The close-up of Dorothy in Blue Velvet, the zoom into the severed ear in Blue Velvet, the zoom into a hole in a wall of a police interrogation room in Twin Peaks Series 2, the close-ups of characters in Mulholland Drive – and many others – all of these are evidence of David Lynch’s fascination with making the familiar strange through extreme close-up. Lynch’s sense of the beauty, strangeness and danger being ever present and lying latent below the surface of daily life and appearances, is a constant in his film work and (to a lesser extent) his photography. It does not, however, occur in the paintings, drawings and prints. Taking a tiny fragment of a real object and making a painting of that is time consuming and the result is often unsatisfactory, with the art appearing semi-abstract or unrealised. In photography, the extreme close-up has been a staple of art photography since the Surrealism of Man Ray and Brassaï.
Lynch is an accomplished photographer and has been taking photographs for his own pleasure since his time as an art student. They have been exhibited and published occasionally since then, but they should be seen as more than a side project. The majority of Lynch’s creative energy in the last two decades has gone into art and photography.
The book David Lynch: Digital Nudes includes photographs of female nudes. Most are close-ups of female bodies nude, in undefined setting, light in harsh artificial light and surrounded by dark. The photographs are (almost all) in colour, but muted or washed out. The subjects are all pale-skinned white women, with no tan-lines, tattoos or piercings. This stymies a spectator’s tendency to seek out identifiable models/subjects. Lynch wants to confront us with visions, not to get to know his subjects as people. In these nude photographs, Lynch wants to detach us from the notion of body-as-person and immerse us in body-as-place.
The body as landscape is a common analogy. In the case of these photographs, it is a case of a foreign landscape. The cropping, angles and inversions mean we are often disoriented by what we see, even after we have cognitively processed exactly what we are seeing. This slipping back into unfamiliarity is due to the instability of cognitive grip when under the influence of uncertainty. The artificiality of framing and lighting and the incompleteness of the body make it alien, notwithstanding our cognitive processing of what we are witnessing. Lynch never intends to fool us; we are never completely baffled. The failure to retain comprehension, despite knowledge and attention, is what Lynch intends.
We find such effective means of destabilising our secure knowledge in Lynch’s discovery of mystery in the everyday, akin to Magritte’s. A heap of dirt (Fire Walk With Me) becomes an element with ritual power and creamed (sweet)corn (Fire Walk With Me) becomes invested with power as a symbol of pain and suffering. The intimation that what we see is not all there is – the intimation of a realm of magic or unseen power – is what makes Lynch’s cinema carry a potency beyond matters of plot, themes, character and so forth.
Choosing a harsh single light source – artificial and directed – allows Lynch to sculpt with light. It is also a way of drawing in ink, with dark shades blocking us information about part of a form. Shadow is a vital component of Lynch’s aesthetics. It is the dark of the universe which is ever present. Darkness is the default normal. We cannot expect or demand otherwise; confronting shadows is to made aware of our existence as primitive, incomplete, fearful beings in the presence of the sublime.
The fact that Lynch chooses not to photograph the face makes empathetic response and humanisation of the object (as in the viewer as subject and viewed as object) more difficult. Lynch does not want us to distinguish one body from another. He has no ethnographic or psychological intent; biography does not come into it. There seems (from the outside) little by way of intimacy or chemistry between Lynch and his subjects, who are not identified. These photographs deny intimacy.
Are these photographs erotic? Lynch has produced erotic sequences in his films and there is an undercurrent of sexual passion in his work. However, these photographs have distinctly non-erotic qualities. The lighting is unremitting. Although one could say the figures of the subjects are healthy, young and shapely, with clean skin and good proportions, they seem uninviting. The unearthliness of them precludes any sense of ownership or intimacy in an imagined encounter. They are indifferent to the eye and – by inference – the touch. There is no rosy glow of stimulated skin or flushing of erogenous zones, no sweat. The poses and cropping are not salacious or even flattering. One might describe the handling of the photographer as clinical, definitely it is detached. There is nothing wayward or impulsive in the photograph’s creation of these images, which works against any presumption of erotic impulse.
There are some photographs of whole single figures (perhaps one model in one session) on a curving Modernist couch. They are time-lapse multiple exposures, with the limbs and head moving and the trunk remaining relatively prone. This gives them a disturbing quality – like watching an animal in pain or a beast thrashing on a leash. These are close to Francis Bacon’s paintings of figures in the 1960s. Lynch has admitted Bacon as an influence on his art. The sense of movement (which Bacon partly got from Futurism) and confinement suggest us to fleshy, labile, discontented creatures – tangentially human. They are repellent and repelling.
By making the inexplicable mystery and power of the startling vision, Lynch’s nudes suggest that we should reconsider the world around us – look harder, think more clearly, reject the preconceived notion. This may be considered related to Lynch’s long-term commitment to transcendental meditation. In Lynch’s outlook, his meditative practices and his cinema and photography, we find this enchantment with mystery. This is not whimsical mystery or casual dreaminess, this is a willingness to open up the mind to experiences that may be unpleasant, shocking, even sanity altering. Consider the confrontations with evil that change or shock his characters. Lynch (like the Surrealists, whom he so admired as an art student) seems to suggest that a hidden reality is awaiting discovery by those brave enough to leave behind convention and received ideas, although some of the discoveries may be distressing or even dangerous to a seeker.
The dark core is more personal to Lynch than his other interests and tastes. This book is far from a coffee-table book of titillating images; it is closer to a thesis statement of the power of detachment and meditation in the face of the mysteries of the world.
This article is related to (but is not a review of) David Lynch: Digital Nudes, Fondation Cartier, 2017, information here. Images used by kind permission of Fondation Cartier.
© 2022 Alexander Adams
To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art