A Parisian Wanderer with a Humanist Lens

Like so many Europeans on their first trip to the U.S., Verger spent a lot of time in Harlem; some of the book’s best pictures were taken there. But it’s clear that he sought out Black subjects wherever he went, and gave them particular attention. In an introductory essay in the new volume, the curator and historian Deborah Willis suggests that Verger’s attention to everyday detail “reframed the visual narrative of Black life at the time,” and he would continue to do that and more in the course of his career. Over time, during trips throughout Central and Latin America, and to Benin, Nigeria, Rwanda, and other African nations—both on assignment and on his own relentless explorations—he developed an increasing focus on the intimate connection between Africa and Brazil, a legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. Many of his books are early and prime examples of visual anthropology, documenting African civilizations on the verge of disappearing or being forever transformed. Verger put the camera aside in the nineteen-seventies, but continued to publish images that he’d made on his travels in the previous years. An excellent survey, “Pierre Verger: The Go-Between,” came out in English in 1993, but few other books reached the U.S. market, leaving Verger virtually unknown in North America.

“United States of America” is especially welcome, therefore, as a reminder of Verger’s importance and as a confirmation of his very particular point of view. To anyone who shared his taste, it was apparent from “The Go-Between” that he loved men. People in general intrigued him, but men, and especially men of color, were riveting, impossible to ignore. The new book notes that some of Verger’s photos “reveal a homoerotic component reflecting his own sexuality,” and immediately lets the subject drop: no big deal. But it is. The “homoerotic component” in Verger’s work is subtle and rarely involves nudity, but it was still rare and daring for its time—all the more so because of the men he photographed. Although his later work is far more frank about attraction, Verger, who was white, was obviously drawn to the Black, brown, and Asian men he found on the streets of American cities. He was looking at the men whom Cecil Beaton, George Platt Lynes, Herbert List, Horst P. Horst, and other gay photographers at the time were all but ignoring.

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