THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF
WILLIAM 
ROPP

'...and darkness was upon 
the face of the deep' 
genesis I,2
 



INTRODUCTION

 



His leaden forehead is weighing on the palms of his hands. Despite the light descending from heaven, his eyes seem to discern nothing any more: they are submerged in the very darkness in the deep, that they so eagerly would have wanted to fathom.



Click on the thumbnail or the name of the photographer for a larger view. Altough we should warn the reader that nothing can replace the original prints of William Ropp's photos

THE FACE

When penetrating that darkness upon the face of the deep, two anxious eyes are staring at us:





 

Terrified by what they get to see there in the dark, they seem to call for help. Such terror cannot but be released in a scream:





 

The closed eyes have locked out the dark. In vain: it resurges in the void of the wide-open mouth. The darkness in which the eyes were staring, finds its counterpart in the silence wherein that scream resounds – and where it equally remains unheard.

When, finally, also the mouth is closed, the face is transformed into an armoured surface, on which only the frown continues to testify to the enduring presence of terror:





 

THE HANDS

Enter the hands. In a first moment, they come to endorse the frown over the eyes turned inward:





 

But they soon come to support an empty gaze. No longer moved by what it sees, it stares vacantly into the void:










 

Although the hands seem to support the discouraged head, it is rather the cheeks that seek the warmth in the palms of the hands. And so does also the shoulder that wants to be held:





 

So do equally the knees of the legs that are pulled up as a shelter against the breast and on which the heavy head is resting:





 

or the ankles around the protectively pulled up legs:

            



 

THE EYE

At the same time, we have got the whole body into view. But what we get to see is merely an extension of what is already to be seen on the face. The legs, pulled up and held by the hands, merely endorse the lowering of the eyelids behind which the girl has retired.

At the same time, the limbs have become a protecting envelope, through the cracks of which the eyes venture to peep – while the unprotected body remains utterly exposed:





 

When we zoom in on the face again, we see how the hands not only buttress that falling head, but also gently touch its temple:





 

And also how the forearms protect the vulnerable face as with a concrete wall. At the same time, a subtle shift has taken place. The movement with which one eye is peeping in the light is compensated with the withdrawal of the other in the shadow of the sheltering forearm.

When we zoom in still further, it appears that the single eye on which we are focussing now is not really looking (at us...). Rather is it our own eye that wants to find in it the access to an elusive inner world:













 

When we finally try to force an entry to what might loom up there in the dark behind the pupil, we only get to see the white of an eyeball that has turned its pupil away – inward:





 

Strange though, how, in the photography of William Ropp, of all things the eye, that very organ of the photographer, does not want to look and turns out to be impenetrable.

THE CAMERA 


Which only seems to bring the eye of the photographer into a state of frenzy: not only does it move backward and forward, it soon approaches the body from the most diverse angles

Until the body finally bluntly turns its nude skull to the photographer’s eye: 



 

THE SKIN

Or its back, which altogether shows neither eyes nor covering or protecting hands. The back itself is the protection:





 

For, here, we stumble upon the nude skin: sheer surface, isolating its massive content from the outer world. And that skin is only really transformed into a genuine impenetrable surface through that remarkable lighting of William Ropp: not otherwise than the eye that approaches the body from the most diverse angles, the light is shining on the body from often opposite corners – which cannot fail to remind of Rodin, who, at night, used to sneak around his sculptures with a candle in his hand. In fact, in his introduction to his new book 'Children', William Ropp reveals that he often leaves his model in the complete darkness before the camera, and then, lighting it with an old Czech pocket light, begins a kind of propitiatory dance - an 'invocation of the heathen god Photon'. One of the possible effects of this technique is that the skin, under which otherwise the running of the blood in the veins and the breathing of the chest, already according to Hegel, did have us descry the presence of the spirit, is now lent the appearance of impenetrable, tanned leather.

Such is the veritable drama of seeing: precisely through its urge to shed its light upon everything, the eye cannot but reduce the visible object to a surface, hiding an invisible interior from view. 

Such impenetrable skin inexorably refers us to the flesh, to man dwelling in a body that is a mere thing among other things – utterly alien to him. That experience is poignantly embodied in that marvellous headless trunk:





 

With hindsight, we discover that, in many a picture, the expressive power of William Ropp’s faces derives from the fact that its expressive traits are folds in an utterly impenetrable skin. Through so demonstratively referring the expression to the surface, an inner being is conjured up that cannot possibly reconcile itself with its incarnation:





 

 THE FLESH
And the word was made flesh' (John  I, 14)


When no longer a face is shown, but a back or a headless trunk, that effect disappears. By showing no other expression but sheer rejection, it is not only the pure surface that begins to speak, but foremost what it contains: the flesh.

With all its touching shortcomings. No ‘ideal bodies’ with William Ropp, only sheer ordinary mortals:





 

Behind her back, the girl above holds her upper arms in the grip of both hands, as if to protect herself from adopting a posture that would more naturally become her: to cross her arms on her chest. What her face, with that nearly deformed mouth and those two eyes lighted differently, is telling so eloquently, goes hidden in dark shadows in the photos below:









 

Until, after the gesticulating hands that disappear behind the back, also the face is framed out of the picture – apart from the wide-open mouth that shimmers through the frame. What horrifying messages does not that speechless trunk convey!





 

Ecce homo! The comparison with Rodin’s ‘Celle qui fût le belle Heaulmière’ imposes itself. Although it also reveals how much the art of William Ropp is an art of light: the same surfaces and volumes, lit differently, would have conjured up a totally different world.







 

And although William Ropp does not blame aging. Which does not prevent that he equally knows how to catch the misery of old age in the image, albeit in a totally different vein:



















 

THE ENIGMATIC BODY 

The grip in which the young girl holds her upper arms behind her back, and the grip in which that older woman holds that useless flesh pouring from her belly: these are the very opposites – if not the caricatures – of the way in which a young girl is supposed to present her bosom or to flatten her belly. And they find their natural extension in the caricatures of the posture that the body has to adopt when presenting itself sexually:





 

Those enigmatic contorted bodies enclose a new opening: the void confined within the stretched limbs. And that void gapes equally in the body of the man that, in a converse inward contortion, is rolling up upon himself: 





 

As if the drama around the eyes and the mouth is restaged around another opening: not that in which the soul emerges, but that from which all flesh proceeds. Gender is introduced. And it stays from the beginning under the sign of ambivalence. For, the same opening that emerges in the shadow of the biceps of the man, is covered with a plait in the enigmatic body of the woman below:





 

As if the body of the female is emerging in the male body, and the body of the male in the female body. Better still: as if the body is turned into the stage on which the drama that caused its birth is enacted.

AROUND THE UTERUS AND ITS MOUTH

By bringing the counterpart of the face at the other side of the body into the picture, the drama of the hands and the arms around the eye is completed with that of the legs around the opening leading to the womb:





 



 

Where the signs are subtly reversed: while the legs are centrifugally moving away from the hole, the hands are centripetally moving toward it, whereby it is not clear whether they are out at covering or at penetrating. The ambivalence is even stronger on the photo below, where the fingertips of both hands are joining above the vagina: 





 

while on the background - at the opposite upper side of the body - the same proceedings can be seen on which William Ropp was zooming in above:




detail
 

While the hands on the foreground hide from view the darkness in the hole from which all flesh proceeds, the hands on the background try in vain to find an entry to the soul through a crack in the skin over the flesh.

THE FISH AND ITS EYE

Let us have a closer look on that eye:





 

It is barely human: completely black, like that of the fish, and staring from a face without a forehead. The open mouth makes the similarity even more striking: it seems as if a fish were lying there at its last gasps. Only now do we understand what that skin really reminded us of: not so much of tanned leather, but rather of the unfeeling skin of a fish:





 

The skin of a fish is never stroked: fish have no hands. Their skin is a mere scaled and slimy protective layer. Neither have they arms or legs: they are predestined to embody the natural metamorphosis of the back bereaved of its limbs depicted above.

At the same time, the fish is the very opposite of the body of the young girl below that seems to have dissolved into a profusion of centrifugal limbs:





 

The eyes and mouth of the girl are closed. Those of the fish stay wide open. And what is multiplied in the body of the girl, is undivided in the fish. What is more: it does not move centrifugally away from the hole, but straightforward toward it. Thus, penetrating penis and gaping vagina are united in one single being. The ambivalence of the movements around the opening is split and distributed over two beings: man and animal.

But the division is immediately denied in that the two halves are assimilated. The spines on the back of the fish are echoed in the ribs shining through the back of the girl. And that alluring, slender body equally takes over the curve of the fish. It is thereby transformed in a quadruped animal, crawling on four legs on the surface of the earth, with its nose on the ground. The incarnation turns out to be a veritable ‘descent of man’: the descent of man in the chains of generation, in ante-diluvial evolutionary times.

Although we cannot get rid of the ambivalence. For, although fish do reproduce, they do not copulate: they simply pour out their seed over the eggs in the water. Male does not meet female. Furthermore, both halves of the opposition, already weakened through assimilation, are dislodged from their natural element. Man is no longer staying upright; he crawls upon the earth’s surface. And the fish is no longer swimming in the seas, but lying on the land at its last gasps.

Talking about fish: this metamorphosis, split off from the girl, surreptitiously glides from above in the image, as to anoint the forehead with a mark of Cain - while the girl, looking from the corner of her eye, seems to ask herself whether we have noticed it:





 

And, in the image below, the assimilation with the split off fish finds its counterpart in the hand that is laid upon the suspicious/accepting eye: as if the girl lays hands on the very source and goal of her existence:





 

THE BIRD

Birds do not have a penis and a vagina either: they are born out of the shell of a virginal egg.

Just like the fish above glides from behind over the forehead of the girl, just so does the bird below bend from behind over the girl that seems to be nestled in the body of the bird like the yolk in its egg. The emphasis is on the horn of the beak - just like the scaly skin of the cold-blooded fish: hardened skin - above which that completely black eye continues to stare at us:





 

The contrast is heightened in the image below, where the horn of the sharp beak, above which that insensitive eye is staring again, is echoed in the protecting cap - the eggshell – that covers the skull of the girl.* Also here does the girl lay her hand on the body of the bird. If she has to become an animal anyhow, then preferably in the manner of a bird: born and bearing out of an egg, without the merger of any genitals, outside the body:





 

And that sheds a new light on another photo of William Ropp, where the man wears little wings above his shoulder blades, that obviously will never be able to lift him off the ground. The image gets its full impact only when compared with Rodin’s ‘L’âge de bronze’. While, with Rodin, man is looking up at the skies, laying his hand on a forehead where the mind seems to awaken, with Ropp, the hand seems trying to catch in the forehead of that downward looking face the reminiscence of times bygone when the wings on its back were still able to unfold in their full spread:





 

 





rodin
l'age de bronze

CLOTHES

On other photos, clothes take the place of scales and plumes.

Even when not so much nudity is covered, but rather the vulnerable body, as when the child pulls the blankets over its head:





 

The skin is no longer transforming in horn: it rather seems to mimic the grainy structure of woven cloth. Which does not prevent that, In the image below, remnants of the older metamorphoses loom up in the bony structure of the forehead and the horny structure of the nose:





 

And with that equally demonic figure below, the skin not only takes the grainy structure of the cloth over the head of the woman above: the skin over its skull is literally metamorphosing into horn:





 

Which does not prevent that, in many other pictures, it is just clothes that are supposed to protect the anxious or threatening face that is covered with them. In that sense, they usurp the role of the hands and the eyelids:







 


In rare cases the body appears in full apparel: 





 

or an undershirt covers the breast of that vulnerable child:





 

On the photo below, finally, the man is not so much cross-dressed in female attire. Rather is he, safely protected behind his arm and lifted up leg, retiring on a chair as in a motherly envelope - if not in an eggshell, like an anxious, nearly hatched chick:





 

CHAIR, CHAMBER AND STAIRS

While clothes envelope us like a protecting mother or shell, in an armchair, we nestle ourselves as in the lap of a mother. When staying up, we come loose of that lap, just like the girl above that distanced herself from the fish. But in the photo below, the woman also lays her hand on the very chair from which she stood up: for, in doing so, she merely uncovers that other womb from which new life will be born again:





 

The event is happening in the seclusion of a room. In the photo below it takes the organic shape of an uterus, while, at the same time, the armchair is reduced to a mere geometric skeleton, and the woman – whose opening is covered with a long sized object – is stretched to phallic proportions:



 

Even stronger is the conflict staged by the woman that presents her seductive legs, while disappearing under the womb. By turning her body away, she merely confirms that she is born out of a womb and is trying to escape her fate: were she to spray her legs wide, she would seamlessly be fitted in the endless row of wombs that bore one another:





 

To the effect that the seclusion of the room unfolds to the ominous stairwell, in which there is no escape from the inexorable descent in the flesh:





 

Whence the hesitating expectation behind the door:









 

THE COUPLE
'Male and female created he them' (Genesis I, 27)

But let us now, after our descent in bygone evolutionary stages, and our sojourn in the realm of things that we created around us, pick up the tread where we have lost it: in the opening surrounded with fingers and arms. For in view of the advent of generation, the relation with animals and things has something of a detour: rather than animals and things had we expected the appearance of the sexual counterpart that turns the individual into a couple.

The images with couples are among the strongest in William Ropp’s work. Although we are not precisely dealing with man and woman, but rather with mother and son. In one way or another, the sexual dimension seems to continue to mingle up with the generational.

To begin with, there is that man, that, nearly crushed by that motherly body bent over him, seems to be staring between the breasts. Seems to be staring: since, with his hands clasped on his cheeks, he has averted his eyes (and his mouth...): his gaze is staring in ‘l’entre-deux-seins’ in the double meaning of that word: between two breasts and between womb and breasts:





 


And the same goes for the man, that, nearer to the origin, seems to stare right in the opening between the legs – as if he were looking down on ‘Les portes de l’enfer’, like Rodin’s ‘Thinker’, of which the image that we used as a title to our text, cannot fail to remind. But we are looking down not so much on what is happening behind the doors of Dante’s hell, but on where it originates: in the very womb where all those who are driven in hell saw the light of day. Certainly, as with Dante, it is written above the gates: ‘Lasciate ogni speranza’. Although the sequel should not only read ‘voi che sortite!’, but also ‘voi che uscite!’. The man, however, does not look this darkness over the deep right in the face either: with his vacant stare he seems to gaze straight next to the void: 





 

Also here do the hands come to the rescue of the evasive eyes: with the same gesture with which a little child clutches to its mother, they seek the warmth of the cheeks.

And so does equally the cheek of the man on the soft inner side of the thigh. Just like the woman laid her hand on the fish, the bird, and the armchair, so does the man lay his head on the very womb out of which he became flesh, on that thighs that, spread open like the arms of a cross, mercilessly present the gaping wound – backwards, turned away from us:





 

At the same time, William Ropp's image reveals the utter falsity of the countless images where the rosy flesh is exposed in all its details before the gaze of the male. For, what is bluntly exposed there, is merely the fetish of what is really to be seen between the legs: the void of nothingness**.

While in the photo above the man seems to be nailed on the cross, on the photo below it is rather the mother that has descended from it and is laid out on the lap of her son, as in a reversal of Michelangelo’s ‘Pietà’:





 




 

A reversal in all the senses of the word. As opposed to the lighting brightness of the marble: the darkness of the shadows. As opposed to the heightened beauty of those juvenile bodies: seemingly dull normality. As opposed to the son and his mother: mother and son. Both masters have in common, though, that they seem not to be aware of the difference between the generations: just like Michelangelo’s mother could as well be the wife of her son, just so could the woman on the lap of Ropp’s man as well be his mother.

Even where, at first glance, we are dealing with the entwining of a genuine couple, we discover, on a closer look, that the dimension of the generations has sneaked in nevertheless: the head of the woman is situated above the genitals of the man, as if he had begotten - if not born - her as his child. Wherewith equally the signs of the sexual differentiation are reversed:





 

The gesture with which the hand of the man touches the cheek of the woman, immediately reminds us of the gesture with which the girl laid her hand on the fish: as if it were his new shape – his rebirth. This marvellous image is also the completed version of the enigmatic single body – its real origin: the enigmatic sight of the couple entwined. Another version of such enigmatic tangle of limbs has been painted by Picasso:




picasso
 

In the image below, a new version of the enigma appears. At first glance, we are dealing with a man and a woman, leaning against each other. But the head of the woman does not seem to fit in the image. It is severed form the trunk by dark shadows. It is as if, between the two heads of its parents, a third head is wriggling its way forward. And the shape of the arms that seem to pose as the opening from which every life is born, only endorses that interpretation:





 

In still other images, the encounter of the bodies is shortened to a hand touching a shoulder or a head. Which cannot but heighten the sexual and generational ambivalence. Is it the hand of the man or the father that supports the head of the woman or the daughter? And does not the contrast between even skin and wrinkled and veined skin mislead us into contrasting young and old?







 


Where it is two heads that encounter one another, a new enigma is introduced. Is it not mirror images that are screaming in each other’s mouth or approaching each other’s cheek?





 

 



 

WOMAN
L’entre-deux-seins

In the no man's land between the womb from which man is born and the womb in which he has to beget, woman appears in the guise of an alluring body. William Ropp also knows to use the magic of light in conjuring up the allure of such body. In a first phase, the face is failing: it is averted of framed out: 













 

The presence of the ear - the sole opening that has remained out of range up to now, announces, after the restoration of the splendour of the skin, the openness of the body:





 

The photo above is one of the few on which the legs are spread wide, showing the freely accessible vagina, and - still more remarkable: on which also the gaze seems to really look at us. And, although the eyes of the nude below are closed, they only do so to generously endorse the gesture with which the breast is presented: 





 

And although, finally, the beautiful woman below, looking at us with her legs slightly spread open, nevertheless lets her head rest on her hand:





 

THE CHILD

Does she remember the throes of incarnation, as they seem to hover over the faces of those wonderful children of William Ropp? In the transitory phase between nothingness and the ultimate determination through gender, generation, individuality, let alone through flesh and growth to death, they seem to be still and fully aware of the destiny that has fallen on them, there, in the opening between the legs:





 

THE PHOTOGRAPHY

No doubt, the complex work of William Ropp allows for other interpretations. But nobody will deny that these images leave an indelible impression on the soul. 

The profundity of William Ropp’s work, though, should not have us overlook that we are dealing here with the art of photography in the first place. And there is no doubt: William Ropp’s photography is a photography of the highest rank! 

For it cannot not escape our attention that the expression derives from the light in the first place, and not so much from the body on which it is cast. Take, for instance, the photos in which the effect is achieved precisely by casting a shadow over the eyes - by hiding them from view:










 

And that holds true especially in that marvellous photo with which we began our exploration in this text. Surely, it shows the anxious eyes of a boy. But, on a closer look, the expressiveness derives from lighting in the first place: the eye seems to be turned in one giant pupil, and it is the shine upon that wide-open pupil that lends the gaze its fragility. The effect is further enhanced through the shadow below the nose, that opens as it were a third opening in the skull. 

Again, in the photo below, it is only what from the woman is disappearing in the darkness of the shadow, that lends the image its force. It is as if the seated trunk is unfolding into one giant vagina wherein a fathomless void is emerging: 





 

In other photos, it is, conversely, the light that seems to transfigure the subject. The body of the woman below seems to have become luminous. And that is made possible in that the void is driven out of the centre, upwards and downwards, where the hands and the fingers of those two centrifugal arms continue to perform the movement around the void, that has meanwhile become all too familiar to us:





 

In still other photos, it is the grainy structure of a rather evenly lighted surface that lends the body a kind of spiritual immateriality – and the paper on which it is printed that unheard-off sense of tactility:





 

Not to mention, finally, the mastery with which all those mortal bodies, as well as the light and shadows cast on them, are arranged within the frame of the rectangle. It suffices to refer to the highlights, such as the head in the title of our text, or the limbs of that couple entwined surrounding the lighted head in the centre. And it suffices to revisit all the images above from this angle, to persuade ourselves of that remarkable mystery of William Ropp’s photography: that the pains of incarnation, so poignantly portrayed in this images, are inversely proportional to the perfection of their embodiment in the image. 

Such photography is the very opposite of what it is commonly held for: to be a mere reflection of the visible world. If anywhere, here Klee’s saying applies: that art does not render the visible, but makes visible.

Granted: few painters or sculptors of the twentieth century fathom the same depths, and equally few reach to the same heights. 

© Stefan Beyst, February 2004     
    

*A similar case of mimicry between the horn of the beak of a swan and the human skull can be found in Michelangelo's 'Leda and the swan'. See our text:  'Yeats' Leda and the swan: an image's coming of age' (and also chapter II from The erotic eye and   its nude')
** See chapter III of  'The erotic eye and its nude'
 

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stefan beyst theory on art



 
All the photos are copyrighted by William Ropp.
We wish to thank William Ropp for his kind permission to use his photos. 


         Other texts - from Jan Saudek, Ralph Gibbson en Franck Horvat - on William Ropp


 


 
 
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