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Fab Photos

A flashing recollection of the late Jan Lynch's erotic, fabulous photography

by Phillip Rhodes

The fundamental happiness that gay pride celebrations are designed to promote often gets buried in strident politicizing or oblivious revelry. Pride isn't based in anger or provocation; ideally, it's a natural and organic joy that should infuse every activity.

So it's only fitting that this year's festivities feature a showing of Jan Lynch's photographs. The work of this Knoxville photographer, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1996 at the age of 45, stands as a testament to the everyday humor and joie de vivre that never obscured his vision, even as he battled indifference, oppression, and disease.

Mounted by tireless Lynch supporter and good friend Ed White and former Arts Council member Gina Anderson, this exhibit is composed of work prints from White's personal collection and that of Nashville resident Phillip Haynes. When White mentioned Lynch's name to a Pride volunteer and was greeted with a blank stare, he realized that the time had come to rejuvenate interest in one of Knoxville's most colorful personages.

In the manner of photography itself, the exhibit is ephemeral—one night only, on Tuesday, June 6, from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Candy Factory's Community Room. It will be shown in collage format on simple butcher paper to mirror Lynch's early 1990s "Polymorphous Perversity" Candy Factory showing, in which many of his prints were tragically damaged or stolen. It's a Fellini-esque carnival of images: media stars, marginalized characters, the lunatic fringe, and, of course, naked men.

Lynch is one of those characters who could've only been born in the South. He lived less a life than a remarkable voyage. Born in Lynchburg, Va., to the family that gave that city its name, he was raised here in Knoxville and educated at the University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. From there, he was ordained as a priest of the Byzantine Rite and became rector of the Nativity of St. Mary's Church in Toronto for a short time before returning home and pursuing the passion that had begun at age 13 when his mother gave him his first camera. By day, he served as a staff photographer for the McClung Historical Collection where his work resulted in the McClung's 1992 book, Two Centuries of Knox County, Tennessee: A Celebration in Photographs.

But his extra-curricular photographs of lovely young men are what catapulted him into the international eye. His work was prominently featured in EuroPride's 1996 celebration and has been published in RFD, the James White Review, and numerous other titles.

Lynch's style was almost chemical; there's little of the contrived or studied to be found in his photographs. It's as if his viewfinder was a beaker into which he tossed the various elements of composition and a photograph was the explosive result. One can almost imagine him as an elfin little boy, running from the scene of some minor destruction with a coy but wicked grin on his face.

Each of Lynch's nudes seems completely spontaneous. He often photographed subjects on the abandoned game-day UT campus or downtown on low-traffic Sunday mornings. Models are shown with pants around their ankles, as if caught in the act of exposing themselves in highly public locales that only heighten the sense of caprice. The nudity becomes an act of subversion; bodies are bared in the least expected of places—right out in the open without shame.

Comparisons to Robert Mapplethorpe and Tom Bianchi immediately leap to mind. But Lynch's black-and-white male nudes go beyond the wan, light-drenched subjects of those two better-known male erotica photographers. A naked body is erotic by nature; but what makes Lynch's nudes so hypnotizing is their furtiveness. Bianchi's frolicsome but strangely arid California pool boys and Mapplethorpe's overly dramatic, highly stylized tableaux render their subjects less human bodies than inaccessible glaciers of muscle.

Drag queens were another favorite subject. Pre- and post-glam, these chameleon creatures are shown in various stages of their remarkable transformations. Outrageously camp local performer Angel Collins, whose penchant for whimsy easily matches Lynch's, appears in several portraits. She's pictured, in full maquillage and Jackie-O. sunglasses, leaning into a urinal or clutching a parasol and looking hilariously askew in front of the Blount Mansion in a sample from Lynch's laugh-out-loud Bicentennial Tour of Knoxville series.

But there's much more to Lynch's work than dicks and drag. His trademark joyfulness and keen eye carries directly over into other areas as well.

In one shot, a jaunty hometown beau-hunk caught at the fair flashes a toothsome grin that's as open to possibility as the message behind his unbuttoned shirt. In another, a Portugal storefront window shows a jumble of religious iconography that almost obscures the obvious "Visa Accepted Here" sign-salvation, it's everywhere you want to be.

And then there's Maude. One of earliest photographs, it's also easily one of his best and best known. In it, the septuagenarian subject pauses at a garden gate, shiny lips pursed, sparkling eyes aglow, and a nimbus of white hair piled rakishly on top of her head for an overall effect that's charmingly girlish in the most effortless way. Lynch referred to the shot as his Mona Lisa for its subject's enigmatic half-smile. The forever-young photograph captures the child that's within us all, regardless of age.

Sadly, there will be a few pieces missing. Lynch's wonderful, deer-in-headlights photograph of a hopelessly confused Nancy Reagan attempting to respond to a question at a press conference won't be on display. And at the time of this writing, White was uncertain whether or not he'd be able to obtain a copy of Lynch's Christus Victor—a photograph that shows a statue of Christ with Victor Ashe's goofy grin pasted over its face. "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the earth" is the Bible verse caption—and that was before Ashe's most recent reelection.

Although Lynch's photographs have been shown all over the world, and archives of Lynch's work have been established at the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles and the Leslie-Lohman Gallery in New York City, his photographs have no permanent home here in Knoxville. White hopes that the too-temporal nature of this showing will make the case for a permanent collection of Lynch's work at the KMA.

June 1, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 22
© 2000 Metro Pulse