Photographer David Lebe holds retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

With this week’s start of the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition “Long Light | Photographs by David Lebe,” the out, New York-to-Philadelphia transplant puts all of his starkly experimental work and its diverse subject matter into one bushel, shakes it up and comes up with this sobering survey. 

The exhibition runs Feb. 9-May 5 at the PMoA’s Perelman Building.

Renowned for homoerotic “light painting” images, proactive and provocative black-and-whites of gay porn star “Scott,” shots from 1987’s Great March on Washington for LGBTQ rights, and those of his longtime partner’s daily struggle with AIDS, the exhibition — as whole — might seem jumbled, discombobulated or too askew. But what connects every element of Lebe’s work, spirit and tone is his intuition.

“My work derives from my life, my life experiences,” he said from his studio. “I don’t illustrate ideas, but set up and then work intuitively within parameters.”

Talking about how all of his photographs connect fully with who Lebe is as a gay man at all times, and how coming out changed his perspective, the photographer who began teaching in Philadelphia in 1985 at the now-University of the Arts said, “Coming out was a difficult process for me growing up as I did with parents who always preferred to see me as they wanted me to be, not how I was. As for how it affected the photos, since the early 1970s I’ve striven to be out in my work without necessarily being self too conscious about it.”

Though “Long Light” is a wide-scope and all-encompassing envisioning of the Lebe aesthetic, many viewers will focus on “The Scott Pictures,” an honest, playful essay of a man plying his trade and being himself.

“The Scott pictures were a lucky break,” said Lebe. “Scott O’Hara was my favorite porn star, so when one evening my good friend Scott Tucker, one of Philadelphia’s most prominent gay activists, called up to ask if I wanted to photograph Scott O’Hara, I wasn’t at first sure if he was being serious. With Scott O’Hara it was a real collaboration. Scott believed in honest porn, that is real personal sex in front of the camera not acting, and that is why I think I responded so strongly to his on screen self. This of course was long before amateur porn. We got along great and I photographed him a number of time over some years; the last time being not long before he died of AIDS.”

Returning to Philadelphia for the “Long Light” show has been a challenge for Lebe, an artist living with AIDS with a partner also struck by the disease. “It’s been very emotional for me being back in Philly, seeing the city — it’s changed of course but still recognizable – as we drove in,” he said.  “I’ve been working with PMA’s wonderful photography curator, Peter Barberie, non-stop to hang the show all this week — very intense — that I haven’t yet had much of a chance to see much of the city. I grew up in Manhattan but I spent so many important years of my youth here and did so much work here, Philly is very special to me. I love this city. I’d just say people coming to the show who don’t know my work should suspend their idea of what a photography show is and expect some surprises.”