Higher Pictures is presenting the first New York solo show of 81-year-old artist George Dureau’s photographs in 30 years; it features 15 small, stark black-and-white portraits of black men—most young, shirtless and staring directly at the camera—made in the 1970s and ’80s.
At first glance these photos look like the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, who, it turns out, visited Mr. Dureau at his New Orleans home in the late ’70s, purchased his works and learned a few photographic tricks. But Mr. Dureau’s work is less polished and more intimate than Mapplethorpe’s; his subjects, who include amputees and dwarfs, are presented in a way that is human rather than aestheticized. Like Mapplethorpe’s, Mr. Dureau’s work could be expressive of gay desire. In a photograph from the ’70s, a young man identified as Laurence Patterson looks relaxed and content. He is shot from his bare, chiseled chest up, wears a leather cap and gives the camera a fetching look. But his subjects aren’t limited to gay men, or those with imperfect bodies. They include pro football player Alphonse Dotson, who, in three-quarter profile, is lost in thought as he pinches the metal chain he wears around his neck.
Mr. Dureau is at his best when he’s interacting with less glamorous subjects, like a rotund man named Ernest Beasley who leans awkwardly on a rail in his 1981 portrait, his eyes wandering in two different directions, and Short Sonny, a turban-wearing dwarf who stands naked on a table, arms akimbo.
The star of the show is Wilbert Hines, who poses with the contraposto of a classical Greco-Roman nude. The word “the” is tattooed across the upper part of his left arm, which ends in a stump. His gaze sends a clear message: you are lucky to be looking at me. One hopes some perspicacious museum curators will ensure we don’t again have to wait 20 years for that privilege.