Bruce Weber II: the photographer’s gaze

It begins with this photo, sent to me by a gay friend who found it, unattributed, on a hot-men website; found it, um, moving; and thought I would too:

(#1) Filed under “Hunks at play”, though the hunks don’t seem particularly playful

They are, first of all, hunks. The photographer’s gaze dwells on their bodies, presenting them as desirable pieces of meat. Then, they are sullenly inexpressive, not playful at all, despite the fact that they’re messing around on a boat.

I thought I recognized the style and the content as well, and I was right: Bruce Weber, a photographer who has played a major role in making homoeroticism — crudely, men as meat — a thing in the ad world (women as meat in ads has a much longer history). “Hunks at play” is actually Weber’s “Capri, Italy 1994”.

From my 1/25/13 posting “Bruce Weber”:

On AZBlogX, a posting about photographer Bruce Weber, the man who (among other things) made homoeroticism a central feature of men’s clothing ads. It’s on my X Blog because three of the six images there (from Weber’s book of male photography Bear Pond) show full frontal nudity.

The other three are of hot male models in their underwear.

Homoerotic photography of men in pairs or larger groups comes in many flavors: men in competition, in athletics or fights; men bonding as buddies, arms around each other; men sexually engaged with one another; men at play, horsing around.   The group portrait in #1 comes closest to the last type (a genre I’m fond of); for some examples, see my 10/24/16 posting “Naked boys playing at liberty”, featuring photos from Shoreleave, by Anthony Kennedy; shots of the Warwick Rowers; and some not fully identified photographs.

Weber can do playful (while not slacking on homoerotic), as here:

(#2) Hunk mounted on his toy zebra

He can do intensely steamy couples, as in this ad shot for Gianni Versace:


And he can do buddies, in ths case with some athletic competition thrown in (in a jauntily homoerotic Abercrombie & Fitch ad):


“Kyle and Lane Carlson (born December 24, 1978) are identical twin brothers known as the Carlson Twins. The Carlson twins work together as male fashion models.” (Wikipedia)

The Carlson twins doing intense and impassive:


Looking at portrait photos.

Every portrait works in triplicate: depicting the sitter, revealing the photographer and reminding the viewer of a shared humanity. (Teju Cole, NYT Magazine)

Virtually all of Weber’s photographs are posed — the subjects are posing (rather than caught unawares), in positions chosen by Weber. They’re portraits, some informal (giving the impression of life captured on film, as in #1 and #4), some formal (clearly arranged for the camera, as in #3 and #5). In either case, there’s a question about how we look at the portraits and what we see there. What traits, identities, attitudes, and so on were the subjects projecting? Which of these was the photographer aiming at? And what do we find when we bring our own experiences, expectations, and judgments to the photographic record?

Like any other kind of portrait, a photographic portrait is an artistic construction, subject to all the complexities of contexts, intentions, and interpretations that attend all portraits. But especially clouded by our inclination to see photographs as slices of reality and so to judge them as we would assess people in front of us. (Making such judgments is incredibly complex in real life, but then the camera’s eye intervenes between the subjects and our own eyes.)

And so to Teju Cole in his On Photography column in Sunday’s NYT Magazine, “There’s Less to Portraits Than Meets the Eye, and More” (on-line on 8/23), about this portrait photo:

(#6) “Young Man at a Tent Revival, Brooklyn, NY, 1989” (photo by Dawoud Bey, from Stephen Daiter Gallery and Rena Bransten Gallery)

We tend to interpret portraits as though we were reading something inherent in the person portrayed. We talk about strength and uncertainty; we praise people for their strong jaws and pity them their weak chins. High foreheads are deemed intelligent. We easily link the people’s facial features to the content of their character. This is odd. After all, we no longer believe you can determine someone’s personality by measuring their skull with a pair of calipers. Phrenology has rightly been consigned to the dustbin of history. But physiognomy, the idea that faces carry meanings, still haunts the interpretation of portraiture.

The reason for the temptation is obvious: Faces are malleable. A smile is intentional and might indeed indicate happiness, just as a furrowed brow might be proof of a melancholic temperament. But we also know that emotion is fleeting and can be faked. We thus shouldn’t really trust whatever it is a photographic portrait seems to be telling us.

This is not to deny any of the wonder or gratitude you feel before a superb portrait. Sometimes this response is amplified when it’s a portrait of someone not famous, a face that isn’t burdened with predetermined knowledge. I’m looking at one such image in Dawoud Bey’s magnificent career retrospective, “Seeing Deeply” (2018). In the book, this black-and-white photograph is given a full page. The format invites contemplation, and this should be mentioned because what we see in a photograph is connected to its material circumstances: An exhibition print of the same image would give one impression, a magazine reproduction would be another, a digital file meant to be seen on a computer or hand-held device is something else again. The warm tone and low gloss of this photograph in this book are calming. A boy stands alone before a tent and some chairs. We don’t know who he is, and the caption doesn’t help much: “Young Man at a Tent Revival, Brooklyn, NY, 1989.” The surprising detail there is the date, as this picture looks as if it could have been taken at any point in the past century. It is strangely timeless, with his attire somewhere between formal and casual, the slim dark tie and serious black pants contrasting with the baggy pale-colored plaid shirt.

I want to fall back on old ways and say that the gentle arch of the boy’s left eyebrow seems to mark him as an ironic sort, or that the symmetry of his features make him both trusting and trustworthy. But really, that would be projecting. What we can really say is that there’s something poignant about the way the skinny tie is tucked into the skinny belt and the way the numerous verticals in the picture — the tent poles, the ropes of its rigging, the legs of the chairs in the background, the tie, the lines of the shirt and finally the boy himself — all seem to be tilting just off true.

The picture wavers in tremulous equilibrium. Even the boy’s head is cocked to the side. Quizzically? Or is he simply at his ease? I don’t know. But the cumulative effect is endearing. There’s a boy, and his appearance is dense with a life that we can only guess at. There’s faith in it (it’s a revival, after all); there’s probably hope, too. But what we can be surer of is that there’s love: the love with which Dawoud Bey has seen the elements of the moment and captured them for posterity, and the love with which, almost three decades later, I am looking at this portrait in a book.

Very briefly on Cole, from Wikipedia:

Teju Cole (born June 27, 1975) is [a Nigerian-]American writer, photographer, and art historian.

Cole is the author of a novella, Every Day is for the Thief (2007); a novel, Open City (2012); an essay collection, Known and Strange Things (2016), and a photobook, Punto d’Ombra (2016; published in English in 2017 as Blind Spot).

And on Bey:

Dawoud Bey (born 1953 [as David Edward Smikle]) is an American photographer and educator renowned for his large-scale color portraits of adolescents and other often marginalized subjects. In 2017, Bey was the recipient of a “Genius Grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He is a professor and Distinguished Artist at Columbia College Chicago.

… A product of the 1960s, Dawoud Bey said both he and his work are products of the attitude, “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” This philosophy significantly influenced his artistic practice and resulted in a way of working that is both community-focused and collaborative in nature. Bey’s earliest photographs, in the style of street photography, evolved into a seminal five-year project documenting the everyday life and people of Harlem in Harlem USA (1975–1979) that was exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979.

… Of his work with teenagers Bey has said, “My interest in young people has to do with the fact that they are the arbiters of style in the community; their appearance speaks most strongly of how a community of people defines themselves at a particular historical moment.”

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