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LS21 engstrom Wallard
JH Engström & Margot Wallard. From the Foreign Affair series, 2011Courtesy JH Engström, Margot Wallard and Jean-Kenta Gauthier, Paris

Intimate photos of people falling in and out of love

Featuring work from Nan Goldin and Nobuyoshi Araki, Love Songs explores the erotic, playful, familial and even taboo sides of romantic relationships

In Drive My Car, a short story by Haruki Murakami, the main character reflects on the intense love he felt for his deceased wife. He confesses that finding the perfect love comes at a price: there will always be the fear of losing that person. “That much happiness can lead to an equal amount of pain.”

The delicate nature between love and loss is a central theme in Love Songs: Photography and Intimacy at Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. Curated by Simon Baker, the show was partly inspired by the works of Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, who, like Murakami’s character, paid homage to his wife and muse Yoko in his work. Beginning from their honeymoon in the series Sentimental Journey (1971) to Winter Journey (1991) which documented Yoko’s death from ovarian cancer, the powerful juxtaposition, from the beginning stages of love to the end, reminds us of love’s transience.

“Yoko was the love of his life. He knew that he would never experience the same thing afterwards.” Baker says, upon meeting the photographer in his 80s. “But when we were looking at his photographs together in Tokyo, he said to me ‘in all my time with Yoko, I had thought that I was photographing love, that it was the subject of my work, but finally, when I look at these photographs of Yoko, I think that love is missing, that somehow I failed to capture it.’”

This central question – as to whether photography can truly document love – underpins the show, which features 14 series by some of the most significant photographers of the 20th and 21st centuries. “These artists are inviting us into their intimate and private lives and making a very generous offer to the viewer,” Baker says. To add his contribution, he decided to write a poetically-charged introduction on love, which resists academicising the subject. “It was intended to be a personal offering, a gesture of solidarity with the artists.”

Shifting between the many facets of love – erotic, playful, familial, and even taboo – Baker curated the show to display a diversity of experiences. But he also wanted to capture the “positive and negative sides of love.” For that reason, the show begins with intense love in the honeymoon period highlighting the works of Swiss photographer René Groebli, through to the contemplative works of Araki, Emmet Gowin and Sally Mann, all of which centre upon grief and the passing of time. For Baker, Groebli’s tender shot of the back of a lover’s neck speaks the most powerfully to the early stages of love. “It perfectly conveys the proximity and the love between them.”

As a further contribution, Baker has also curated a musical playlist of love songs (with a heavy French influence). Honouring the show’s title, the exhibition is organised like a lover’s mixed tape, with ‘Side A’ and ‘Side B’. The musical inspiration also came from Nan Goldin’s diaristic series, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a confessional body of work chronicling her life – friends and lovers – between 1973 and 1985.

From tender and intimate shots such as Brian's lap, Nan's birthday and Nan and Brian in Bed, to confronting shots such as Nan, One Month After Being Battered (1984), Goldin’s visually operatic series reminds us that powerful feelings – in particular, desire and obsession – have the potential to digress into violence. Rather than hiding (or denying) the abuse inflicted on her by her then-boyfriend, Goldin used her camera to acknowledge the painful reality of her relationship, in an act that could be said to represent self-love. 

Reflecting real-life, Love Songs celebrates the highs and lows of love, without resorting to a rose-tinted or trite interpretation of the subject. “Really this show is about intimacy, and what does intimacy mean? It’s not just about sex. It’s about being close to someone and sharing a life with them,” Baker explains. 

Sally Mann, who captured the slow deterioration of her husband Larry (who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy), described the ability to photograph the ebb and flow of love over many decades as being like a “long caress”. In her own words, and echoing the double-edged nature of love described by Murakami’s character: “I look with the passions of both eye and heart but in that ardent heart, there must also be a splinter of ice.”

Love Songs: Photography and Intimacy runs at Maison Européenne de la Photographie until August 21, 2022.