John Kayser: Direct Contact

October 11 2015

A provocative new photography exhibition entitled John Kayser: Direct Contact opens this Wednesday, October 14th at Christian Berst Art Brut in New York. The photographs are the work of John Kayser, and were unknown and unpublished in his lifetime. Spanning over three decades of accumulated work, the images coalesce into a singular an intense personal inquiry into the aesthetics of beauty.

Kayser spent his professional life in the employ of Northrup Aircraft in Los Angeles, and until his passing in 2007 it seemed that his career in aviation would be the sole legacy of the largely reserved bachelor. There is very little beyond this very general index of accomplishments to reconcile the straitlaced public persona of Kayser with the fetishistic nature of his private work. The first, and possibly greatest question the exhibition provokes is that of the ethical responsibility of publishing the work of an artist without their explicit consent. While he never explicitly stated a desire for the work to remain unpublished after his death, there is a reasonable assumption that Kayser would never have even considered the possibility of publication of such an intimate collection of photography. It is reminiscent of the recent posthumous exposure of Vivian Maier and the nearly 150,000 images produced during her lifetime.

The ambiguousness of Kayser’s intentions also adds an important layer of context to a body of work which could otherwise be easily viewed as exploitative or indecent. The intended audience of these images is likely to have been exclusive to Kayser and the photo development technician. If the intention of the artist is to be considered in the viewing of their work, a consideration that itself ebbs and flows in popularity, it is especially apt to keep in mind when viewing the collected works of John Kayser.


The images themselves are incredibly revealing in both their consistency and volume. Each features a single woman, clothed or nude, posed in either Kayser’s home studio or a location in his native Los Angeles. His relationship to these woman, many of whom appear in the photographs repeatedly over the course of years or decades, is understood to be largely non-sexual (with the exception of a few of the women with whom he carried out long term relationships). This distinction is not one that is likely to have been made at the time of their production, but is notable in light of contemporary photographers who have been rightly scandalized by their abusive and exploitative relationships with their subjects. It is also an important distinction to make because of the nature of the images themselves.

The photographs indisputably depict what critic Laura Mulvey defined as the ‘male gaze’. It is difficult to accuse Kayser himself with attempting to influence an audience with his point of view, since the audience would assumably only have ever been Kayser. But in their new public context, the images become burdened with the accumulated connotations of their point of view. They become, independent of their creator, part of a larger cultural conversation.


It is however interesting to consider the images outside of this larger cultural conversation. By nature of their origin, they serve as a sort of capsule. Uninfluenced by public critique or the whims of commercialism, the sexuality depicted in these portraits feels innocent. It is the sexuality of a single man, depicted with rare clarity and consideration. Kayser often posed his models sitting, occasionally on top of objects unto which the effect  of their weight could be seen, and occasionally sitting in a manner which the British Government would find particularly objectionable. When standing, Kayser’s woman were often posed with a prop – crushed beneath the weight of their foot. His was a fetish of women with power.


The photographs are at face value incredibly beautiful. It is not difficult to see the influences that have wrought themselves upon Kayser’s style, his attempt at studio lighting is charming in it’s amateurness and his selection of props ventures into humorous absurdity. His selection of models does not deviate far from the accepted standards of beauty at the time, but while it is easy to imagine some the women as centerfolds in a girly magazine, it is difficult to imagine a Playboy photographer suggesting that they sit atop a loaf of bread as to crush it. The playfulness of the images comes almost exclusively from their lack of audience, there is an obvious levity in the freedom of not having to generalize the depiction of beauty to appease the masses.

The most reveling moments in the collection are the images which Kayser – if it was his intention to share his work – would surely have excluded from exhibition. Moments of reaction that Kayser captured but surely did not intend; a blur of laughter, a gaze of boredom. These women, though objectified in the study of their forms, were not objects. They were, it seems, in conversation with Kayser. It is this intimate conversation that is human sexuality, and is one that is largely absent from modern popular pornography. The images Kayser captured of the in-between moments document conversations that developed over years. The tone of these conversations span a vast range, from lighthearted and flirtatious to coy and seductive to the occasional bemused disinterest that speaks more truly to the state of human sexuality than most media that attempts to do so.

John Kayser: Direct Contact will be on view at Christian Berst Art Brut in New York from October 14 to November 29, 2015. A collection of images depicting his long time partner, Rose, is available in a limited edition from Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books in Portland.

All images by John Kayser, curtsey of Christian Berst Art Brut