Ren Hang’s work elicits equal and opposite reactions in me.
Few photographers exhibit such an omnivorous eye; fewer gaze upon such transgressive material.
And I fucking adore Hang’s non-prejudicial and unapologetic depictions of an exceedingly broad range of graphic human sexuality.
Unfortunately, a by-product of what I love also makes the work uncomfortable for me: confrontation.
After more than a half century of pornography rigidly marketed to exclusive sexual demographics, displaying a picture of a woman applying lipstick to her vulva next to a photo of a male-on-male anal sex is an inherently confrontational act. I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I applaud it: FUCK goddamn centuries of hetero-normativity and straight privilege bullshit.
What bothers me is the way the majority of Hang’s work features on under-current of aggression. As if the inherent confrontation of the presentation takes second seat to something closer to rubbing the viewer’s nose in what is displayed.
Which is why this image stands out to me: the color of the grass so closely matches the color of his skin that the boys erect cock, thrust hips and come-hither eye contact with the camera evinces an almost counter-intuitive vulnerability.
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Received wisdom maintains that a boy willing to hold a girl’s hair back is a ‘nice guy’.
Isn’t it more complicated than that? What if a girl doesn’t want her hair held back, wants to hold the boy’s hair back or wants another girl to hold her hair back?
If I were a boy I’d a girl to hold my hair back and were I a girl, I’d want to hold another girl’s hair back.
But I am neither/both and all I have are hair ties.
Maybe a week or so ago, the lovely sextathlon re-blogged a post featuring images of Michelangelo’s David side-by-side with a photo of a nude male pin-up appended with an question as to why the former is defended as Art and the latter is deemed obscene.
My suspicion is that the party line runs: the skill required to carve a nude dude from a chunk of marble exceeds what is needed to plunk a hunk down in front of a camera.
The dichotomy really centers on the way male nudity challenges invisible assumptions, i.e. the spectator will be straight, white and male or deferential to such a perspective.
Michelangelo was likely gay, David—a homoerotic sculpture. But Renaissance aristocrats didn’t get their dressing gowns in a twist because the work was conceived with fail-safes to diffuse the “gay”: the contrapposto of Greek statuary was the lingua franca among Firenze’s intelligentsia; also, naming the piece after a mensch who was such a bro that he had a man killed to bone his wife further obfuscates its homoeroticism.
On the other hand, photography is a relatively young medium and as such there are fewer ruses to diffuse perceived affronts to the invisible ‘heterosexual norm’. Thus: an image of a cock is, well… a cock—and most likely totes gay.
Pornographers, and trench coat clad old men standing on street corners, have done fuck all to ameliorate matters. Both reduce heterosexuality to metonymy—men are their swollen manhood; the sight of which is somehow sure to start vaginal secretions dripping down thighs.
With all that bullshit, I guess people see the hairless semi-hard cock tucked between the boys shaved legs and immediately dismiss the image as “gay.” Maybe, they are a wee bit sensitive and wonder about the subject’s ambivalent gender identity.
Fuck that noise. And should your eyes’ appetite not be omnivorous enough to appreciate the meticulously considered, conceived and constructed pulchritudinous depiction of longing, then fuck you, too.
Suffering through a long bout of writer’s block years ago, someone trying to be ‘helpful’ mentioned George Polti’s notion that all literature boils down to Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.
I considered the assertion bullshit and still do to an extent, though certain objections have softened; for example: I am inclined to accept newness mattering less with regard to dramatic situations than does innovations in their means of conveyance/form.
While I was thinking this well before starting this Tumblr, the stunning lack of variation in content and form of images crossing my dashboard supports Polti’s thesis.
Thus, when an image like this appears, it stands out.
A young couple fucking in a vehicle—the content—is not as compelling as the execution—the inclusion of both their bodies full in frame and in doing so there is the suggestion of a broader context in which the scenario is unfolding (i.e. a truck cab parked somewhere in the woods).
I could toggle the greyed out heart icon to red and be done with it. But a technically accomplished and innovative shot is not enough for me. There has to be something more. Otherwise it is not unlike so many movies where a superb conceit gets squandered by half-assery.
And vertical framing is almost always half-assed. Let me spell it out as clearly as possible: ninety percent of the time identical information can be better conveyed by a horizontal frame. Of the remaining ten percent, eight consist of architectural images.
There is enough space above her head and below his that a horizontal frame would have provided the same information. I understand the existing frame echoes the positioning of the subjects. However, that logic is equivalent to the infamous parental famous because-I-said-so justification for nonsensical orders.
A horizontal frame unquestionably demands more and more difficult compositional choices be made. For example, do you keep the couple centered in frame or do you shift them off-center, letting more of either the windshield & hood or truck bed into the frame?
The implicit logic behind the vertical framing belies the real trouble with the image: it is self-consciously pornography.
That’s not a bad thing. The problem is pornography has a habit of separating sexuality from any interpersonal context: sex is an appetite, after all; all-too-often pornographers present appetites independent of the hunger that serves as their impetus. In other words, sex is presented as its own justification instead of something motivated by desire, passion and naked human need.
Imagine how much more moving this image would be if the boy didn’t appear to be doing a sit up, his head lulling back, biting the corner of his lip; his right hand caressing her left inner thigh.
The above frame would benefit from a slight shift down and right. Setting that aside—as well as my ambivalence at best toward the Instagram trend—this image is well crafted.
Come on, you may say, explicit images of beautiful young people fucking are not the sort of thing anyone appreciates because of technical merit.
I mean, yeah, this easily succeeds at level of beautiful young people fucking. But, where it blows—pun gleefully intended—the competition away is it’s carefully considered composition.
A lot of people like to drone on and on about composition this and rule of thirds that when all you really need is to realize that composing a visual image is—whether you realize it or not—almost identical to telling a story.
Just as image makers can only represent a limited sliver of the world within a given frame, the storyteller must determine what details serve the story and therefore bear inclusion; as well as those which are superfluous and therefore best excluded.
The skilled storyteller conveys not only the sense of a story but also something of what was excluded. William Carlos Williams’ poem so much depends is the perfect example. It describes two objects; but in describing only the two most necessary objects in the scene our imagination thrills at building a seamless world around them.
The fundamental difference between images and words is that the former allows for the whole and various parts to be taken in simultaneously; whereas even describe something simultaneous by saying: at the same time this and that happened, the linearity of the sentence privileges ‘this’ over ‘that’ by an ‘and’ length measure of time.
The composition of this image guides your eye over the various parts of the image while always reinforcing its place within the whole. For example: before I even take in the extent of his nakedness—fuck, his skin is like milk cooling in the shade—I see the muted variegation of the sedge on which he is splayed.
At the same time it all shifts into sudden focus and I see everything: his outstretched arms terminating in fingers—fierce with whiteness— tangled in the brown of her hair; his hands and her head meeting to form vertex of an inverted V which tenderly frames her right hand taking his erection and guiding into her mouth to a depth only a hair’s breadth above its edged tip.
And the wide gape of his knees, a second non-inverted V, re-frames her body between his legs where she is crouched as naked as he.
Nan Goldin Bobby Masturbating 1980
For all the shit that gets thrown at Nan Goldin very little sticks.
Initially, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency seemed to me random, sloppy and enormously irresponsible. Six years later, I am beginning to see my criticism reflected more of my own insecurities than any true response to the work.
What I missed then, I think, was that the “glamorous, ambition-fueled despair” permeating these images was not a celebratory endorsement of a high risk lifestyle so much as unflinching reportage.
That these images originated in a time and place regularly mythologized for the filth and depravity it dealt in and how that filth inspired a motherfucking rock music renaissance muddle matters further.
As I see it the distinction between exploitation and providing a ‘view from the ground’ of an extremely outlying experience is as slippery as it is crucial.
For example: this image with its ontological title is all lurid flash bulb and exposed sweating skin—very fucking rock and roll. A boy lit up, frozen in the act of massaging his testicles with his left hand and stroking his erection with his right.
It’s hard to tell if he’s on drugs. Although with his heavy lidded eyes, if your starting point is looking for exploitation it is easy to think that Goldin took a junky, propped him up and snapped his picture.
Does the image read like that? I don’t think so.
It seems more likely that Nan and Bobby stayed in the same squalid Lower East Side squat. Late one over hot night, feeling extremely horny he slipped away to find a dark corner to get himself off where Goldin roaming around with her camera like always found him.
And while normal folk make an attempt to hide themselves when they are caught– just as the encroaching party averts there eyes, you are forgetting these aren’t normal folk. Both Nan and Bobby suffer from “ambition fueled-despair”.
I know something of this disease. And when you meet another who understands what it is like to be so trapped, you don’t look away. We may lower our gaze– knowing that the other will watch or they won’t. Either way they reserve their judgment because they are deeply aware that if the situation were reversed there is no doubt of reciprocity.