In the final part of our series on homoerotic photography in America, we explore the shift from pornography to fine art that occurred in the years following Stonewall. Read part I here if needed.
As the 1960s took shape, the polished veneer of polite society was stripped away and in its place came a new generation of Americans demanding the same Constitutional rights afforded to straight white men since the nation began. The Civil Rights Movement, the Sexual Revolution, and Second-wave feminism transformed the political and cultural landscape, setting the stage for the the birth of the Gay Liberation Movement.
On June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, Black and Latinx transgender people took a stand against state-sponsored violence, leading a five-day rebellion against the New York Police Department that begat a global movement for LGBTQ rights. Once the proverbial closet doors were torn off the hinge, there was no turning back. For one brief shining decade, the future was bright.
The Power of Porn
The 1970s gave birth to Gay Pride, a sensibility beautifully echoed in the self-portraits of Peter Berlin (born Armin Hagen Freiherr von Hoyningen-Huene in 1942). The licentious libertine possessed with thick blonde hair, chiseled good looks, and a body that just wouldn’t quit discovered photography and immediately in love with the image of himself. Like Narcissus, there was nothing Berlin loved so much as to faze upon the character he constructed in the form of a gay porn star.
“I completely live separated from the world. I never was part of the society. I always was doing my thing,” Berlin says. “I became Peter. It happened organically. There wasn’t much thought about it. One day I looked at a picture and realized, ‘I wish I would look like that.’” And a star was born. Long before thirst traps became lingua franca of the Internet, Berlin used the camera to invent a persona that became an underground sensation. Men were free to transform themselves into sex objects, turning the male gaze upon themselves, and revel in the pleasures of lust.
Restoring the Male Form to Classical Heights
With the decriminalization of male full frontal nudity, artists could restore the figure to the heights it achieved as a subject worthy of veneration during classical antiquity. A new generation of artists including Bruce Weber (b. 1946), Herb Ritts (1952-2002), Christopher Makos (b. 1948), Marcus Leatherdale (b. 1952), Steven Arnold (1943-1994), Stanley Stellar (b. 1945), and Stephen Barker began making commercial, portrait, fine art, and documentary work centering male beauty and desire — which stood as a powerful counterpoint to the harrowing AIDS crisis that began in 1981.
The fetishization of the male form was taken to new heights by Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), an extremely ambitious photographer who catapulted himself to stardom and global notoriety before his untimely death at the age of 42 in 1989 from AIDS. At a time when the male nude was seen as a pornographic form, Mapplethorpe elevated it to the realms of fine art. In a 1983 video interview for the “Art/new york” series, Mapplethorpe is asked if his photos are meant to arouse.
“They can do that. That’s not a bad place to be,” Mapplethorpe said with a laugh. “But they, you know, they could do that plus something else. They could be a beautiful photograph but sexual at the same time or erotic. [Pornography] is not done by artists. There is some good pornography photographers around but they are not transcending the documentation of sexuality to my way of thinking. It’s just on a certain level and it doesn’t transfer into what I see as being somewhat magical, which I think a great photograph is.”
Fight the Power
In 1989, the year Mapplethorpe died, his posthumous solo museum exhibition The Perfect Moment shook the country to its core when it was revealed the show — which featured explicit BDSM scenes alongside floral still lifes had been funded by an NEA grant. Lead by Republican Senator Jesse Helms, the Culture Wars had begun, a fight that continues to shape the conversation some 30 years since.
An era of innovation and originality, the 1990s paved the way for the world we live in now, where artists of all races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and economic backgrounds have been demanding access to spaces that have long excluded marginalized groups. Over the past three decades, artists including Jack Pierson (b. 1960), Rick Castro (b. 1962), Lyle Ashton Harris (b. 1965), Slava Mogutin (b. 1974), John Edmonds (b. 1989), Paul Mpagi Sepuya (b. 1982), Shikeith (b. 1989), Texas Isaiah (b. 1986), and Andrew Kung have introduced a panoply of perspectives and approaches to imagemaking that expand the ways we think about interplay between masculinity, desire, and identity for the new millennium.
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Books and Exhibitions:
More information can be found at the Stephen Arnold Museum and Archives.
Previous exhibitions include The ACT UP Portraits: Activists & Avatars, 1991 – 1994 at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York.
Books include Icon, Artist, Photosexual (Damiani).
Books include 13 Years of Bondage: The Photography of Rick Castro (Fluxion).
John Edmonds: A Sidelong Glance will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum from October 23, 2020-August 9, 2021.
Lyle Ashton Harris
Lyle Ashton Harrs is currently exhibition The Ecktachrome Archive at the ICA Miami through May 31, 2021.
Books include The All-American.
Books include Out of the Shadows - Marcus Leatherdale: Photographs New York City 1980-1992 (ACC Art Books).
Books include Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs (J. Paul Getty Museum), Robert Mapplethorpe: Polaroids (Prestel), and Robert Mapplethorpe: The Archive (Getty Research Institute).
Paul Mpagi Sepuya
Books include Paul Mpagi Sepuya (Aperture).
Current exhibitions include Feeling the Spirit in the Dark at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, PA, through March 2021.
Recent exhibitions include Night, Life at Kapp Kapp Gallery in New York.
More information can be found at Texas Isaiah.