NYPH09: Controversial Photographers

by Heather on May 18, 2009

Though no one seemed particularly offended by anything at NYPH09, there were a couple of shows that, on paper, could have been controversial. Chris Boot was one of the festival’s four curators and in his show Gay Men Play he explores the contemporary photographic representation of gay sex and gay recreational sexual identities. From the guide:

In an article to be published in the forthcoming summer 2009 issue of Aperture magazine, Boot argues, “The use of photography by gay men early in the 20th century is among the most interesting aspects of the phenomenon of photography now,” and his exhibition mixes the work of established photographers and artists with that of non-professional photographers.

Ronit will tell us more:

According to Chris Boot, curator of the Gay Men Play exhibitions, gay men are on the forefront of the medium, acting out their sexual roles and identity on camera for all the world to see, if they choose to. Gay men are integrating the camera into their sexual lives in a way that no other photographers are, probably because they don’t feel they need a tool to help them come into their own, sexually. In Gay Men Play the camera is essentially being used as a sex toy, at once complimenting but also serving as a venue for gay men’s sexcapades.

Christopher Clary’s Self-portrait (my collection) is wallpaper made up of jpeg images from gay social networking sites. For the past 10 years, Clary’s been collecting the profile photos of guys he knows, would like to know, and would like to be. He was collecting these photos first as references to how he wants to be, and now he’s finally achieved it. He’s now one of those guys – aggressive, confident, provocative with his sexuality. So in a way, collecting these images has been a sort of “gay therapy” helping him come into his own as the gay man he wants to be.

I spoke with curator Chris Boot and he was surprised that no one in the gay community expressed anger with how the gay community is portrayed in the show, or at least tell Boot they were offended. I wonder why? Take a look at the photos below, are they offensive?

Here's one from Stefan Ruiz's incredible portrait series, San Francisco Berlin. Kind of like the gay equivalent to Richard Avedon's 1985 book, In the American West. Copyright Ronit Novak

Here's one from Stefan Ruiz's incredible portrait series, San Francisco Berlin. Kind of like the gay equivalent to Richard Avedon's 1985 book, In the American West. Copyright Ronit Novak

Stefan Ruiz in front of his work. Copyright Ronit Novak

Stefan Ruiz in front of his work. Copyright Ronit Novak

To see Stefan Ruiz’s NYPH09 lecture, Andrew Hetherington’s got it here.

A neo-primitive who's been altering his body for 2 years in front of Andreas Fux's camera. Copyright Ronit Novak

A neo-primitive who's been altering his body for 2 years in front of Andreas Fux's camera. Copyright Ronit Novak

One of BullmanX's self-portraits, he's been posting his sexual identity in pictures online since 1997. Copyright Ronit Novak

One of BullmanX's self-portraits, he's been posting his sexual identity in pictures online since 1997. Copyright Ronit Novak

Bruce LaBruce's violent and kitsch zombie sex photo-fantasy. Copyright Ronit Novak

Bruce LaBruce's violent and kitsch zombie sex photo-fantasy. Copyright Ronit Novak

Karol Radziszewski's "fag fighters" a fictional gang of gay men in pink balaclavas that hunt down and gang rape straight guys. Copyright Ronit Novak

Karol Radziszewski's fag fighters: a fictional gang of gay men in pink balaclavas that hunt down and gang rape straight guys. Copyright Ronit Novak

Christopher Clary in front of his collection. Copyright Ronit Novak

Christopher Clary in front of his collection. Copyright Ronit Novak

A detail from Clary's collection. Copyright Ronit Novak

A detail from Clary's collection. Copyright Ronit Novak

- – - – - – - – - – -

Maybe it’s just me but anyone who starts his talk with this opening slide is asking for some controversy:

Jacob Holdt talk at NYPH09.

Jacob Holdt talk at NYPH09.

But, more than controversial, Jacob Holdt is one of those artists who’s unapologetic passion for what he believes takes him well beyond any context in which an accusation of controversy would make sense- if for no other reason than he is a bit unknown, despite the length and breadth of his single-focus documentary work. His photographs are raw propaganda for his anti-racist cause. He’s on a mission to love the racism out of anyone and to bed a bunch of willing women while getting there.

Ronit adds:

Ok, so there’s this homeless activist guy from Holland. In the 70s he organized anti-apartheid rallies, moved to Zimbabwe, almost called his son Mugabe, road tripped to the US, and shacked up with the poorest black communities you can think of. His name is Jacob Holdt and he has rocked the world of all of the photographers here at NYPH 2009. It’s not just his foot-long braided beard, or his quirky nonchalant references to being buddies with the KGB and the Rockefellers, Holdt’s photography is intimate, beautiful, and unlike most other documentary photographers, his work actually does change the world.

Holdt’s been working with the Klu Klux Klan since 2001, he even became a card-carrying member, photographing the communities with the same heartfelt intimacy as his previous photography. He’s learned that there really is very little difference between southern Klan members and the blacks they antagonize, they are both enmeshed in a life of poverty, drug-addiction, crime and violence. They are both shunned by middle and upper class America, and act out their pain in violent and hateful ways. Here’s some photos of Grand Wizard Klan members and Holdt’s friends.

Slide from Holdt's presentation.

Slide from Holdt's presentation.

Slide from Holdt's presentation.

Slide from Holdt's presentation.

Slide from Holdt's presentation.

Slide from Holdt's presentation.

Holdt becomes a Klan member.

Holdt becomes a Klan member.

I bumrushed the stage to get the last remaining copies of Holdt's book, American Pictures. Full of images and text, it's a textbook in anti-racism. Copyright Ronit Novak

I bumrushed the stage to get the last remaining copies of Holdt's book, American Pictures. Full of images and text, it's a textbook in anti-racism. Copyright Ronit Novak

From American Pictures. Copyright Ronit Novak

From American Pictures. Copyright Ronit Novak

Holdt selling American Pictures after the presentation. There were 10 books and they were gone within 45 seconds! Copyright Ronit Novak

Holdt selling American Pictures after the presentation. There were 10 books and they were gone within 45 seconds! Copyright Ronit Novak

Kathy Ryan, photo editor of the New York Times magazine checks out Holdt's slideshow at NYPH curator William Ewing's All Over The Place exhibition. Copyright Ronit Novak

Kathy Ryan, photo editor of the New York Times Magazine checks out Holdt's slideshow at NYPH curator William Ewing's All Over The Place exhibition. Copyright Ronit Novak

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Bobby Anderson May 18, 2009 at 10:08 pm

Ronit, great to see these very powerful works. The Toronto art scene could use some of these shows.

Sean May 19, 2009 at 6:56 am

Okay, this is interesting, subversive even: “Karol Radziszewski’s fag fighters: a fictional gang of gay men in pink balaclavas that hunt down and gang rape straight guys. Copyright Ronit Novak.”

The rest of his work is, rather than been “Controversial” (come on!), boring.

Ronit claim for (a) current exceptional status for gay photography is bogus. In the early 20.c perhaps, but not now.

And in regards to the noe-primitive dude: Orlan (and half of Hollywood, and soon to be everyone next door) is much more interesting.

Lovely blog! looking forward to reading more.

Best, Sean.

Kate Hutchinson May 19, 2009 at 8:24 am

Thanks for a look into the New York Photo Festival. It looks like the Canucks were having fun. Perhaps I’ll have to go next year!
Kate

Anne Maureen McKeating May 19, 2009 at 11:59 am

I agree with Sean re: Gay Men Play.
Snore.
The representation was hardly contemporary. Maybe the show’s themes resonate with those who’s mindset is still trapped on Folsom Street circa 1985.
Love Jacob Holdt and am sick with jealousy over the lost opportunity to get a signed copy!

Chris Clary May 20, 2009 at 9:28 am

Thanks Heather and Ronit for covering our pavilion. I wanted to add to the discussion. Why is it that people expect “gay” imagery to be controversial? I think the more interesting point the curator is trying to make is how gay men are using the camera for performance or otherwise. That’s what’s new and different and potentially shocking. The image is only part of the story.

Heather May 20, 2009 at 9:55 am

I don’t think that Chris Boot (or HMAb) meant to suggest the images themselves are controversial. As per Conscientious’ take on my posting, we’ve seen these images before.

Rather, a curatorial statement that suggests that the gay community might be using photography in a homogeneous way (particularly that all gay photography is sexual explicit) might be offensive and reductive to gay people, photographers who happen to be gay etc. Is Chris Boot objectifying the gay gaze?

I’m not sure that this is what Chris meant when he expressed surprise that there wasn’t controversy in the gay community but I was very curious about this thesis. Chris, care to comment?

Chris Clary May 20, 2009 at 11:57 am

Heather, great point.

Per “Is Chris Boot objectifying the gay gaze?” — I believe yes. On another blog, someone posted that Stefan’s portraits were only surface deep. That’s partly what makes them compelling because to “play” isn’t necessarily an expression of inner self.

And I know my collection is all about the object. It was amazing to see people touch the wallpaper. Isn’t that a way of knowing someone. When was the last time you touched a photograph or computer screen?

“There wasn’t controversy” because either we know this to be true or maybe the gay press wasn’t out in force. I know Chris Boot wanted a more engaged debate because the work varied on what was being objectified.

Chris Boot May 21, 2009 at 10:36 am

Hi Heather and all… I hope its helpful to clarify a couple of things about the exhibition ‘Gay Men Play’. It attempted to address the phenomenon of how gay men are making and consuming sex photographs… whether pictures made for artistic purposes, exhibitionistic purposes, or for the practical purpose of attracting sexual partners. The reasoning behind it is that I do think photography is playing a distinct role in changing sexual practices – something that applies especially to gay men, but no doubt to all other sections of society as well. And that art and porn are speaking to each other like never before. The exhibition was a mix of art and anthropology, and while I wouldn’t say that it its main intention was to provoke people, I thought there would be more debate and argument about it than there was. I thought the explicit sex pictures – of which there were some, including fistfucking scenes and a guy being raped with a baseball bat, for instance – presented in a serious art photo context, might get some people worked up. I thought the fact that I separated out gay men (very unfashionably) for attention would bother some people. And I imagined some people would argue with the representation of gay men being sex obsessed, preoccupied with sex as a game, and casual about their own and their partners’ sexual health (which could be inferred from at least some parts of what was shown). I grew up in an era when people got worked up about such things, but I admit it is probably nostalgic to imagine people getting animated about representation issues today.

But, in any case, one visitor to the show did react in a way that I think was absolutely valid… Reuben on the artmostfierce blog responded:

“At a time of which another sector of the Gay Community is trying to tear down another barrier, this time GAY Marriage , here comes this show with a strong and in your face message far…way too away from family values. Was it my favorite show at the NY Photo Festival? …No. Does it have documentary value,purpose and there is talent in it? Absolutely YES!

“Does it bother me that after so many years of donating money and volunteering tirelessly for AIDS organizations, some of those on line, are friends of mine (still alive thanks to all my efforts) being the firsts Pariahs behind a computer still looking for quick sex, drugs and I hope not infecting others? Hell Yeah!”

Myles May 22, 2009 at 9:23 am

I am not so sure about this statement: and unlike most other documentary photographers, his work actually does change the world. I find it rather insulting to the great work of many many photojournalists! Is there tangible proof the world is better because of his images? Not that I can see. How does this play next to work by a photographer like Marcus Bleasdale who is actually chasing down those who invest in the Congo to show them the damage they are doing by investing there? Maybe there is something at the show itself that I was not privy too as I did not see it – but from where I sit it is similar in flavour to that of Boris Mikhailov and his work that documented the results of the collapse of the USSR. Not to say this work is not ‘good’ or ‘important’ but to diminish the work of others is taking it a bit too far and I don’t think that was your intention.

Ruben Natal-San Miguel June 2, 2009 at 12:17 am

Hello!
Yes, I was the one who told Chis Boot about the show.I was at the talk also but, did not voiced my opinion then. I went to the show for a second time and like Chris indicated, I had a conversation with him about it and expressed my concerns.
See my review here:
http://artmostfierce.blogspot.com/2009/05/ny-photo-festival-2009-round-3.html

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