Monograph Essay for Tender is the Light, David Julian Leonard (Kehrer, 2016)
Swell title, “Tender is the Light”. It is maybe a little arch, but tenderness in photography (and life) is special enough to merit attention.
These color photographic works by David Julian Leonard are sweetly sublime. Avoiding rhetorical Southernisms is tricky but these are like real homemade lemonade, more sharp than sweet.
These pictures aren’t hectic. They offer the possibility of escape. Release is at hand.
For this photographer who is also also a long time filmmaker and cinematographer, there is no soundtrack. It is all image. It is quiet here although you might sense someone out of frame quietly humming "I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’”.
I don’t much like the book’s cover. No offense, but little girls in crinoline party dresses? Bleah! For me it’s “No Girls Allowed!” in this clubhouse, like Tubby keeping out Little Lulu, or Charlie Brown with Lucy. Jesus, maybe it’s supposed to be funny.
But think birthday party or Valentine’s Day. Mr. Leonard’s partner is a French lady named Valentine, and everything is dedicated to her. If you ground up those tiny pastel colored “Be My Valentine” heart shaped ❤ candies and added a little water, you would get a simple color wash with the tint of pink or blue or green. That’s what you see here on paper. It’s subtle, and it’s special.
Proceeding through the book, we quickly get to the boy on the train, looking out the window. We know him. He is more than familiar. He is us. With our collective noses pressed up against the glass, looking out as the train moves on and life races past, we have been here. We are here, forever on our way to New Orleans.
Welcome. It is so swell here. The air moves lightly; it doesn’t rain. There are puppies (a great one, a Scottish dog in Sienna) and kitties (Stephen Shore has a cat?) and even bunnies. At some state fair, the artist hunkers down in the midst of a warren of rabbits, with the bunch of bunnies distractedly looking around.
It is heavenly.
Here is many places. Mr. Leonard is the existential traveler. We get Memphis (his home), Arles (his soon to be home), China, Brooklyn, Ireland, Italy, New Orleans. Like that. He’s “got plenty o’ plenty, hebben the whole day long”.
Overwhelmingly he lives in a world of exalted color. He has the seemingly seamless throw away skill where colors can be monochromatically lurid (red or green) or color contrasted in an almost calibrated way (blue against yellow, red against green). There is an exceptional talent and eye at work here. “Fog in the Faubourg, Marigny, New Orleans, 2007” is a master class lesson in complimentary color.
He has remarked about Charles Miller, “the great unsung painter of Memphis. It was Charlie who could better illuminate the pictures with commentary or rhetorical questions. We loved to hear from Charlie because listening to him was like seeing through a prism that refracted light in ways you couldn't see with your own eyes.” That strikes me as true about Leonard’s deft handling of color. Like a great musician, he surprises us with how he uniquely finesses the notes.
There is also a manner in which Mr. Leonard wanders through his world - balader in French - easily, unencumbered, pleasantly. It is smarter than describing this as a honeyed Southern lassitude.
The title is a riff on “Tender is the Night” from John Keats’ poem “Ode to a Nightingale”. Keats’ notion of “negative capability” is apt here, a transcendent lack of agenda or compulsive need to make sense, to be able to simply be, to face questions and doubts without always scrambling to make sense of it.
The work is full of empathy. A spare image of a red edged diving board over a dark green rippling pool surface with a peculiarly beckoning light makes one feel a simultaneous yet unfathomable desperation and hope. Leonard truly shares his world and takes you to it. Trust the journey.
The Keats poem continues with "there is no light, save what from heaven is with the breezes blown through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways”, a fine description of how Mr. Leonard sees …“heaven with the breezes blown”.