Garry WinograndNew York 1969

I would never dispute Al Pacino’s skill as an actor; I just don’t really ever respond to his performances– perhaps that’s the virtue. (Bear with me; I promise this comes back around to the image.)

Pacino is one of those actor’s actors–a notion I find intolerably snobbish, as if someone were saying you need to know something about what it takes to be an actor in order to understand.

Something not unlike being a photographer’s photographer–minus the snobbery–is true of Winogrand.

Saying I was initially nonplussed by his work would be putting it nicely. It seemed too random, chaotic and unpolished. I remember thinking anyone could have shot these.

For nothing else than my perpetual tossing around of that famous Picasso quote in defense of the modernists, this sentiment should have set off alarms.

Alas, I remained off put by Winogrand until a dear friend showed me this image recently.

I’d never delved deeply enough to have encountered it. The precise composition– the couple kissing, the smoldering cigarette pinched between fingers, the Tortilla Factory sign, the what-are-you-looking-at-motherfucker glare and the go-ahead-and-watch-you-motherfucker glance–made my head explode a little. The image appears almost accidental, unmediated.

You know that moment when you glance at something and look away without really seeing it? And suddenly, the scene registers and you have to do a double take to make sure you saw what you thought you did. This photo is a photographic approximation of that first seeing but unseeing glance. It inspires an instinct to look back at the image again to see if what you think you saw is what you really saw. 

That is really what makes this image so extraordinary. The skill of the photographer is on display only to the extent that the camera is no longer an extension of the eye but the eye itself. It’s all so vital, so gleefully transgressive.

Clearly, my initial estimation of Winogrand was wrong. I don’t necessarily like all his work. But I can appreciate it and I do get what all the fuss is about now.

I don’t like being wrong. But the wonderful thing about admitting your mistakes is that little else motivates learning and growth quite as effectively.

This is exactlythe sort of thing I wanted to feature when I started Acetylene Eyes—something to aim a one finger salute in the direction of all the endless rehash of explicit imagery with only two criteria: keep the titillating bits visible in the frame and in focus; something with a modicum of consideration for composition, form and content.

As an image maker invested in questions of public vs. private—particularly as they pertain to the politics of graphic nudity and sexual tableau—this image fascinates me.

Its hallucinatory blush is reminiscent of the rotoscoped animation in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly and invokes the feeling of a memory which may have only ever been a dream.

During my junior year of college, I was assigned a room in a flat with six other students. I knew not one of them on move-in day. But nine months later, six of us were very close; two in fact, remain, very, very dear friends.

Another dear college friend enjoys describing me as “violently allergic strangers and bullshit;” so it was a bit surprising that I gone on so well with my flat mates.

All I can say by way of explanation is I have never been as comfortable in my own skin as I was sharing space with these people. Virtually everything I know about living in, participating with and fostering a community comes as a result of those nine months—everyone looked out for everyone else in the most simple and touching ways.

Within two weeks, no one locked their doors. Within two months doors were rarely closed and no one really knocked so much as peaked their head inside to ask if it was okay to come in.

One of the many amazing memories I have of this time has the same hypnogogic quality as this image.

It was toward the end of the term. I had come back from my morning class (Russian) to find the flat empty. My intent had been to nap but between the mild hangover from the night before and caffeine that allowed me to drag my ass out of bed in time to make it to class I couldn’t fall asleep.

The thought occurred to me that if I could get myself off, there was a better than average chance I might be able to pass out again. And it was one of those rare times, when as you get started you realize your body is ready and willing but the orgasm you are chasing proves elusive.

My eyes were closed so I didn’t realize Lela in the room until I heard her exclaim: Oh

I suffered a litany of close calls as a teen but somehow no one had ever caught me in flagrante delicto until that moment. I stopped masturbating but more in the pausing the action instead of the trying to hide what I had been doing. It surprised me that I neither felt horrified or even a little bit ashamed.

I opened my eyes. Lela, all freckles and strawberry blond hair was standing maybe four feet away from me staring at me.

Wow.

Her right hand flew up to hover an inch or so in front of her eyes; her pale hand seeming paler against her reddening face.

Uh, hey, I need to ask you something. Um…could you, you know, definitely finish taking care of this but maybe put on a towel after and come out to the kitchen for a minute?

Instead of backing away room, she merely turned, dropped her hand from her eyes and pulled the door to but not closed behind as if she was just trying not to disturb someone who was sleeping.

I’d assumed I wouldn’t be able to finish but I quickly found my rhythm again and came like gangbusters in less than five minutes.

As soon as I could I slipped on a t-shirt and pajama bottoms.

Lela was sitting on the stool at the breakfast bar, still a little red faced, reading a photocopied packet.

Before I could say anything she had her arms wrapped around me.

There were no apologies because none were needed. No embarrassment or shame. For the first tim in my life just exuberant acceptance.

I inquired what the hug was for and she responded that’s what I came looking for you for in the first place. That and—sheepishly—to see if you’d let me borrow your car so I drop the donated food at the shelters tonight?

Danny Fields

If I had I been born a decade earlier I would have lived on New York’s Lower East Side and died (of heroin or AIDS).

For better or worse, that ship sailed without me—more often than not I think it’s the latter.

I know Danny Fields as the first manager of punk icons The Ramones as well as the guy who signed both The Stooges and MC5 on the same day.

And, as Karley Sciortino over at Slutever—awesome name—points out, he was also a prolific pornographer, snapping a metric fuckton illicit Polaroids over the years.

No one is surprised I dig these images except old, toothless Stevie, who lives in a shotgun shack on the outskirts of Duluth and is surprised by everything.

But what surprises me is that I do find something off-putting about these images. I am not entirely sure what it is, so let’s go over the obvious stuff it’s not first:

  • Fields’ Polaroids feature prostitutes paid $40 to do whatever he wanted. Yes, that’s totally sketchy; but, I am the last person who is going to denounce sex work; further objecting to the use of prostitutes as models means you object, by dint, to the entire western art historical canon. So yeah, bring on the whores.
  • It doesn’t bother me that Fields admits these boys were loaded to the gills with drugs during sessions. Hell, it was the eighties who wasn’t?
  • I do not even mind the graphic display of gay kink. Hell, if watching people who really want to fuck each other is what one needs to get off, then one would do well to skip over hetero porn completely.
  • And I do dig the images– especially the one I’ve posted.

What feels off to me, I think, isn’t a result of anything intrinsic to the images; it’s reading Fields ideas with regard to sex:

I just think it’s best to fuck whores. I’ve never been in a situation where being emotionally involved with a person has made the sex better. While I’m fucking someone I care about them, and that’s enough for me—that’s where it means something. I want sex to be so intense that I’m not thinking about anything else. The loving part is distracting: who’s going to pay the rent, who didn’t clean the bathroom, that kind of stuff. After I cum I just want a trap door to open and whoever I’m with to fall through the floor.

I can’t relate this notion of intimacy but hey different strokes for different folks. But when this disposition is coupled with situations involving heavy drug use, sexual charged interacts and money changing hands, it’s all too easy for things to turn coercive and the imperative for explicit consent to become muddied.

Fields’ preempts accusations of exploitation by stating the images were produced prior to the Internet; a bullshit dodge since the Internet exists and sure enough the images are on it. Therefore the original intent is less certain than that he understood that any future right to privacy was forfeited when he paid the $40 fee.

I am not necessarily condemning the man—passing judgement on ethical matters is the last thing I am qualified to do.

Aesthetically, I think the images are great—they feature exactly the sort openness and permissive immediacy that will always be a quintessential turn on.

Unfortunately, they suffer under critical inspection. And not due exploitative elements or Fields insistence on that intimacy is essentially disposable. It’s their conjunction and Fields implicit nonchalance to it that is problematic. That does not make him a terrible person so much as intellectually disingenuous.

And isn’t disingenuity,the most un-punk thing ever?