Rene Magritte’s painting, This is Not a Pipe, offers the unsuspecting viewer a paradox: the painted image of a pipe beneath which sits the caption “ this is not a pipe.” but what, exactly is not a pipe? Is it the painted image of the pipe, which literally speaking is not really a pipe but the representation of a pipe? Or is it the caption, which is not a pipe, being a sentence which mentions a pipe? Or is it the painting itself, which is not a pipe either, but a painting, a painting–which-is-not-a- pipe?
As far as I know, Lewis Rothman was not directly influenced by Magritte’s work, but it is nonetheless apparent that a similar paradox is at work here; but with Rothman, the paradox lies not in the gap between painted image and written language but between the investigations of a physician and the curiosity of the photographer. Which is to say, in front of a photograph by Rothman, one is confronted with the following: this is not an x-ray. Such is the challenge to the viewer who meditates on the work, collected here at Rothman’s first solo exhibition. This mid-career survey provides us with a unique opportunity to reflect on some of the more quizzical aspects of a life seemingly divided in two. This is not an x-ray. Well, of course not: an x-ray burrows beneath the surface, it glides under the epidermis, passes through the soft-tissue and buries itself within the bones–that which lies hidden under the flesh. No, this is not an x-ray: Rothman’s photographs linger lovingly over the infinite surfaces of the apparent world. One in particular offers us a close-up view of the delicate peach-fuzz on the face of the budding violinist (his eldest son, Roger, a musical prodigy, had a career cut short by a fatal flaw–near tone-deafness). This is not an x-ray. This is true as well of Rothman’s work beyond the hearth, in his landscapes and cityscapes. These photos rarely depict interior spaces (check for yourself) and instead probe the outer shell of the world. I dare say that in Rothman’s oeuvre as a whole, one finds nothing so much as the measured practice of a man who scans the surface of things, and unfolds the surfaces for all to see.
And yet something else crops up here, something erupts beneath the folds of fatty baby skin, out from the cracking bark of the tree trunk, in the sharp crevices of sun-dried rock. This “something else” suggests to the viewer that perhaps this is an x-ray, perhaps we are privy here to some kind of view below the surface. I, for one, see this “something else” in a number of Rothman’s works. It’s there in the bedroom shot of the mother and children, as they lounge around with an intimacy that is at once relaxed and yet strangely ominous. It’s there in the photograph of the skyscraper that bends impossibly inward at the same time as it soars upward. And it’s there any animal portraits, each one infused with peculiar personality, at times humorous, at times forbidding. So on second viewing, there is in Rothman’s images some residue of his work as a physician, the remains of a practice in which one must see inside the body.
Rothman began his craft at an early age, guided by the affectionate hand of his uncle, the namesake of his one and only daughter, Hilary. It was uncle Harry who provided the young Rothman with his introduction to the art of looking. Together they wandered through the city streets of Manhattan, capturing on film the hustle and bustle of downtown life. Further north they travel to the Bronx Zoo, where Rothman found himself dazzled by the variety of animal life, a sentiment which has yet to leave him, as his brilliant images of the African fauna make clear. Indeed, it is a great shame that these images do not survive; one would love to have had the chance to stare through the eyes of this young boy as he looked for the first time through the lens of the camera.
Rothman’s growing devotion to the art of photography is nowhere captured with greater clarity and completeness than in the fiasco that took place during his honeymoon. Now this fiasco had nothing to do with romancing his wife, Anne. In fact, they were, and have remained to this day, the most intimate of lovers (I’ll leave it at that); no, the fiasco involved his other love. While trekking through Europe on a dollar a day (times have changed….) Rothman found himself all of a sudden face-to-face with an exquisite bundle of photographic equipment: a beautiful Leica M-3 camera and a pair of fabulous lenses. Before he could come to his senses, he emptied his pockets of all the cash he and his new wife had between them. To both of their horror, they found themselves with no money left to get back home; no money left for film to record their love and adventure; no money left to eat; no money left to find a place to sleep. But the industrious young man came up with an ingenious plan: he placed a frantic call home, and to his great delight, his parents heard his plea, understood his plight, and forgave the young man’s weakness before such uncommon beauty and sophistication. The couple was wired an emergency bundle of cash and the to return home without having to scrub pots, sleep outside, or join a traveling dance troupe to finance the first of many vacations together.
Rothman’s devotion to the craft of photography began in earnest with the birth of his children. He set about systematically at first, as if driven by the kind of demand-for-completeness that his medical school education provided him. He recorded the life of his firstborn, Roger, with such care that what remains today is an almost daily archive of the boy’s first six months of life. Later he photographed his clan of kids in almost every phase of life, capturing on film every milestone, big or small: he caught them playing air-guitar together, crawling across the floor, making faces en masse, dressing up for Halloween, horsing around in the den or basement, playing baseball, tennis, cheerleading, painting, studying, laughing, tickling, having dinner together, having their hair dyed blond (or was it orange?)…
And Rothman passed his passion for photography on to his children. Roger, for one recalls nostalgically the days when his father worked late into the evening in his darkroom. He remembers standing silently by his father’s side, mesmerized by the orange glow of the darkroom lamp and by the pungent odors of the wet basement room. The magic which accompanied the smell has stayed with him to this day, even as he turned from the making of art to the study of it. His daughter, Hilary, remembers in particular a trip with her father to the Leica factory in Germany (this time he brought enough cash). Of all his children, it is Hillary who has received Rothman’s gift, and I dare say that in much of her work one can sense the guiding hand of her father. Rothman’s most consistent subject is always been his wife, Anne; when we look at his daughter’s work we find the same intensity: here it is Hillary’s husband, Todd, who is the most frequent object of the photographer’s gaze. His youngest son, Jeffrey, has been most influenced not by any particular event but by the cumulative effect of having been forced to stand rigidly still while the artist called out: “hold it just another second, I’m going to take one more shot.” Years of Rothman’s “one more shot” have taught this wild boy a measure of self-control and patience that has in recent years offered up its first fruits. And his daughter-in-law Jaxi, fondly remembers the day the family sailed unadvisedly along the windy shores of Nantucket Island. The uncapsizable boat capsized and Jaxi’s camera was among the casualties (no lives were lost, thank goodness). What was the first thing Rothman did? He replaced that camera, and it sits to this day on Jaxi’s shelf at home, ready to spring into action at any moment, so long as it’s asked to work on dry land. Together these tales tell a story of a man who has, quite remarkably, managed to make a home for his family, all the while recording this home for the future generations (due to begin sometime this October).
I cannot end this account of Rothman’s photography without mention of a peculiar atavism. When it comes to the art of image making, Rothman simply refuses to accept the image that moves. Sure, like anyone, he enjoys a good movie, and wouldn’t give up televised sports, but when it comes to placing himself behind the lens of the video camera, he draws a line in the sand. I know of no piece of electronic equipment which is languished in such complete disregard, if not contempt, as the video camera that Rothman once bought (under the pressure of the rest of his family). “I’m a purist”, I think he said in his defense.
So he is. But he is also a strange sort of purest, one who divides his time between the x-ray in the camera–between the objective, clinical examination of the hospital, and the loving, curious gaze of the home and the world of travel. His art reflects this internal tension. It is, I would say, at the center of his art. The purist yes, but one-sided, no. Such is the paradox of Rothman’s life work–this is not an x-ray.
Roger Rothman, PhD. (Soon, I assure you)
September 6, 1999
Roger Rothman. Ph.D. is now Associate Professor of Art History at Bucknell University