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Facing North:
Lynn Davis on Permanent Frost, the Perfect Moment, and her Friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe

Lynn Davis has been one of the most prominent American photographers since the nineteen-seventies. The pictures of natural and architectural monuments she makes on her travels around the world unite minimal precision with formal austerity to create images of meditative beauty. Davis is an artist, adventurer, and a witness of the times: formerly Berenice Abbott’s assistant, Peter Hujar and Robert Mapplethorpe counted among her closest friends. On the occasion of the exhibition “Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition” currently on show at Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, Cheryl Kaplan visited the photographer in New York to talk to her about her work and her extraordinary friendship and collaboration with Mapplethorpe.

Lynn Davis, Iceberg #17, Disko Bay, 2000
Courtesy of Lynn Davis and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NY
©Lynn Davis, New York, All Rights Reserved

On the day I met with Lynn Davis, Henri Cartier Bresson died at the age of 95. Although the two never met, she had photographed a group of older photographers including André Kertesz and Roman Vishniac as well as Lisette Model and Berenice Abbot, whom she knew very well, for Esquire for an article that never ran. I turn into her apartment across from the Metropolitan Museum just off Fifth Avenue. Lynn sits in an Eames chair, positioned between two of her photographs: a pyramid and an iceberg. She is about to leave for Newfoundland, having just returned from Greenland. Davis also splits her time between Manhattan and Hudson, New York. From the time she arrived in New York from San Francisco in the 70s, Davis quickly formed very close working friendships with the photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar. Like Mapplethorpe and Hujar, Davis’s images are richly complex, immediate, and haunting.

Lynn Davis, New York, 2004
©Copyright Cheryl Kaplan, 2004. All Rights Reserved.

Cheryl Kaplan: The poet John Ashberry wrote that your photographs “take us back to the dawn of epic photography, when the shock of encountering remote sites was compounded by the amazing technical feats that brought them into view.” Reviewers took that literally, implying that you follow a 19th-century tradition. Is that true or misguided?

Lynn Davis: That’s not really true. People want to call me an expeditionary photographer and I laugh. When I started in New York in the 70s, I was photographing people and sculpture of the body. I went from a minimalist, close-up approach from classical nude photography to the ice photographs. I wasn’t really looking at landscape per se, but for objects outside that reflected a minimalist geometric approach to landscape and structure.

The nudes possess a rich form that’s also in the iceberg photograph behind you.

That’s exactly the connection for me. I went from studio training, looking at things in the apartment I did a lot of those nudes in and abstracting them into the landscape. I knew about great landscape photography, but I didn’t feel like I came from that.

Lynn Davis, Iceberg#5, 2000
Courtesy of Lynn Davis and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NY
©Lynn Davis, New York, All Rights Reserved
Lynn Davis, Darleen Vanderhoop, 1979
Courtesy of Lynn Davis and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NY
©Lynn Davis, New York, All Rights Reserved

Were your first pictures of the body?

It was the 60s. I started doing nudes at the San Francisco Art Institute . Half the people were nude half the time. I worked in a smaller format. I did the flea markets, nudes in the woods, the California things people did at the time. I came to New York on the recommendation of Lisette Model, whom I met in San Francisco.

Then you worked for Berenice Abbott.

There I learned the photographic history from Europe, stirring with rods from Man Ray’s studio. Abbott was Man Ray’s assistant in Paris in the 20s. That’s a pretty direct photographic lineage. When did you meet Mapplethorpe?

I was working as a photojournalist in New York in 1974.

Was that for "Time"?

Also for Ms. – I did a lot of stories, but I was already leaving it, even though that’s what I came here to do. I had shifted cameras, working with a two and a quarter. I made my own pictures rather than looking for them. I had people come here. We were hanging out at all the different clubs. Somebody said “Why don’t you edit a magazine, find photographers that interest you.” I saw Robert’s picture of Marc Stevens (Mr. 10 - 1/2), — that penis on a chopping block or whatever it was, and I thought, “this is interesting.” I called him to see if he’d be in this publication, and then I went over there. It was an immediate, natural friendship.

Robert Mapplethorpe: Ken & Tyler, 1985
©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Did you meet downtown?

He was living on Bond Street; his bedroom was a cage. It was very extreme. He already had his décor. He’d been exposed to everything from decoration to furniture, starting his Stickley collection. He had a developed aesthetic and was doing constructions and sex pictures that blew me away.

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