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Photography That Gets Under the Skin

Pat York's images of dissected cadavers can be unsettling as they find links between the body and nature.

August 27, 2000|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Pat York's dining table is piled high with her photographs of celebrities.

For decades, York traveled the world taking pictures of the famous. She picks up a portrait of "Barbarella"-era Jane Fonda making pasta, a young Andy Warhol, and a rakish Michael York, her husband. Dismissively waving her hand at this Who's Who archive, she quips, "All those grinning actors and actresses." But these days, York is focusing beneath 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, 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 observed that the photographs "convey a raw beauty of the body's earthy connections." Yet, York's daring new work has not been shown in her hometown of L.A. Until now. The cadaver prints will be featured with pictures of people at work--unclothed--and celebrities in "What Piece of Work Is Man?" at Still/Moving Gallery in its new location adjacent to Les Deux Cafes in Hollywood through Oct. 6.

A larger version of the exhibition--comprising 250 photographs--called "Masked, Uncovered, Unmasked" opens Sept. 23 at St. Peter's Abbey, in conjunction with the Flanders International Film Festival, in Ghent, Belgium.

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Dissected cadavers are not what one might expect from this manicured and coiffed blue-eyed blond. Wearing a black knit top and patterned skirt, she leads the way through her sunny home with rooms of antique furniture and an art collection heavy on theatrical subjects, such as costume designs by Leon Bakst and Natalie Goncharova.

In the dining room, next to the photo stack of smiling celebrities, there 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, they 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."

York was introduced to the most intimate understanding of the human body by Dr. Mark Pick, a chiropractic neurologist with a background in Asian medicine who taught dissection to students at Cleveland Chiropractic College in Los Angeles. York had been seeing Pick for treatments, and was intrigued by his emphasis on the holistic relationship between physical well-being and brain functions. She went to the lab to photograph the dissected bodies and to perform her own dissections.

"As soon as she saw the cadavers, the beauty of it, she wanted to get involved and do the cutting too," Pick says. "Of course, it was the body of an ex-patient whose wish was to use her body for teaching purposes, so I was staying within the confines of that. When Pat saw the bodies, she began seeing tree bark in muscles and other aspects of nature. She was brought into the similarity between what is in nature and what is inside of us."

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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 had her son, Rick McCallum, now a film producer in L.A. After the brief marriage failed, she went to work for Vogue in New York in 1964, leaving a year later to work as 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.

On assignment in Japan, her photographer was the legendary David Bailey, who took her 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.

Her first photo assignment was a portrait of John and Robert Kennedy. Her assignment to photograph English actor Michael York became a life posting in 1968. While traveling with him on location for films, she continued a career of freelance photography for magazine articles and the occasional book, such as 1990's "Growing Strong," a coffee-table collection of portraits and interviews with the feisty and vibrant elderly.

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