- Tom- Tom
Nice to start anew – new venue – new friends – newly redesigned site. The new site has caused me to examine anew the meanings and nature of my work. So much has changed in the last several decades about the representation of the male figure. For one thing – the male figure itself has changed as more and more men idealize themselves. Leo – who you see here – is one such man. A Brazilian by origin – he is now a Londoner. Physical training is one of his passions.
At our first meeting, Leo told me about a book he’s reading – The Velvet Rage. The book, by the psychologist Alan Downs, talks about the gay male coping mechanism of physical idealization. Having been marginalized and given negative self image by our culture, many of us have challenged those toxic teachings by creating “perfect” forms of ourselves. Certainly, my work over the years has explored this process. I’ve been criticized for celebrating the idealized physique because it might make some men feel badly about themselves. My book, IN DEFENSE OF BEAUTY, discusses this issue more comprehensively. Alan Downs believes that we do not completely become our true selves until we transcend a need for adoration and grow beyond of the need for validation from others. I agree with his observation that this need for approval can be neurotic and lead to dysfunctional behavior. But I’m not sure he sees the whole picture.
A legitimate pleasure can be derived when a gay man defies stereotypes and expectations to become more strong and agile than the bullies who taunted us in childhood. That pleasure does not require putting others down – the way the bully derived pleasure in our pain. The pleasure can come simply from feeling fit and the turbo charge of endorphins flooding the body in exercise.
I believe it’s possible to achieve a balance in the process and have agued that “perfection” is actually not a final goal or state – but is a matter of taking pleasure in the process of self actualization physically and mentally. That pleasure can last one’s whole life. In this photo, Leo achieves literal balance as he undresses. (He told me he was not sure he was taking his pants of “right” for my camera. I assured him that he was )-: The act of undressing reveals a beauty that couples the physical revelation with the vulnerability of the man willing to expose himself without shame.
I’m looking to create something new to see – or seeing something familiar in a new way. In this picture of Leo, the pose is academic, recalling 19th Century figure studies.
I find the simplicity of the image wonderful. Our apartment is on Grosvenor Road with a view of 19th century town houses on Bessborough Park – an appropriate setting for the image. I’ve brought the picture into the 21st century with Leo’s underwear wrapped around his ankle for erotic charge. It performs the function of the dress strap slid off Madame X’s shoulder in John Singer Sergeant’s notorious portrait. That scandal was so powerful, it caused Singer to adjust the strap in the final exhibited version of the painting.
Hard to believe Singer’s painting caused the upset it did, but there are people today who have a similar reaction to my work. And they are not just in countries notorious for their repressive cultures like Uganda. In fact, I recently got a report that the sister of a man I’ve photographed was approached in a public space by a man who loudly berated her for what he saw as indecent flagrant exposure in my work. Not surprisingly, he was a drunk from a provincial UK town, more than somewhat removed from the 21st century. When I hear a story like that, I know that my work is relevant to the process of cultural evolution.
I’m grateful that Leo has idealized himself as he has. I’m glad that his kind of physical perfection is possible today. And I’m glad to know that he considers himself a work in process – mentally as well as physically – which is why he’s reading books like The Velvet Rage, a book I recommend for it’s insights into how we overcome the traumas of being gay raised in cultures hostile to us. Bullies beware. Remember – the Neanderthals did not survive evolution.