there were a few small blemishes in the auto lacquer on a couple of the prints. These blemishes were tiny and only visible in direct reflection of a light source. After having traveled to Mannheim in frustration to remedy the blemishes, on my return to Munich I decided to embark on creating a process that, rather than trying to create a mirror like print of an imaginary world, would be instead its own object with scars and blemishes an integral part of itʼs own aesthetic.
As fortune has it, about the time that I was closing in on a new process I had the opportunity to present my work and early attempts at this process to Rolf Müller who produced a magazine at the time for Heidelberg Press called HQ3. This magazine focused on a particular theme and featured photographs revolving around this theme. The particular theme he was seeking work for was “Reste” or “Leftovers”. Having recently been shown a book on the subject of the Mummies of Palermo by a friend, I expressed my wish to travel to Palermo Sicily, photograph the mummies and produce a series for HQ with my newly developed process. To my astonishment, he without hesitation agreed.
When, after exhaustive preparation, I finally entered the door to the catacomb a Capuchin monk solicited a donation to the monastery which I duly paid. Although photographing in the catacomb was permitted, I felt the unspoken expectation that it was to be minimal and worked while I was there as quietly and imperceptibly as possible. Arriving as soon as the catacomb opened in the morning I would take advantage of the first couple of hours before the rush of tourists would arrive. After three mornings of photographing it was made clear to me by the monks that I was no longer welcome regardless of how generous my donation was or how many postcards I bought. My work there however was complete. Rather than focusing of the impressive mass of the couple of thousand mummies on display, which had primarily been how I had seen the catacomb represented, I instead, had concentrated on them individually and attempted to make as intimate of a portrait as possible of each mummy I photographed. After returning to Munich with my film, developing and contact printing it, I needed several weeks to completely digest what I had made. Magazine publishing not being conducive to artistic digestion made it necessary for me to produce the first few prints that were published in HQ in 1995.
Unsatisfied with the initial prints published in HQ which I nonetheless stood by and still consider to be of the standard represented by a magazine whoʼs initials stand for high quality, I then took the process even further by working in larger scale on the prints, employing as well for the largest of the prints canvas embedded with photographic emulsion. What changed for me at that time was the approach I took toward handling the photographic material. By freeing myself from the confines of concerning myself with dust on the negatives, perfect rectangles and blemishes of the surface of the prints I focused my attention entirely on the overall aesthetic and impact of the print. I no longer tried to dry the prints so they would be entirely flat or worried that my fingerprints would appear on the surface. Through exhaustive experimentation with various combinations of toners I finally found the processes that would do justice to those negatives.
After having completed the “Mummies of Palermo” print series I was entirely changed. I began applying the approach I had taken to all of the photographs that I made. I remember a conversation with Jörg Badura, a photographer who was also represented by Foto Factory at the time warn me that by taking this radically different approach to my work I ran the serious risk of alienating my present clientele. As a business decision he was entirely correct. The commercial work I made at that time began to diminish and the handful of private collectors who supported my work waned in interest. Even Brigitte Woischnik, owner of Foto Factory, who had been a avid supporter of my work thus far began referring to me as her “special” photographer meaning, I believe, unpredictable. She among others found that they could no longer relate to my work. Even Daniel Blau, who runs an art gallery in Munich, son of Georg Baselitz, in explaining why he was reluctant to exhibit my work declared “People donʼt buy photographs of dead children!” It was at this point that I was entirely sure that I was on to something.
In the following years the commercial photographic projects I was commissioned became largely tormenting since, with the exception of a small handful of clients, namely Dagmar Murkudis of Marie Claire Magazine who granted me full creative license with every project I created for her, I was expected to produce photographs that were against my very core principles of aesthetic and content. Not only could I not relate to the products I was photographing, I was becoming increasingly embarrassed that I was producing these photographs. I decided then that I should move to Paris to find a more receptive audience than what Munich had to offer.
After living in Paris for nearly a year and enjoying moderate commercial success producing photographs that I stood entirely behind, with the help of Dominique Veret, a committed advocate of my work and close personal friend, I was introduced to then stylist Charlotte Flossaut and found myself photographing a collection of clothes designed by Jeremy Scott, a conceptual fashion designer. Upon realizing that he had intentionally designed clothes for anorexic models that a normal thin girl could not even fit into, I entirely lost my stomach for commercial photography of any kind. Soon thereafter I returned to Munich and decided to support myself by other means than commercial photography.
In the years since this time, having moved back to the United States my work has developed immensely. Freed of the expectation of commercial photographic production I now enjoy the possibility of completely digesting the content of my work before printing it and making no provisions whatsoever toward itʼs commercial viability. I photograph what I am earnestly drawn to, whether its a small object, a person or a landscape and am confident that my approach to my work is unique and entirely, unashamedly honest. I remain exceptionally proud of my artistic accomplishments on the whole. The experience I gained by living and working in Europe for so many years and having worked for the several fine publications that have featured my work during this time has given me the confidence to turn my back entirely on commercial photography and focus my creative attention exclusively on producing the work that moves me most. I strive to create work that has a timeless impact and will hopefully remain touching to the viewer for many eras to come and not be “old news” as soon as the next issue of a magazine is released.
My work, at its best, I see as a reflection of the viewer. Similar to a Rorschach test, I believe that the viewer makes their own associations with what they see in my work, especially in the abstract prints and extracts from it what stirs just below the surface of their own personal consciousness. Although my work is conceptual in nature, I still feel that it doesnʼt dismiss the visceral experience of the individual viewers own personal associations and emotions. If I havenʼt yet achieved the goal of producing the impact on the viewer that I felt decades ago in front of Francis Baconʼs “Study after Velazquezʼs Portrait of Pope Innocent X”, I nonetheless feel that Iʼm well on my way.
Please visit David Paul Lyon website.
- ARTWORKS is now defunct and Cynthia Close is currently the executive director for Documentary Educational Resources that focuses on promoting independent documentary films. [↩]
- Foto Factory closed their doors over a decade ago and Brigitte Woischnik is now a freelance literary editor for books mainly regarding the history of fashion. Most recently for a book about Lillian Bassman & Paul Himmel. [↩]
- HQ Magazine was a project run by Buro Rolf Müller for Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG from 1985 until 1998 and hasn’t got much web presence but is known and regarded amongst the German design circles. The principle designer for that project was Mark Holt. [↩]