In our current, ever connected world, what we find acceptable to reveal to the outside world has changed dramatically. Much of what was considered too intimate to reveal to society in the past, photographically or otherwise, has now been put forth for any and all to see. The current shows of Nan Goldin and Peter Hujar at the Fraenkel Gallery explore the frontiers of what is acceptable to photograph at different points in time, both of them pushing the boundary of what is acceptable to reveal publicly.
Entering the gallery we encounter the ‘Nine Self-Portraits’ show by Nan Goldin. Taken over the last two decades, each of these images is a quiet moment captured by the camera. In one we find Goldin half undressed (In my Hall, Berlin November 2013), revealing to us how her body has aged. In another we see her smoking a cigarette next to an open window where we can see the impact mark from a bird that died hitting it (Shadow of a dead bird in Simon’s window, Stockholm September, 2013).
A third shows only Goldin’s reflection in the window of a moving train, her head and neck hidden in shadow to reveal the passing landscape passing by (Sunset on the train, Berlin-Paris 2012). In a fourth, we find Goldin in an elevator gazing up at the single light illuminating the scene from just outside the image as it casts heavy shadows around the artist (In the elevator at the Bauer, Venice, Italy October 2013).
All of these images display Goldin’s unfearful gaze upon herself, however these works are less confrontational than her earlier work. Each shows a woman who has lived and reveal to us how her body has aged because of time and through the lasting marks of her experiences. They also reveal not only her reflecting upon her life, but also show her contemplating what lies ahead for her. The sense that death is not far away can be felt at the edge of more than one of these self-portraits.
Beyond simple meditations upon the nature of life, Goldin’s self-portraits are documents of what it is to be a woman in late middle age. In a culture that reveres youth and photoshops even the most perfect models to look more beautiful, there is an absence of honest portraits of older women. Goldin could have chosen to make herself up to be as close as possible to the mainstream definition of beautiful. Instead she has chosen to show us herself as she honestly is. Goldin is pointing out to us that women are beautiful even when they have reached middle age. She, among many women in the arts and film, is a major force in pushing society to re-evaluate the value and role of women as they age in our culture.
Turning the corner to enter the rear rooms of the gallery, I came upon the show ‘Peter Hujar: Love & Lust’, which reveals a different aspect of intimacy to us. Photographs of men in the nude, being sexual, and/or erotic have become more acceptable to be seen publicly only in the last decade due to a combination of societal changes. The pervasiveness of porn on the internet, the increased dominance of the fitness culture, and the continued push to bring gay culture into the mainstream, have shifted society’s perceptions of male beauty and identity, making it more acceptable for men to reveal the most intimate sides of themselves.
The works of in the show all date from the 1960s through the 1980s and come from a time when viewing the male body as a sex object was almost unheard of. To photograph men, as Hujar did, in the throes of orgasm, masturbating, on the hunt for their next sexual conquest, or simply being objects of desire, was an act of social transgression so severe that that it could have landed him in jail at the time he took these images.
It is important to note that these photographs, while explicit, are nothing compared to the level of graphic detail that today’s pornography so readily depicts, especially gay pornography. Hujar was very precise in his lighting, the tonalities of his prints, and the angles that he shot from. He was also precise about what he was trying to reveal through his models. In these images Hujar sought more than just the pose or the action. He captured a piece of who that man really was and, on a broader level, one of the most fundamental elements of what it is to be a man. His finished prints are intimate depictions of his subjects and are not simply explicit in the way pornography is.
While the police didn’t show up when these photographs were first shown in 1978, they did cause an uproar with the New York Times critic Gene Thornton, who wrote “there is something disconcerting about the sight of a man’s naked body being presented primarily as a sexual object.”
Thirty five years about being first shown, these images still make people uncomfortable, though less so than before. They retain their transgressive power, not just because of what is being shown, but because they are a landmark in the history of depicting men this way. Hujar, along with Robert Mapplethorpe and others, blazed a trail that has changed the way we depict men today.
While Mapplethorpe went further than Hujar in transgressing social norms, Hujar’s legacy is one of stripping away the artifice of culture and depicting men as the sexual creatures that they really are. It is this unfettered quality that gives his work its honesty and truth, regardless of how difficult that truth may be for some to face.