On Valentine’s day especially, whether you’re currently into it or not – love will be in the air. It is the inexhaustible font of inspiration for artists of all kinds, ordinary people, all living creatures, it is simply what makes the world go round. It gives melody to a song, touches hearts, paints life in all the colors and exposes our very soul. As for photography, there were many iconic moments of romance captured in their spur, celebrating the notions of passion, intimacy, lust, emotions, connection, the pure human urge to love and be loved. From celebrities to complete strangers, we are all linked by it and we all strive to it at the end of the day. These are the 10 selected photographs that tell stories of the ones in love, in honor of Valentine’s Day.
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Le Baiser de l'Hôtel de Ville
The 1950 photograph by French photographer Robert Doisneau, titled Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville (Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville) shows a young couple kissing in the crowded street in Paris. This image went around the world after being published in Life magazine, for its romanticism, as well as the controversy surrounding it. After a couple sued the photographer, thinking it was them in the photograph and that their privacy had been violated, Doisneau admitted to the court that the picture had been staged. He had asked a couple, Françoise Delbart and Jacques Carteaud, to repeat their kiss after seeing them do it earlier without taking a photograph. In 2005, Françoise Bornet (née Delbart) sold the signed copy she got from the author for 155,000€ to an unidentified Swiss collector. Even though the couple’s love only lasted nine months, it was immortalized while it did, in one of the most famous images in the world.
Utterly dedicated to his elaborated classical nudes and portraits of people, flowers and statues, Robert Mapplethorpe was a perfectionist in form and shades of grey. Through his groundbreaking work, he pushed the boundaries of the world of fine art photography and explored sexuality. His 1984 photograph White Gauze depicts a more sensitive side of the photographer, showing two people being linked to each other, physically by the white gauze and emotionally by feelings. The image doesn’t reveal the gender or the identities of the subjects, suggesting it doesn’t really matter and trying to focus on the kind of emotions their relationship is manifesting. Mapplethorpe’s remarkable skills are ever present – the striking texture and the recognizable grey background call his name to mind almost immediately.
Valerie and Gotscho Embracing
Nan Goldin. This lady photographer could be considered the inventor of the kind of photography she pursuit throughout her entire career. She documented the lives of the members of marginalized communities, such as LGBT and sex workers, and depicted drug use, violent and aggressive couples and the moments of her own life. Her snapshot aesthetic images received recognition in her most famous work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986), an exhibition and publication dedicated to New York’s music and art scene of the late 1970s and early ‘80s. She often portrayed lovers in moments of intense intimacy, becoming completely invisible and not present in the room, so her objects felt completely relaxed. Goldin would only carry her camera with her, working with the available light and she would often be her own model, creating her own visual diary.
The Vancouver Kiss
Even though it doesn’t exactly belong to the genre of fine art photography, it is a bit more than a simple photojournalism shot. It was 2011 in Vancouver, and a young couple was photographed kissing in the middle of the post-Stanley Cup. When Alexandra Thomas got “knocked down by the riot police” and fell down on the street, her boyfriend Scott Jones came to help her and give her a kiss. Getty Images photographer Rich Lam was at the right place at the right time, and his image went viral. The evergreen topic of love amongst the ruins of destruction in all its glory was probably not staged, pointing out that the most beautiful emotion of humanity is definitely stronger than any chaos.
Boys, Boys, Boys
Bruce Weber is a famous photographer, probably most noted for his work in advertisement. His campaigns for fashion moguls Abercrombie & Fitch, Calvin Klein, or Ralph Lauren, as well as publications like Vogue, GQ and Vanity Fair established him as one of the leading professionals in the field. He takes homoerotic images of his models, and while it’s nothing new for the industry, he seems to be trying to add something more to it, like a dash of lust and actual connection. Stripped from their marketing context, they become a testimony of encounters, oozing in controversy and celebrating love.
Jane and Serge
The slightly cheesy photos of celebrities PDA-ing are practically an everyday thing nowadays, but there are those whose romance was captured in a more romantic way. That is the case of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, whose 12-year relationship was documented by Andrew Birkin, Jane’s brother, and published as a book in 2013. The couple’s turbulent and passionate love attracted admiration and intrigue, and led to a song titled “Je t’aime…moi non plus”, banned for controversy on many radio stations. The couple had a daughter, Charlotte, who is now a rather famous actress. Even though their symbiosis ended because of aggression, it was embed with love, and like two proper rock stars, they now have it pictured in black and white photos that documented it wherever they would go.
Yoko and John
Other than unfortunately being known as the last photograph of John Lennon, the image Annie Leibovitz took of the Beatle and his wife Yoko Ono could be marked as the very definition of how to photograph intimacy. The completely nude John and the completely dressed Yoko share a moment that “explained their relationship exactly”, in their own words – Yoko as a persistent but caring, and John as an open and infantile in his innocence. The photo ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1981 and even though it was supposed to be only John in the picture, it surely doesn’t lack his spirit.
Jon and Alex
The 2015 winner of the World Press Photo contest is Mads Nissen’s portrait of a young gay couple living in Russia. Hiding in the dark, behind the curtains, they try to avoid the cruel treatment the LGBT community gets in the country, facing legal and social discrimination, harassment, and even violent hate-crime attacks from conservative religious and nationalistic groups. It is forbidden by law to endorse “gay propaganda”, so many try to flee in search of a better life. Those who stay bear huge risks and are forced to follow their hearts in complete secrecy.
Meisel and Madonna
The relationship between photographer Steven Meisel and pop queen Madonna goes way back and it produced many tongue-in-cheek pictures, like the 1992 coffee table book titled SEX. The image featured here represents its prologue, basically – Madonna and her longtime friend Debi Mazaar, set in a 1920s atmosphere, kissing at a bar. The singer has never been stranger to controversy and through her body and music, she tackled many taboos and pushed many buttons. It’s simply Madonna and Debi, exploring their options and enjoying each other’s company free of judgement and shame. (Read more on photography’s role in the LGBT community.)
A picture of an American sailor kissing a woman in a white dress on Victory over Japan Day (V-J Day) in Times Square in New York City, on August 14, 1945. No other information, just a celebration of the end of a war and more importantly – love. The instant of the kiss luckily matched with the click on Alfred Eisenstaedt’s Leika and the moment was seized. This photograph too was made for Life magazine, at the same time with another photograph of the same scene from a different angle, taken by Victor Jorgensen for the New York Times. However, the latter didn’t nearly receive as much attention, leading Eisenstaedt to fame and many popular culture references.