Yours Truly explores many faces of love

To celebrate their parents’ wedding anniversary, people will usually take them out to dinner or give them a gift. But artist William T. Hillman decided to go a step further: He sponsored Yours Truly: Privately Collected Photographs, a photography exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art, in honor of his parents’ 67th wedding anniversary.

The exhibit is a collection of “some of the finest vintage photographic prints by some of the most admired photographers in the history of the medium,” according to an introduction by the museum’s director, Lynn Zelevansky, in a pamphlet provided to visitors. Indeed, the photographs are beautiful, and the clean design of the exhibit allows them to speak for themselves.

Unlike most exhibits, which have small plaques or labels accompanying each piece, these photographs only have small, nearly unnoticeable numbers quietly identifying them; visitors who want to know the title or photographer for each piece can check the provided pamphlet. That curatorial choice means that the true focus becomes neither the photographers nor the historical significance of the works, but rather the photographs themselves and the message of love that most of them convey.

Near the entrance to the exhibit, for instance, Herb Ritts’ “Fred and Tatjana 3, Guadalupe” (1988) hangs next to Danny Lyons’ “Uptown (Young Couple)” (1965). The former is a sharp, close shot of a couple cavorting on the beach, wherein every grain of sand is visible on the couple’s bodies as “Fred” kisses an enraptured Tatjana.

In contrast with this steamy affair in paradise, “Uptown (Young Couple)” features a far more ordinary scene. It shows a young couple at a home full of everyday knick-knacks, the woman’s hair still in curlers as the man leans in for a kiss. The pairing of the two photos creates a nice juxtaposition between the two types of love and reminds the viewer that everyday, domestic love is by no means less romantic or important than an island affair.

But to anyone reluctant about visiting an exhibit filled with image after image of embracing couples, fear not: As Zelevansky writes, “[The photographs] comprise a meditation on the nature of love in its many forms.” While romantic love may be the main focus of the exhibit, there are several different forms of love represented. Familial love takes center stage in “Mother and Daughter, Brighton Beach, New York” (1985) by Rosalind Solomon, and “Summer, the Lower East Side” (1937) by Weegee (Arthur Fellig) captures pure joy as gleeful children play in the spray from a fire hydrant.

There are some photographs that deviate from expressing any sort of love. Some work as a way to contextualize the other photographs: In one set of photographs, images of soldiers kissing their girlfriends goodbye at Penn Station in New York alternate with urban images of New York City from approximately the same time period. In another grouping of photographs, two landscape images help balance out images of people outside at the beach.

For a few of the photographs, the lack of accompanying explanatory text becomes problematic, as it was unclear as to why the photographs had been included in the exhibit. “Baby Beaton, Wanda Baille-Hamilton, Lady Bridget Poulett” (1920) by Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton portrays three women surrounded by what appear to be balloons, with no discernible connection to the exhibit’s theme.

However, these inexplicable deviations are, in the end, a minor flaw in an otherwise beautifully organized exhibit. Perhaps the most powerful examples of the exhibit’s message are the images selected to bookend the exhibit. The first photograph at the entrance of Yours Truly, “Paris 1949 New Year” by Robert Frank, shows a man holding a single tulip behind his back, ignoring passersby as he waits to surprise someone with the flower.

The exhibit’s last photograph is the only color photo in Yours Truly and the only image from the 21st century. It’s a framed copy of the Dec. 1, 2012 issue of the New York Times. The front page features a photograph by Brennan Linsley, in which a returning soldier fiercely kisses his tearful wife, their 14-month-old daughter looking on.

Anticipation in 1949, joyful reunion in 2012: There is no better way to prove that, as Hillman writes at the beginning of the exhibit, “True love is eternal.”