The words that best describe the manipulated vintage photos in this exhibit are blithe, triumphant, and hilarious
Every image in Peter Brown Leighton’s “Live Snakes” tells a good story. Leda and the Swan is a photo of a lake at night. A woman, naked except high socks, sashays into frame from the left, while a swan floats to the lake’s edge from the right. The title suggests that something raunchy is going down. It reminds me of a phone video taken at the edge of a raucous party. Some girl had too much to drink and decided to get nude with the swans. It’s a bawdy and hilarious moment.
“Hilarious” was one of three words I wrote down while looking at Leighton’s work. The other two were “triumphant” and “blithe.” In Welcome to Heaven, a man holds a baby next to rows of human skulls. We can’t see the man’s face, but the baby is gleeful. It would be endearing if not for the skulls grinning by the dozens just behind them. The title seems to say, “Hey, baby. Welcome to life. Oh yeah, and you’re good as dead, just like the rest of us, so welcome to death, too.” Like Leda and the Swan, Welcome to Heaven is funny. But I’m not laughing at the people in the photo. There’s no way this guy doesn’t see the skulls. Therefore, he must be laughing along, or else he is so pleased with his own morbidity that he could hardly care if we make fun of him or not. He’s getting his, just like Leda and the swan are. They are triumphant because they have achieved something, even if it’s silly, and they are blithe because they are so satisfied to have done so, regardless of what we think.
These elements come together well in almost every image, but perhaps none better than Death Runs Faster. A farmer in dirty overalls takes a picture with a cheetah he’s caught. The cheetah, wide-eyed and howling, hangs by its feet from a line while the farmer lifts the cheetah’s head for the camera. The farmer has a sober expression; he must do this every day.
Like all of the photos, Death Runs Faster looks old. It’s sepia-toned. The background is all dust and horizon. The farmer himself looks like a character from The Grapes of Wrath. When I asked about this, I was told that Leighton manipulated vintage photos he’s gathered. I was glad to hear this, because I worried I was only looking at amusing pictures the artist had collected. That Leighton composed the images himself gives them essential weight.
I was also told that Leighton included images of his family. I don’t know which images these are. This matters because, if there are intriguing concepts at work, I want access to them. The artist statement is poetic but essentially useless. I’m left feeling that something has been missed – something special – and that is too bad.
Ideally, a statement isn’t necessary. If there are themes and important details I should know (such as the fact that these images are, in fact, original to the artist and not simply found objects), then the form and display of the work should communicate them. I would like to see further iterations of the series that more effectively emphasize these conceptual elements. Because I enjoyed “Live Snakes” so much, I wouldn’t mind another visit with Leighton in the future, just to see how things have progressed. I wouldn’t mind at all.