FAMILIARITY BREED CONTEMPT?
MAX E. VERGA
REVIEWS "FAMILIAR MEN"
Familiar Men: A Book
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
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 eroticalthough 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 masculinityaverage, obese, young, oldwith
respect and dignity, all dependent on a large dose of courage on
the part of its models, and as such it succeeds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 usif for no other reason
than because, in reality, they are us.
© 2003 Max Verga
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you think of this BENT feature.
In addition to writing BENT's advice column (Bear
in Mind), MAX