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Chuck Samuels (with Cheryl Simon)
"After Outerbridge," 1990.
simulated carbrotype, 10" x 9 3/8"
Courtesy of Vance Martin
Photography and Fine Art.


After Outerbridge


The Passionate Camera is an exciting new book which brings together over fifty artists, scholars, and critics to document and celebrate photography by and about sex-radical artists. Editor Deborah Bright has curated and written this online exhibition especially for QAR.


Rita Hammond
"As Max Beckmann," 1996.
unique Polaroid, 4 7/16" x 3 1/2"
Courtesy of the artist.


As Max Beckman Decadent or liberating? Elitist or profoundly democratic? Trendy fashion statement or lasting revolution? Over the past decade, photographs explicitly contesting normative representations of sexuality and desire have stirred passionate public debate. What was it about photographs of sexually charged subjects that made them so vulnerable to accusations of "pornography" and "obscenity" - as though these qualities were self-evident and inhered in the images, and not in the eyes of the beholder?

Photography, whether commercial, consumer, or artistic, has always had a vexed relationship to the depiction of sexually charged subjects, though what has been considered taboo has changed over time. In a pre-Freudian era, when children were considered sexually innocent, author and photographic enthusiast Lewis Carroll pursed his hobby of making intimate portraits of friends' children. But he betrayed his fear of social censure when he remarked: "I wish I dared dispense with all costume. Naked children are so perfectly pure and lovely; but Mrs. Grundy would be furious - it would never do."

 


Darren P. Clark
"Untitled"
from the Glory Hole series, 1993.
silver gelatin print, 4 1/4" x 3 "
Courtesy of the artist.


untitled Accounts of recent battles among image-producers and anti-porn crusaders show that little has changed in 120 years, despite a rising standard of consumption and the loosening of social and sexual prohibitions this has brought. Mrs. Grundy is still busy. Robert Mapplethorpe's 1989 retrospective, The Perfect Moment, which included images of posed subjects from New York's gay male leather and s/m subcultures, was indeed "the perfect moment" for the political and religious right to escalate a public attack on the NEA that had begun several months earlier when Rev. Donald Wildmon bombarded Congress with mass mailings about Andres Serrano's photograph, Piss Christ.

In the U.S., no work can be deemed legally obscene if, taken as a whole, it can be shown to possess "literary, artistic, political or scientific merit." But, intimidated by what appeared to be mass outrage and fearing for their remaining funding, museum administrators, Endowment officials, the press, and other public-opinion leaders could not bring themselves to defend Mapplethorpe's photographs as having "artistic merit" precisely because they artfully disrupted normalized assumptions about the nature of sexual desire.

 


Ken Gonzales-Day,
"Untitled No. 7"
(Nepomuceno's Battle), 1996.
chromogenic print, 27" x 38"
Courtesy of Patricia Sweetow Gallery,
San Francisco.


Nepomuceno's Battle But sexual dissent is an important democratic tradition with long histories of its own. Feminists pioneered this terrain with potent challenges to dominant social constructions of gender and the family in industrialized societies. Feminist consciousness-raising, boycotts, and direct action had a marked impact on public representations of white middle-class women in the mainstream mass media. However, images of women's bodies remained objects of intense and painful contention among feminists. The "porn wars" of the late 1970s and 1980s pitted women who explored sexual subject matter (a territory historically reserved for men) against those such as legal activist Catharine MacKinnon, who believed that any sexualized images of women promoted misogyny and oppression.

 


Andrew Kim
"Delicate Little Flower" 1993.
color duraflex, 40" x 30"
Courtesy of the artist


Delicate Little Flower In an unsisterly jab at "correct" feminist politics in publications such as off our backs, a group of San Francisco dykes launched On Our Backs in 1984, the first independent commercial porn magazine by and for lesbians. Each issue featured fantasy images by photographers such as Honey Lee Cottrell and Morgan Gwenwald of seduction scenes, girl-gang sex, sculpted and pierced bodies, leather and lace. Eager fingers, fists, tongues and dildos filled each issue. Rejecting anti-porn feminism's desexualized ideal of "woman-identified" sisterhood, pro-sex dykes promoted an assertively sexual stance, often looking for inspiration to gay male sexual subcultures with their bars and sex clubs, eroticized codes of dress, explicit pornographies, and inventive use of sex toys and props. As the AIDS epidemic fueled a conservative sexual backlash in the late 1980s, this was a defiantly political agenda and melded well with ACT UP's militant pro-sex message. Among younger "gen-X dykes and fags" who shared no history with older feminist sex debates and showed little patience for them, a lively grassroots cultural production flourished. Videos and zines, cheaply produced homemade magazines, sprang from the DIY ethos of punk rock fanzines and catered to a wide array of fantasies, fetishes, and nuanced sexual identities. By the early 1990s, "queer" surpassed "gay and lesbian" as a way to name these more complicated and fluid desires and to protest ongoing minoritization in the public media.

 


Tammy Rae Carland
"Cell 69," 1994.
chromogenic photograph, 24" x 20"
Courtesy of the artist.


Cell 69 But inevitably in consumer capitalism, when subcultural styles catch on among middle-class youth, it means big business, especially if the "look" can be skimmed off from its politics with a minimum of fuss. The new militant sexual attitude had an enormous impact in the arena of fashion and retail in the early 1990s, particularly among young middle-class white women enjoying their unprecedented "post-feminist" economic mobility. In May 1993, New York magazine announced "lesbian chic" with butch pop idol k.d. lang on its cover, noting the new visibility of lesbians among the political, entertainment, and sports elites. Teen idol Madonna flamboyantly advertised her switch-hitting ways and brought queer subcultural styles to the shopping mall. But as Danae Clark and others have pointed out, such appropriations of queer signs effectively "de-gays" them and transforms them into safe consumer style choices any woman, queer or straight, might make.

 


Sunil Gupta
"Untitled"
from the series Trespass II, 1993.
chromogenic print from digital files, 100cm x 75cm Courtesy of the artist.


Untitled Photographs depicting or hinting at lived men's and women's transgressive desires in the years before Stonewall have become precious relics, treasured and woven into the narratives queers have constructed about their suppressed histories. From the anonymous tintypes, cartes-de-visite, and snapshots found in thrift shops to interwar fashion photographs and beefcake pin-ups in physique magazines, images suggesting eroticized male-male relations from photography's beginnings to gay liberation have been lovingly excavated, published, and written about. On the other hand, lesbian or "sapphic" photographs were almost exclusively produced by men as a staple fantasy of straight porn. The longing and labor to reconstruct a usable photographic past where women could look at and photograph each other with desire characterizes a number of the contributions by lesbians to The Passionate Camera.

 


Lyle Ashton Harris with
Thomas Allen Harris,
"Brotherhood, Crossroads, Etcetera," 1994.
unique Polaroid, 24" x 20" Courtesy of the artists and Jack Tilton Gallery, NY


Brotherhood, Crossroads, Etcetera The same holds true for non-white men and women whose desires and bodily images are also marked by historical subordination. As among lesbian feminists, the pornography debates opened a wedge between white and black gay men. Nonetheless, pornography was one of the few sites where erotic photographs of black men's bodies were visible to other black men as well as to whites. These images frequently evoked an enduring repertoire of colonial-slavery stereotypes ranging from the primitive super-stud to the exotic feminized "house boy," stereotypes used to justify white supremacy. Though fully aware of the oppressive dimensions of these staged representations, Kobena Mercer writes: "we are fascinated, we still want to look, even if we cannot find the images we want to see."

 


Ajamu
"Body Builder in Bra" 1990.
silver gelatin print
Courtesy of the artist


Ajamu Body Builder in Bra, 1990. silver gelatin print Courtesy of the artist. Gay art historian Emmanuel Cooper recounts the critical reactions in the press, ranging from disdain to outright hostility, which greeted the 1978 photographic exhibition The Male Nude at Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery in New York. Only six years later, hunky young white boys clad only in their form-fitting Calvins (and lovingly posed and lit by fashion photographer Bruce Weber) appealed overtly to gay male consumers in mainstream advertising. Despite a full-fledged moral panic, fine-art monographs of Mapplethorpe, Weber, Duane Michals, Arthur Tress, and Herb Ritts sell briskly in upscale bookstores. But it would be a mistake to read such class-restricted commerce as a sign of real progress in social toleration. White middle-class queers may be welcomed by corporations as a niche market, but they are still not regarded as full citizens in the eyes of the law. Changing a few class-specific images in the media and the art world is not the same as changing legalized bigotry and institutionalized ignorance. Only collective political action will accomplish this, action across a broad range of alliances and with a full recognition of our own differences of privilege and struggle.

---Deborah Bright

 




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