Photographer Henry Leutwyler Offers a New “Document” Of American History
Photo: John Lennon’s glasses.
Michael Jackson’s sequined gloves. John Lennon’’s sapphire-tinted spectacles. Elizabeth Taylor’s 33.19-carat diamond. Elvis Presley’s comb. Charlie Chaplin’s cane from City Lights. Prince’s guitar. These are artifacts of twentieth-century, of a time and a place that no longer exists but for our shared memories and the artifacts each icon has left behind.
Swiss photographer Henry Leutwyler sent twelve years tracking down the most emblematic objects of the past century in order to produce a body of work singularly poignant in its simplicity and profoundly telling in its ability to evoke a compelling array of emotions. Taken alone and photographed against a black or a white backdrop, Leutwyler has created a portrait of the physical world that speaks to and of the depth of our psychological ties to materials objects.
Why is it that each of these objects should embody so much raw power and energy? Is it by virtue of what their masters bestowed unto them or could it simply be that we have a deep, abiding need to believe in an eternity existing on the mortal plane, in the object that reminds us of the essence long after the soul has departed the earth?
It is a curious phenomenon, one that Leutwyler embraces brilliantly in Document, an exhibition of 80 photographs on view at Foley Gallery, New York, through January 8, 2017 featuring simple, straightforward photographs of objects once in the use of a panoply of notable personalities who are no longer with us. A beautiful clothbound book of the same name featuring 123 photographs from the series is now available from Steidl.
Leutwyler’s selection of objects tells a history replete with highs and lows, never shying away but rather going into private, intimate realms to invoke the physicality of our shared existence. It provides a bit of everything, from the profound to the mundane, the silly to the inspiring, the gruesome to the strange.
We see the bottom of Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi’s sandals and the remains of Bob Marley’s first guitar, burned in a fire in Trench Town in Kingston, Jamaica. Then we go a little further and see the guns used to kill John Lennon and Lee Harvey Oswald, the United States Social Security Card of “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski, and the shoes he wore with a child’s size show modeled to the bottom in order to make his tracks unidentifiable.
Presented as documents of a life that changed the game, as well as objects of veneration and study in their own right, we are left to contemplate the nature of materialism itself. Without the caption, most of these objects would be unidentifiable. Their use would remind us of the fragility of the physical realm, and of the transient nature of time and the way it devours most things leaving us with only memories and legends to hold.
Document reminds us the power of provenance to influence the way we look at the world. Each of these items is being preserved by the nature of their ownership, by the belief in their value because of their proximity or purpose. In total, Document is a quietly fascinating study of our desire to preserve, to capture things before they disappear, and share them with the world.
All photos © Henry Leutwyler courtesy of Foley Gallery, New York.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.