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The Peter Berlin Gallery
Peter Berlin: Between Art and Porn
A QAR exclusive by Lionel A. Biron
The notorious gay porn star of the early 1970s, Peter Berlin is best known for his groundbreaking porn films That Boy and Nights in Black Leather. Those two films were shown in gay porn theatres in the US and art houses in Europe. In Paris, his movie billboard on the Boulevard St Germain competed with Joe Dallasandro's in Andy Warhol's Trash showing in a neighboring theatre. (Peter Berlin eventually walked through Warhol's Factory while living in New York in the 80s, but did not linger long in his unrelenting pursuit of anonymous hot male sex.)
What is less known is that the countless covers and photos layouts of Peter Berlin in gay magazines through the late 1980s were all taken by Berlin who is himself a professional photographer. After two years of rigorous training at West Berlin's Photo Technical School in the late '60s, he launched his career working three years at the Second Channel in West Berlin on a TV program that featured fashion and movie star interviews. His assignments routinely took him to Paris, Rome and London where he photographed celebrities including Sophia Loren, Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Brigitte Bardot, Alfred Hitchcock, Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Chevalier, Richard Widmark, and the clothes designers: Pierre Cardin, Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino.
When Peter turned the camera on himself he was well equipped with a professional Nikon camera and a Hasselblad that he used to create his enormously demanding side by side in-camera erotic double exposures. He played each of two roles on different halves of the separately exposed negatives wearing his hallmark crotch grabbing costumes (all designed and executed by Berlin). These photographs were created, not as single images, but as still sequences whose unambiguous homosexual plots blur the line between photography and film. Berlin then painstakingly printed these images which sometimes required elaborate hand burning techniques. A few of these double exposures were later hand colored and several are included in this exhibition (images 8, 14, 21, 22, 25, 36, 39, 42, 56, and 64).
From the photo set up through the resulting prints, Berlin maintained himself in a state of constant sexual excitement. Nothing fake or contrived in these photographs as is so often the case with art or pornography. One can imagine the energy and technical dexterity involved in creating these sexy sequences where Berlin's libido is set free. This is potent and authentic sexual fantasy whatever your sexual identity: the individual creative mind playing both roles in the eternal one-on-one sexual seduction game.
Even less known, is that Peter Berlin is a gifted graphic artist. When the handling of black and white negatives in the darkroom occasionally resulted in prints that were slightly underexposed and grayish, he used his touch up pen and brush to darken the lines and increase the contrast. Soon he was using oils, acrylics and watercolors permitting him to enhance, embellish (images 3, 13, 19, 31-34, 41, 60) as well as colorize his black and white prints (all the images shown with white backgrounds). The next step was the complete transformation or elimination of the backgrounds (images 12, 23, 26, 35, 49, 55). He also started cutting up his photographs and creating collages with single or multiple self-images using different backgrounds from magazines including their covers (image 48) and interior (images 15, 27) street (images 28, 44) and nature scenes (images 37, 45, 46, 47, 57, 61).
"The final step," Berlin recounts," came while I was sitting with my good friend Jochen in his New York studio-apartment in the mid 1980s. [Jochen Labriola, known for his paintings of large single flowers and water droplets, was cared for by Berlin for several years before he died of AIDS in 1988.] I spent lots of time sitting and chatting with him while he was painting. One day I said to him: 'I might as well paint too instead of just sitting here.' So he set up a canvas for me, gave me some paints and this single piece of advice so I would not smudge the canvas: 'If you are right handed, start from the left corner.'"Peter Berlin only painted five or six paintings and two later were lost. They were all done in the mid '80s. Photos of two of these paintings are included here (images 52, 63).
Berlin's talent as a graphic artist is perhaps best shown in his detailed pencil drawings which are well represented in this first exhibition of Peter Berlin's art (images 2, 7, 10, 20, 50, 58).
The body of Peter Berlin's creative work defies easy characterization. He challenges conventional notions of art and pornography and is perhaps alone with Tom of Finland in having created iconic images of masculine drag. (Incidently, Berlin commissioned Tom of Finland to do several pencil drawings of himself.) More importantly, his creative genius demonstrates that Art can equal Life. He not only created on paper and canvas the persona of Peter Berlin, but took him wherever the action was in the back streets, parks, and alleys of the major European capitols and in the US, to San Francisco and New York.
- December 2005
All the images shown were first published in 1999 as part of the four CD-ROM set THE PETER BERLIN COLLECTION created by Biron and containing over 1,000 digital images availble online at Gorilla Factory Productions.
An exhibition of Peter Berlin's art titled: BERLIN ON BERLIN was held at The Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation, 127 Prince Street, in New York City from January 10 to February 25, 2006. For details, check the Foundation's website at www.leslielohman.com. In conjunction with this exhibition, the US Theatrical Premiere of "THAT MAN: PETER BERLIN," a documentary produced by Lawrence Helman and directed by Jim Tushinski, took place at SOHO's Cinema Village, 22 East 12th St. For information on the documentary, go to www.thatmanpeterberlin.com. For Peter Berlin's official website, go to www.peter-berlin.com.
The Peter Berlin Gallery-->
2nd Gallery ---> Photos by BIRON: The Fetish Fashion of Peter Berlin
---- Peter Berlin's own costumes worn by 25 sexy models ----
Biron © 2005 All Rights Reserved.