We never look at just one thing

 

Arthur Nowak

What are the causes, reasoning and significance of the massive proliferation on the internet of Gay nude images made by non-professional photographers and models?

 

What is the purpose which drives these people to pose for the camera in the nude, in pornographic contexts? Are they trying to achieve a level of desirability, or acquire a glow which they attribute to professional” "pornographic images?

 

Why do they post these photos on sex photo-blogs on the internet (as opposed to keeping them privately for themselves, their partners or friends, or placing them in their profiles on Gay-Dating websites)? Are they propagating themselves solely for utilitarian reasons? Or is it that through posting their sexual-self publicly, imagining the admiration and sexual urges which they arouse in their anonymous viewers, they wish to gain a self-esteem and self-assurance they cannot achieve otherwise, or elsewhere?

 

Is Cyberspace exhibitionism for the portraits’ subjects a substitute for fantasies of and desires for sexual exposure in real-life?

 

What lies behind the phenomenon of massive sharing of these images between photo-blogs, after their initial posting, by other people, who clearly aren’t those who appear in the photos and probably also aren’t the ones who took them? What do the talkback-type remarks appended to them (some expressing adoration, arousal and stimulation; others conveying amusement, or even irony and sarcasm; but very rarely, if at all, ones which impart negativity, repulsion or aversion) signify? Why are these images so popular? What do they convey to us, their viewers? What role do we, the viewers, have in this array?

 

The dissection of the head from the body in these portraits by Avi Berg is overtly simple, technical and explicitly formalistic. It purportedly acknowledges and affirms the traditional approach, by which a person’s personality is mainly manifested in his/her face. This separation forces us to split our gaze too. It connotes and accentuates the gap between the facial expression (the stoic, the philosophical, the one full of pride and self-satisfaction, etc.), the body’s tension, its posture and quite frequently, the penis erectness.

 

Looking at the detached facial portraits enables us to identify and internalize a great amount of information and meaning which we would have probably overlooked otherwise, had we viewed these same faces as an integral part of the whole-body images. Our eyes would have then surely been fixed on that (literally) loaded totem - simultaneously harrowing, provocative and exhilarating – the phallus. For doesn’t its presence cause everything in its vicinity to fade or become secondary, trivial?

 

However, once “liberated” from the penis and its visual tyranny; and decontextualized from the sexual/pornographic arena, those faces suddenly come into their own – indeed, literally speaking. They tell us, the onlookers, a significantly and surprisingly different, independent story, much of which would have likely been lost in their original context.

 

Looking at the headless portraits is also very informative, not just with regards to the subjects’ sex features and practices, their personal affiliation with their bodies, their nakedness, sexuality and passion. About their self-perception and self-assuredness - somewhere on the scale between vanity, humility and shameful depreciation. But also, quite surprisingly, about their lifestyle and type of socialisation.

 

The specific framing – the size, format and placing of the head’s excision - have a significant effect on the “reading” and interpretation of the resulting head and headless images. As is the case in other (mostly, but not only visual) arts. As an example, imagine the consequence of altering the placing of the lower edge of the cut out, adding more of the subject’s neck and maybe shoulders too into the frame. Allowing a tattoo, a scar, or perhaps just a particular (even if not peculiar) posture into the resulting frame.

 

While doing all of the above mentioned, this dissection has also much to tell us about our affinity with our own bodies, our sexuality and our desires, as well as about the experience of looking-seeing itself.

 

In this bisected gaze which is forced upon us, we first see a head, a facial portrait which seems to abide by the unwritten rules of classical portraiture. Then, just like that, we are suddenly faced with the headless body! The first effect is simply surprise. But surprises only last an instance. An image which is based only, or mainly on surprise becomes boring after that first second.

 

What causes these images to “last”? Is it due to the fact that we are prevented from seeing both parts simultaneously, or better yet, the unified body image? Instinctively seeking to amend and complement this fragmentation, in accordance with the human tendency for Gestalt psychology, we are driven to let memory come into play. In this photographical series we are able to compose the “complete” picture only with the help of our memory. Memory is fluid and elusive; sometimes even transitory; while photographs in comparison, are mementoes, or rather testimonial records of an instance, and are therefore relatively static. The combination of the two prolongs the act of looking and enriches the act of seeing.

 

These portraits’ allure and effectiveness is also due to the fact that most of them depict non-professional models. Indeed, on the one hand, these people abide in a lesser degree than professional models to the general dictates of how sexual images “must” look - they are less “artistic”, more realistic, ordinary; even mundane. But on the other hand, since they have a “different” look and feel, these models are

more particular, more authentic; livelier; and they therefore catch our attention. In addition, their objectification in this series increases their ability to retain a stimulating, attracting and even fantasyenticing affects.

 

Does the literal “beheading” of the original images and the detachment of facial expression from the overall body image (which echoes the photographic fragmentation so common on Gay-Dating websites, where fear of Outing or losing one’s privacy often drives people to post headless pics on their personal profiles) impact the photos’ sexual/pornographic effectiveness? What are we actually attracted to in these images, if at all? Does their sexual pornographic aspect depend on or involve the imagined “character” of the photographed subject? Does a headless erection still retain its erotic effect? Is it that imagination comes to our rescue in this case, replacing the missing visuals with the fantastical? Or does this estrangement serve rather to demystify the sexual tension, sending a death blow to desire and allure?

 

A direct, open (guiltless? devoid of complexes?) gaze at pornographic images isn’t socially trivial, not even in Gay contexts. Indeed, the social and cultural complexity and touchiness of the predicament increases significantly once it is experienced in (a) public (space). Still more so, when erect penises are involved.

 

As an example, consider how rarely we see male (especially frontal) nudity in commercial cinema, as compared with female nudity? This phenomenon is at least partly due to women’s traditional positioning and role as (passive) objects, as opposed to men’s role as (active and autonomous) subjects. But, isn’t this distinction really valid only, or at least mostly, with respect to the ends of the spectrum which stretches between women and heterosexual men? Aren’t gay men perceived to be placed somewhere in the twilight of this continuum? Right, “real men” aren’t comfortable in fulfilling a role of an object (of desire?). As a “real man” you do not want to be seen or considered as passive. Gay men seem to be more at ease with this characterization.

 

Filmographic or photographic representation objectifies its subject, thus almost inevitably endowing it with some degree of passivity. Thus, while pictures of naked women are regarded as heterosexual and relatively normative, sexual images of naked men tend to be considered as gay, and therefore queer. Outcast from the comfort zone of the ordinary.

 

Just as the adoption and transformation of “Queer” from an insult to a self-defining, pride-arousing term has retained some residual half-hidden negative aspects; so has Gay men’s ability and willingness to reverse the negative aspects of sexual objectification left its scars on our self-esteem.

 

There seems to be an almost general, albeit implicit agreement, even among queers and within explicitly Queer circles, that nudity and Pornography ought to be delimited to dark, enclosed spaces (darkrooms, peep cabins, night cruising sites) or at most, be restricted to the intimate, confined and indirect (indeed, literally virtual ) cyberspace. Always in circumstances which sustain anonymity. One of the consequences of this agreement is an additional sense of mystery; an increased attraction and stimulation. But these (rather positive) effects come with a price tag… The abovementioned conditions also foster distancing, alienation, automatism. They encourage short, “narrow”, target-oriented sexual encounters; devoid of intimacy, affection and pleasantness.

 

What is especially interesting in those demarcated spaces (as can also be seen in the growing involvement of non-professional models in the production of such images) is that in their shadow, so to speak, there is an increasing blurring of the lines between what is permitted and proper and what is not; between what is considered (gay) sexual images & (gay) Pornography.

 

Society, art and public culture have moved a long way in the direction of accepting and assimilating pornographic imagery into their mainstream. Robert Mapplethorpe is probably the best known and perhaps also the most influential in a long line of artists whose contribution enabled and constituted

this evolution. Steve McQueen’s film “Shame”, Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue is the Warmest Color” and Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” and of course most of what is termed as “Gay themed movies” might indicate that contemporary commercial cinema has also undergone a similar change. But my previous remarks about nudity in films remind us that this change is still selective and exists mainly only within the boundaries of the exceptional. Actually, little has changed in this respect in the remaining vast majority of the film industry.

 

Yes, there is no doubt that nowadays sexual imagery and Pornography are much more socially acceptable than ever. Sexual and Pornographic imagery enjoys an immense proliferation – thanks to the Internet. More than ever before, Pornographic imagery (and Porn thrives on and requires the “graphic” – photographic image, film, recorded sound, etc.) feeds our imagination and fantasies, and subsequently inspires our sexual tastes, needs and practices. But does it also mean that it has shed all of its negativity? In the eyes of society? In our own eyes? Is it not that Pornography still attains permissibility only, or mainly when it exists within artistic contexts? Isn’t it that without these protective contexts Pornography loses much or all of its respectability?

 

Could we imagine (even Gay) bars and pubs openly screening porn flics, in a way similar to how sport events are screened regularly and openly in sports bars, or even more so during major sports events (like the Football World-Championship)? Not only in sex-clubs, behind safely closed doors where entrance is controlled and selected, but really openly? It’s not that doing so is necessarily a worthy ideal, but the fact Pornography still requires some degree of seclusion (some would claim that it’s only privacy which is essential, not seclusion) is indicative of a certain degree of negativity, impropriety and shame residue with which it is still imbued.

 

Outside of the artistic world, are we at all willing to consider any, or even some explicit sexual imagery as anything but Pornographic? What might our all-too-quick tendency to associate sex with Pornography tell? Assuming we don’t dare to directly attribute negativity to Sex, and noting the fact that despite the evolution of how we view Pornography, it is still partially regarded as negative; isn’t this association allowing us to do so through the back door?

 

Does all this not ultimately indicate that a deep, unresolved ambiguity if not hypocrisy still exists with regards to our confused, confusing and even contradictory relationship to sex, whereby love, fear, desire, attraction and dread all intersect and intermingle?