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by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
|In Pat York's Los Angeles home, filled with antique furniture and modern art, her dining table is piled high with her photographs of celebrities. For decades, she traveled the world taking pictures of the famous, including rakish Michael York, her husband. Dismissively waving her hand at this Who's Who archive, she quips, "All those grinning actors and actresses."
These days, her photographs are going rather further than the skin-deep beauty of stars and starlets. She is photographing dissected cadavers. "I love the human body," she enthuses. "It is endlessly fascinating. Computers are nothing compared to the complexity of what goes on under our skin. And once you've dissected a body, you feel how meaningless is all racial and religious prejudice. Under the skin, we are the same."
Over the past few years, her photographs of this disturbing subject have been exhibited around the world at venues ranging from the Marble Palace of the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg to the Zalman Gallery in Manhattan, where New York Times reviewer Grace Glueck took note of "a raw beauty of the body's earthy connections." The cadaver prints are featured, along with celebrities and nudes in "What Piece Of Work Is Man?" at Still/Moving Gallery in its new location at 1643 N. Cherokee Ave. in Hollywood, Aug. 26-Oct. 6, 2000.
A second exhibition of York's photographs, titled "Masked, Uncovered, Unmasked," opens at St. Peter's Abbey in Ghent, Sept. 23-Oct. 22, in conjunction with the Flanders International Film Festival. Still another show, "Pat York: Photographic Journey," opens Nov. 17 at Allene Lapides Gallery, 588 Canyon Road, Santa Fe, N.M.
Photographs of dissected cadavers are not what one might expect from this manicured and coiffed blue-eyed blonde, a woman of a certain age who is still a beauty. Yet, next to the stack of smiling celebrity photos are large black and white prints that, at first glance, look like ferns, geodes, mossy stones and nautilus shells. More prolonged attention reveals the spinal cord, a cross-section of the brain, an ear, an eye, a hand. Abstracted from their corporeal context, however, the images register as organic shapes. "After I did my first dissection," York explains in her bright English accent, "I went for a walk and found all the forms in nature that I'd seen in my photographs."
Her first dissection? Three or four years ago, York began a series of interviews with doctors who use both traditional medicine and homeopathy, with plans for a book investigating the tenuous relationship between the two.
One of these specialists was Dr. Mark Pick, a chiropractic neurologist who teaches dissection and lectures internationally. York was intrigued by his emphasis on the holistic relationship between physical well-being and brain functions. She went to the lab and started taking pictures, and even once performed her own dissection under his tutelage.
She speaks glowingly of Pick's autopsy technique --- particularly of his ability to remove intact the skull, spine and nervous system -- and refers to him as her collaborator in forming this relatively new body of work. Pick says, "She was in awe of the whole thing, and couldn't wait to get involved as deeply as possible. When Pat saw the bodies, her mind was turned on and she began seeing things in them, seeing tree bark in muscles, and other aspects of nature within it."
The dissecting lab is a long way from Vogue magazine, where York worked as a fashion editor, yet it is not so far from her childhood yearning to be a doctor.
Born in Jamaica to an English diplomat father and an American mother, York grew up in England and was educated at a French convent boarding school. Abandoning thoughts of medical school, she eloped as a teenager and gave birth to a son, Rick MacCallum, now a L.A. film producer. After the brief marriage failed, in 1964 she went to work for Vogue, leaving after a year to become travel editor of Glamour. Attempting the "ultimate trip," she took acid with Timothy Leary, but her decision to write about it was nixed by her editors. "They thought it was too provocative to publish," she recalls with a knowing smile.
On assignment in Japan, her photographer was the legendary David Bailey, who took her with him to the Nikon factory where she bought a camera and lenses. He proceeded to give her lessons. "I'd always painted but now I photographed," she says. In no time, in addition to writing, she was sent out as a photographer in her own right.
Her assignment to take a portrait of English actor Michael York became a life-posting in 1968. During her marriage, she has continued a career of freelance photography for magazine articles and the occasional book, such as Growing Strong, a 1990 coffee table book of portraits and interviews with the feisty and vibrant elderly.
Her husband of 32 years, largely supportive of her career, initially had trouble stomaching her pictures of the cadavers. "He thought I was nuts," York admits. "He said that he suffered from 'visual cowardice.' He came around when he saw how important they were to me."
Others have come around, too. Philip Brookman, senior curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., bought six prints, including three that depict cadavers. He says, "In great detail, they show us the human body as an object yet at the same time I was struck by the abstract quality. In some of the cadaver pictures she created an image that looked like something other that what it really was -- seaweed, plant forms -- they go beyond documentation and show something very beautiful about these forms."
York did not anticipate her conversion at the dissecting table. "I remember having a lot of trepidation," she says. "In this lab, I was so awed. I fell completely in love with the interior of the human body. Leonardo was always a hero of mine. I tried without being didactic to show the inherent beauty of the body."
"I feel that some incredible higher intelligence has made what we are possible," she adds. "It's made me think more profoundly about life and death, whether there is reincarnation or heaven."
York softens the impact of her cadaver pictures by exhibiting them with portraits of celebrities and of people at work, naked. She came up with the idea for the latter while attending a ceremony at Buckingham Palace, where her husband was given an Order of the British Empire. Despite the honor involved, York was put off by the elaborate pomp. "I thought it was most ludicrous," she says. "I started thinking to myself, if these people had no clothes on they couldn't behave this way." Afterwards, she began asking people -- ranging from her husband's agent to the plumber -- if they would pose naked at work and to her astonishment, about 85 percent said yes.
Her photographs range in price from $950 for the nudes to $2,250 for the cadaver triptychs. All are produced in editions of 25 -- for York values most what is beneath the surface, and the dealers comply.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is completing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for Alfred Knopf. She writes regularly about art and design.
Sponsored by AXA Nordstern Art Insurance Corporation.