Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Kind of Authenticity That Can Only Be Faked

A disadvantage of not having much real-world contact with gay men's culture is that I'm not always sure what some of the terminology means.  I get a sense of what a "twink" is, for example, from the context of written references to the type, but I'm not sure what the concept's boundaries are.  That would have to come from observing what kinds of men my peers call twinks.  It might not be all that much help, I know, because such classifications change over time.  Take "bears," which used to refer to big-boned gentlemen with a plethora of body hair and, usually, beards.  The men it covered ranged from the hefty to the obese.  Now it seems that a bear can be a gym queen, provided he has a bit of body hair and perhaps some close-trimmed stubble.

This is why I was taken aback when Band of Thebes posted about the work of a Tasmanian/Australian photographer named Paul Freeman.  "Fed up with shaved, steroided gym bunnies," as BoT put it, Freeman produced a body of photographs featuring what, judging by the images BoT quotes, I can only describe as shaved, steroided gym bunnies, though some, I admit, are not shaved.
I don't object to such images, nor do I find them unattractive, but they hardly represents a conceptual shift in the photographic depiction of the unclad male.  Putting hunky models in the regalia of Greco-Roman antiquity is actually a well-established convention of male nude photography, from von Gloeden to the American physique studios of the 1950s -- if not from the Renaissance or earlier!  Freeman's aesthetic of carefully styled scruffiness crosses those cliches with the look of fashion photography (think Abercrombie and Diesel) of the past couple of decades.  It's been done before and, predictably enough, touted as the new big thing.  Nothing to see here, folks, move along now.

There's also a link to an interview with the great man, which adds to the hilarity.
But I think [his book] ‘Outback’ triggered a big response because we romanticize these types of men. The men of the countryside, the west, the wild, the outback… There is an established escapism associated with their reality. A timelessness. A freshness and wholesomeness. I accentuated this by the use of earth tones and sepias, aging photos, by choosing rustic and worn environments and settings, and through the actions and camaraderie of the moments and rural activities I captured. I think the lifestyle depicted in this filmic way was evocative and authentic. It connected the body of images into a total world, a mythical utopia where men are natural and at ease and unaffected, unselfconsciously, innocently beautiful while actively and happily engaged in and enjoying their life ...
SR: A very distinct aesthetic permeates your work. The men are natural, rugged, sweaty, unshaven… You have been pretty vocal about the fact that you have no interest in photographing the typical male model in the usual fashion. You enjoy photographing a man that looks like a man.
PF: As a gay male, I am increasingly alienated from the direction that a lot of gay male fashion and erotic male photography is taking, finding its general photo surreal plasticity obliterates  so many of the real, nuanced, subtle features of a man that make him a thing of beauty.  In the mid to late eighties when the gym culture really took off, gays took to improving their bodies with a vengeance. They copied the pro body builders by taking steroids and shaving down their bodies, in order to highlight definition and youthfulness. The new stereotype was faux macho beyond the village people types which had at least been based on real life stereotypes. Now, it was a tribal muscle gym fetishist thing. And it is a pervasive fashion which grows still in popularity and evolves and which I fear is now disconnected from any organic male sensuality or the reality we genetically recognize or respond to intuitively. We respond to it now because it’s the fashion. (As the director of The Australian Centre For Photography once kindly complimented me, it is clear from my work that the erotic lies in the individual not the stereotype.)
BoT remarks, "Never mind that for about half the images, he took Sydney models to the Outback to manufacture the verisimilitude he sought."  Well, you see, I do mind.  Freeman's self-inflating rhetoric is also wearily familiar.  The sexism and misogyny here ("a man that looks like a man") would be offensive if it weren't so tired and dishonest.  Again, the (female) interviewer gushes, "What I love most and appreciate about your work is that it’s definitely missing that 'staged' quality. The men - and the way you capture them - have a kind of raw, rugged energy that makes me feel as though I really am looking at REAL men at work and play in the Australian Outback."  The photos reproduced here don't bear that out.  Outback, Freeman declares, "doesn’t feature - at least by conventional gay standards - the hottest men."  "Hottest" compared to what?  Freeman's models conform to "conventional gay standards" as far as I can tell.  His work is very much in the main traditions of male physique and nude photography.  Which doesn't mean he shouldn't make whatever kind of pictures, featuring the kind of men, he likes, only that there's nothing unusual about it.  Even his considerable technical skill is not unusual in the field.  You or I might not be able to make such images, but hundreds of other professionals could and do.

The recurrent references to "REAL men" especially annoy me.  The men being put down by comparison are just as "real" as Freeman's models, who are surely the result of diligent gym work, costuming, and hair styling.  It takes a lot of preparation and planning to produce art that looks spontaneous, unstaged, and authentic.  It's to Freeman's credit that he brings it off so well, if you like this sort of thing.  And I do, among other sorts of things, but not enough to pay money for his books.

I sometimes muse about what would be genuine alternatives to mainstream gay male photography, featuring men who really aren't typical male models: men who don't work out, men with paunches, men with pronounced guts, men who are losing or have lost their hair, men forty or more years of age, for examples.  A competent photographer should be able to see the beauty in such men and find a way to record it on film or in pixels.  The photoblog The Real Men of New York, which I've linked to before, caught such men on the fly, but it seems to be defunct.  The Bear movement has produced its share of depictions of big men, but often it just poses them according to the conventions of porn, which again is all right but isn't what I mean.  That's the trouble, of course: what pleases me will displease many other gay men.  But I've also learned over the years that what pleases me will also please some others, enough others to be worthwhile.

As I say, I have no objection to Paul Freeman (or his fans) fetishizing whatever kind of man they like.  What I do object to is their contemptuous putdowns of other kinds of men, who are after all fetishized by other men.  What makes Paul Freeman's taste superior to anyone else's?  It's clear he thinks his fetishes are superior to those who like, say, steroided, shaved gym bunnies,  He also needs to look at the history of the male nude before the 1970s; he seems to think that the kind of idealized "surreal plasticity" he deplores is something new.  For that matter, the classical ideal he wishes he could evoke was of the ephebe, the beardless youth, not the stylized cowboys he likes.  And what's this nonsense about an "organic male sensuality or the reality we genetically recognize or respond to intuitively"?  Freeman's kind of photography is anything but organic, and the types of men he objects to are "intuitively" desired by others.

Freeman is making a typical false-consciousness accusation: what I like, I like authentically and autonomously -- even "genetically" -- but what you like, you you only think you like, because you've been brainwashed.  This attitude permeates mainstream sexual culture, both homo and hetero, and though it's often deplored, even those who deplore it tend to share it.  What needs to be challenged and rejected is the belief that sexual tastes can be rationalized, that beauty can be measured objectively, and that beautiful people are morally superior to others.  All these ideas are false, and harmful.