Bruce Weber, Bear Pond (Little, Brown and Company, 1990)
Bear Pond begins with Reynolds Price's poem "Gold Day," a recollection, perhaps, of the First Man, alone, in a time when the world existed in a state of innocence:
. . . Around one man, the perfect Earth
Unfolds one final day --
The golden day I find and dream to keep.
That is what this book is about.
It may seem somewhat singular to say that a book of male nudes by a gay photographer deals with innocence, particularly when the photographer was roundly criticized by many for his commercial images delineating the sensual beauty of the male body as well as -- and even more so -- those depicting what some termed a "teen-age drug culture," but there you have it. There is no escaping that this book (published, incidentally, in 1990 to benefit the AIDS Resource Center in New York) celebrates a vision at once romantic and fundamentally spiritual.
First, the basics: Weber is undoubtedly a master of his craft, which, considering his status as one of the two or three most sought-after photographers in the world, might seem to belabor the obvious. He takes it beyond mere mastery, however: he is quintessentially a photographer, defying categorization and exploiting the possibilities of an extraordinarily sensual medium to their limits. It is also more than a little germane to note that he not only brings a high aesthetic standard to his commercial work, but has brought his own vernacular vocabulary into the realm of high art.
Natural light can be a beast to work with -- it is not noted for being cooperative -- but these figures and landscapes are beautifully conceived and perfectly realized: the images glow with their own internal radiance. (In this vein, the thought expended on the book design is apparent: the paper is a semi-matte that avoids the hardness of a glossy reproduction, reinforcing the sensuality of the images.)
Weber is also formally brilliant: compositions range from the classic, perfectly balanced figure study through the casual "street photographer" framing of a Helen Leavitt or Garry Winogrand to highly abstract sketches. There are a few images that in other hands would verge on the pornographic, but such is Weber's authority that the viewer has to take them seriously. It's doubtful that any photographer who has deliberately sought to push that particular limit has been anywhere near as successful (and I happen to know that most of them have failed miserably, either through discomfort or pretense), and yet one feels that Weber never gave it a second thought, which flows naturally from the book's premise.
All this, of course, in the service of an overriding vision, portrayal of that innocence, whether it be memory or dream, that is the core of Price's poem. These are images of young men -- all, of course, very attractive young men -- shot in upstate New York and the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. At play, in repose, asleep, alone and in groups, these are men in a primal state of grace that stems partly from their own ease with their bodies and partly, I think, from being set against a background of largely unsullied wilderness, in the American mind always a potently mythic image. The few landscapes included serve almost as punctuation and echo the range of the figure studies -- by turns moody, serene, and crisp, Weber's photographs of the ponds and surrounding woods underscore the deep peace that pervades the book.
I must also say something about the dog: as an image of innocence and trust, there aren't many that are easier to read, and the dog, either alone or as a participant in the games, extends the meaning, taking it far beyond the surface and effectively undercutting the idea that this is no more than a book of nudes.
A final comment: one cannot escape the idea that there is a political subtext to this book, if for no other reason than it was released as an AIDS fundraiser at a time when gay men were still the population not only hardest hit by the epidemic, but also the least supported. (At that time, I was writing grants for Stop AIDS Chicago. If we wanted government funding for a program, we could not use the terms "gay" or "homosexual": our designation for the outreach program for the gay community was, therefore, the "North Side Program." This is not something that is merely an historical note, by any means.) It flies in the face of much propaganda to equate "gay" with "innocent," but innocence in one form or another has been taken as a basic characteristic of gay men by many writers and artists. (A stellar example is Mary Renault's novel The Charioteer.) In fact, thinking about some works, one can take innocence as a basic characteristic of masculinity itself. One can make the same argument regarding the idea of spirituality: historically, and in cultures other than those dominated by a sexually repressive religious orthodoxy, those with same-sex orientations have been held to have great spiritual insight and power.
Within that context, Bear Pond becomes a subtle and powerful work indeed.
[Robert M. Tilendis]