John Coplans

Coplans was gamekeeper turned poacher turned gamekeeper. After a short period studying art and an attempt to make a living as an artist he became a well respected critic, writer, curator and museum director. Yet from our point of view as photographers it is his self-portrait work that he began in late middle-age for which he will be greatly remembered. At a time when the cult of youth and beauty was at it’s zenith Coplans self-portraits are double taboo – firstly as a nude male, then horror of horrors as an aged nude male. However the manner of his work is painfully poignant. He does not set out to shock in a blatant way (unlike Mapplethorpe at a similar time), but merely gently remind us of our futures. “Youth’s a mask but it don’t last” (Rod Stewart).
From a distance the elegantly captured black and whites are sculptural in form placing us in mind of Henry Moore’s large-scale semi-abstract human forms, but also the sensual curves of Edward Weston’s peppers. It is only when we approach the prints close to that we can pick up on the damning details that show a body in gentle decay. The sagging skin, the wrinkles and body hair in the most undesirable of places is a complete anathema to the glossy adoration of youth that still pricks us to this day. With this he pokes at our conscience prompting us to reconsider our reactions to the older generation. By leaving his face out of the frame he further sculpturalises the pieces as well as commenting on our tendency towards objectification.

john-coplans-self-portrait-reclining-body-no-3-2000
John Coplans Self Portrait – Reclining Body No 3 2000

The image I have chosen to illustrate is lain out in the manner of an alter piece with it’s connotation of the body of Christ – a reference to how we worship at the feet of beauty and seem to have lost our spirituality in the search for the vacuousness of the surface look. How much of what we read into his work is up for conjecture. Bearing in mind his accomplishments in the field of art theory there are probably levels within these portraits that were created subconsciously. He is quoted as saying “I do these things for my own amusement” and “I want to be as young as I can” (Coplans in Vile Bodies). In the same television series he is shown sucking in his stomach to flatter himself a little so there is some degree of flippancy here. Yet the images we are left with are painfully melancholy in tone – there is the wistful ‘what happened?’, ‘Where did youth leave me?’ and ‘I’m not ready to go yet’ voice that resonates with us all sooner or most probably later. At a time when society was all about the greed culture and me me me we have to give our respect to an artist who held a mirror up and showed us the importance of the moment. “Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light” Dylan Thomas.

Stewart R. (1976). The Killing Of Georgie. Riva
“Naked” Vile Bodies. Channel 4. 1997. Television.
The Poems of Dylan Thomas, (New York, New Directions, 1952)

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