DOES FAMILIARITY BREED CONTEMPT?

MAX E. VERGA
REVIEWS "FAMILIAR MEN"

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Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes
Photographs by Laurie Toby Edison
Text by Debbie Notkin with Richard F. Dutcher
Foreword by Michael Kimmel
Shifting Focus Press, 2003
To Order: http://www.candydarling.com/lte

 

For most gay men, the photographic images in Laurie Toby Edison's "Familiar Men" will be anything but. We all know there is no lack of male nudes in print. They are available at gay and even mainstream bookstores. But while such images might be readily available, their relevance to reality is usually tenuous, at best. Maybe it's because so many gay men don't want to see reality when it comes to naked bodies. What we supposedly want to see are perfectly sculpted hunks with huge cocks, often photographed in exotic locations, preferably accompanied by partners equally perfect.

Enhanced with hardhats, prominent jockstraps, or leather accessories that emphasize every perfectly rippled muscle, these models might be posed on rock formations or pillars, making them embodiments of the rock-hard body builders and pillars of masculine society that we idolize. And if the ideal turns to plumbers and waiters, we can always pose them laying pipe or stirring a cocktail with their ample endowments. Even in the most mundane situations, we want our fantasy blue-collar workers to have bulging biceps, just as we want the owner of the firm to be as firm between the legs as he is in the board room.

And then there are the rest of us. We have tummies. We have bellies. We have average cocks. We have small cocks. We have small cocks and above average looks, or huge cocks and faces that warrant presentation of our endowments only through glory holes. Some of us are painfully average in looks, endowment, and achievement, hardly the stuff that gay fantasies are made of. But while we may leaf through the countless pictorials of idealized male nudes, who we end up in bed with (unless we are fabulously wealthy and can buy muscles by the pound) is another story. All this, of course, leads me to question why there exists such a gap between what we are willing to shell out big bucks to see in print or in the flesh and what our own mirrors tell us about ourselves and the men we choose to mate with, for the evening or forever.

In creating "Familiar Men," photographer Laurie Toby Edison was aware of this contradiction and many others, so the decidedly reality-based photographs she presents are an important step in the right direction. For me, however, her images fall short of defining a balanced sense of male physical reality, at least for gay men. Edison, of course, has not set out to create a gay book, though some of her subjects are gay. Perhaps only a gay man will be able to make the leap from images of muscle men to wholly satisfying depictions of gay men with real bodies. As subjects, perhaps only gay men comfortable with the "familiar men" they select as bedmates will be able to let others see what is really going on with their bodies and beneath most of the sheets covering most of the beds in most gay households.

As far as I can determine, "Familiar Men" is not intended to be erotic—although I found some of the men it pictures decidedly sexy (probably not the same ones you will). It is meant instead to offer a range of masculinity—average, obese, young, old—with respect and dignity, all dependent on a large dose of courage on the part of its models, and as such it succeeds.

Edison presents her subjects in mostly mundane surroundings chosen by the men themselves. She makes no attempt to airbrush out scars, concoct unconventional angles to make less seem like more, or hide what to many would be physical flaws. All of this is refreshing.

She does heighten the irony of some of her images, notably those of models with physical impairments. A paraplegic man poses in what appears to be a dance studio. A bilateral amputee is positioned at a stair landing; could he negotiate those stairs sans prostheses, the viewer wonders? One model, scarred from a lightning bolt that had struck him while he was sitting in a tree, is posed in a tree, as if challenging nature to make it a double strike. These are powerful images. They make the viewer think. They stir emotions.

You wonder if the female-to-male transsexual, posed in a way that casts deep shadows between his legs, has a penis and testicles, surgically sculpted. You wonder what it took to get these men to strip down and bare more than just their bodies. That kind of power is evident in many of the photos, including the one that closes the book, a grandfather and his grandson sitting together. But for me not enough of the photos tell enough of a story. Some are too easy to pass over while you go on to the next. And that is a shame.

Despite their power, these photos alone cannot tell the whole story of what it means to be male; to endure expectations of how your body should look and act; how merely having male sex organs is expected to shape our personal masculinity, but often falls short, just as the organs themselves do.

One of my reservations about "Familiar Men" is that it employs too much contrivance in the presentation of its models. You need to set up a shot, of course, you need to frame it, but I find that the settings of some of the photos compete too much for our attention, distracting focus from the men themselves. For a book such as this, which attempts to break a mold, knowing who each model is is of the utmost importance. Only when you look through the names and brief autobiographical statements at the end of the book can you get a better sense of each person's identity. There is also some text relating to what it means to be a man. It might have been more effective if the men themselves had elaborated on their own experiences with text placed directly next to their photos, as was done with John R. Killacky on page 25, instead of including a scattering of such musings at the end.

If men are revealing themselves and if their revelations show just how vulnerable they are when naked, then I want to know more. How do they feel about being in their own bodies and the decision to reveal them? I want to know how they feel about the size of their cocks, their disabilities, and their own perceptions of how they fit into the spectrum of maleness based on their individual reality. What I don't want is text, complete with diagrams, describing how most people define masculinity (as "Familiar Men" offers at the end). I want to let the men speak for themselves, even if takes their own words to enhance their portraits.

Yes, I always seem to want more. I want more than just a gut reaction to the bodies on display. I want to know about them before, during, and after their revelations. Perhaps my expectations are unreal. I should be content with just the fact that I was not looking at perfection, unless in the eyes of the beholder. Indeed many of the photos do accomplish what they set out to do; maybe it's their very success that leaves me with the sense that even more could have been accomplished. For me, "Familiar Men" did not fully convey the masculinity that runs counter to the arbitrary labels about maleness that constrain us.

To get a better sense of what I mean, pick up a copy of "Body Alchemy: Transsexual Portraits," by photographer Loren Cameron, a female-to-male transsexual. Her image of a beautifully sculpted apparently male body without any observable genitalia to support its maleness is a powerful statement packed into one single photograph. "Familiar Men" does not seek to force the issue in this way. It does not demand that you look at its subjects no matter how reluctant you might be to do so. In short, it does not confront where confrontation is most necessary. I speak, of course, from my own gay male perspective, which tells me that at this point in our history a confrontational attitude is essential if you want to get men eager to look at one more book of body builders lying bare-assed in the surf to turn their attention instead to their own imperfect bodies and those of the men they really get in bed with.

Despite my quibbles, I believe that "Familiar Men" deserves to be seen by all gay men (I won't speak for the straight ones). It serves as a reminder that all of us grow old, that even the best of intentions cannot always prevent extra pounds from appearing, wrinkles from accruing, or the inevitable pull of gravity that beckons us back to earth. It serves as proof that a man with a small dick can be exciting and that disability is not an eyesore to be ignored because it is too "real."

I invite you to focus on the book's last photograph, an aged man seated next to a man still in his youth. They regard one another with pleasure, with what is surely affection. It seems clear that in time the youth, grown old, will take the place of the older man, now gone, while yet another generation will appear next to the man who once was young. The fact that one is the second-generation offspring of the other is one more element of a story that the photo clearly tells.

Sadly, "Familiar Men" is not likely to be seen on the coffee tables of most gay men. It is not a book you get a trick to look through with the hope of getting the kind of rise you can then take advantage of. It's a book that might work better for those straight women who haven't yet been sufficiently brainwashed by commercials and reality TV to expect ever-after with a hunk who can count his muscles as well as his money.

But maybe I'm being too pessimistic. I hope that some gay men will find, as I did, that the man in one of the first photos was even hotter looking because of his aquiline nose, or that you might expect a far better roll in the hay with that big, white-haired bearded man sporting multiple piercings than with a Colt model. Most of all, I hope that one day someone will find the perfect blend of sensuality and shock that makes us see the inherent desirability of men who might seem familiar to us—if for no other reason than because, in reality, they are us.

© 2003 Max Verga

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In addition to writing BENT's advice column (Bear in Mind), MAX VERGA contributes occassional essays.

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/November 2002