On Queer Photography

I admire photos of human bodies taken from a homosexual or queer perspective, most recently works by Brett Lindell, who evokes a lot of the same responses I had when approaching my first gay photographic works. I don’t really comment on them much, but there are some things involving gay male photography (and perhaps my intersections as an artist and a queer gay male) that I do think about a great deal.

The works I have come to really take as the foundation of gay photography were largely from the same era: the works of Robert Mapplethorpe; the grungy, eroticized Peter Berlin shots; the works of Peter Hujar. Many of them stood as art because they exposed things that had not previously been exposed— raw sexuality, homoeroticism, sadomasochism, and (often more strikingly by omission than inclusion) race. The shots that defined a time period in gay rights defined, largely, a gay white space in history. There are images of black men— Mapplethorpe took many, but they were received as exploitative by other living artists such as Glenn Ligon, who explore intersectionality much more thoroughly than was possible in the artistic environments of decades past.

It therefore greatly disappoints me when I see living gay photographers hung up in the same white spaces of history. It is more than simply an issue of race though— it is being entrenched in the same perspectives on body image and gender. It is a celebration of homosexuality through the male figure, while ignoring or celebrating the male figure’s whiteness, masculinities, stereotypical Greek form, perfectly typical (and therefore atypical) anatomy. It is the act of robbing the figure of any greater context in a largely unqueer world, while simultaneously refusing to queer the environment around him. It is a photography without discourse at a time when discourse of queer topics can, and should, be finally approached. It is a trap for too many, falling into a space of glamour, frisson, and largely masturbation on the part of the artist.

One may point out that each of these subjects are addressed in postmodern photography. Yet, they are too often addressed directly, as subject material, rather than engaging in a discourse on intersectionality. Masculinity is particular is often challenged only when viewed in light of the femme, the contrast between which only further reinforces the lauded masculinity. Men are presented as having seductive, lean or muscular figures, or in some trite representation of “plus sized models” that evoke too tired a diatribe on body inclusivity— both approaches focusing too heavily on extremes rather than actually exploring the intimate bodies of the everyday.

Gender, form, anatomy…nothing is allowed to exist in any fluid state without exploiting it. Nothing is contextualized except when framed by narrative, yet beyond the camera their subjects never exist in such an isolated manner, nor as part of such compelling propaganda.

This is not about ticking off necessities and addressing them each directly. An tangible example of what I mean: consider a simple polaroid of myself, staring in the bathroom mirror after having just woken up, unposed. While it is certainly unrefined, too many overzealous photographers would leap to chastise it for not directly addressing what they consider “homosexuality”, somehow rendering the image “less gay”. Yet, it holds more power in discussing the queer as a result.

I am no photographer, nor visual artist (I write music and words), but I want to see photographers and artists who recognize these problems and tackle them. I do not want those who evoke the same adoration of the male figure that has been lauded enough already— our community is out already, and it is time to stop recreating stonewall and start addressing the multiplicities that our queer existences entail.

Sean Hanson