© George Dureau from HOUSTON PUBLIC NEWS
January 21, 1998

 

A MEETING
with
GEORGE DUREAU

by Max Verga

"The photographer and his subjects have entered into a shared enterprise, whose purpose is to record not only outward appearances, but an inner sense of worth in the person being photographed—achieved sometimes against overwhelming odds."
Edward Lucie-Smith on George Dureau

Several years ago, photographs by George Dureau accompanied an article I wrote for Drummer, a magazine designed for Fetish and S&M enthusiasts.

As a regular Drummer contributor, I had always tried to stretch boundaries by including characters that did not fit the usual over-endowed stud image. Entitled "Different Bodies," my article explored the relationships between able-bodied men and men with disabilities. Drummer built a feature, "Maimed Beauty," around the story and then decided to add photographs by George Dureau.

The magazine received more letters about "Maimed Beauty" than any other feature. Partly in response to those overwhelmingly positive letters, I wrote another piece about disability, this time fiction, called "Chester." Drummer published that, too, also with illustrations by George Dureau.

George is a New Orleans artist who often photographs local men with disabilities. Since I'd already decided to visit New Orleans, I thought I'd track down George and try to arrange a meeting. True to the tradition of Southern hospitality, I found myself invited to his home for lunch. George lives in the lower part of the French Quarter in an area once notorious for drug deals in the park facing his house. By the time I got to see it, the neighborhood had reverted to its earlier, quiet state. I even saw a few Yuppies in the park.

I had expected that I might be met by one of George's models, but the man who ushered me inside, George's incredibly handsome assistant, had no observable disability. As I walked upstairs I noticed some works-in-progress on the walls, stylized portraits of dwarfs that would later be the basis of a book of George's paintings. The rooms had an open feel, obviously arranged to accommodate his work. When I reached the second floor I recognized George immediately from the photo of him and his frequent subject B.J. that had illustrated "Different Bodies."

UNTITLED Silverpoint, 15 x 15 inches. ©1985 George Dureau


George is African American and his tastes run towards
other African-American men, especially those with disabilities. The majority of men he photographed for his first book are locals, many from the poor neighborhoods circling the Crescent City. Other subjects included a number of dwarf wrestlers and a few men from other cities. Our conversation touched on the lives of his models, including the legless B.J., whose arms-akimbo pose in Drummer had sparked questions about his body. There were those who wondered if he possessed sex organs or normal bowel functions. George showed me a photo of B.J. with an American flag draped tightly across his loins. The photo left no question about B.J's sex organs.

B.J., George explained, had been born with flippers emerging from drastically shortened calves. For "aesthetic" reasons, the flippers had been surgically removed, leaving extensive scarring. B.J. used a skateboard for mobility. It did not seem that George and B.J. had been involved in any way other than model-artist. It did not even seem that B.J. was gay or bisexual.

The photographs of B.J. were representative of George's work, ragged-edged black-and-white portraits with a lack of background detail that forces the viewer to focus attention on the subject, often portrayed naked. George presents disability without visual comment or apology. Only one other time would I see such powerful depictions of disabled men, at a Seattle exhibit that featured medical photographs of Civil War veterans taken to document the effects of war.

George's subjects had not been in any war other than the war that rages around poverty. Some of them had been in prison. Others would wind up there. Some were from middle-class backgrounds, with only their disabilities thrusting them to the fringes of society. Few of the men that George records, even the openly gay ones, are found cruising local bars. George himself seemed to frequent them only rarely, as if aware that the men he finds there are rarely men that would wind up in his photographs.

He told me of searching for models in hospital wards, on Bourbon Street, and in parts of the city that most tourists never see. I've seen some of those areas and I understand their sadness: They will always yield men with disabilities by reason of the poverty and neglect found there.

It was hard not to be impressed by the beauty of George's photos and the desirability of his subjects. One of the amputees George photographed had been his lover. Another man, also a former lover, was someone I encountered years after my meeting with George. Yet another is a famous little man who can be seen frequently at Mardi Gras time in full leather, accompanied by his multiply pierced lover.

Beautiful as they were, the photographs only hinted at the sexual power of the men they depicted, something I learned years later, after making love to several of them. Unlike the photos of Diane Arbus, which emphasize the grotesque qualities of her subjects and their uneasy relationship to society, George Dureau's photographs suggest nobility through the directness of the images.

In one, an African-American man uses a stick to maintain his balance while crossing his stump over his undamaged leg. The viewer is forced to acknowledge the discrepancy between the two limbs, but that discrepancy is merely part of a portrait that includes a wild mane of hair, the fineness of the torso and the impressiveness of the exposed sex. The viewer is forced to look at the obvious plusses and what some would call minuses and come away weighing both as reasons for either rejecting or embracing the image.

The same holds true for George's image of Wally Sherwood. Wally is a man with a strong, beautiful face; his arms and legs defy ordinary proportions and thus say "dwarf." But if you equate "dwarf" with "undesirable," that beautiful face (and a well-packed jockstrap) may convince you to reevaluate your preconceptions. Wally is a sexual being, one not above standing naked on a bar as one man after another confirms just how desirable he can be.

The fact that many disabled men have exposed themselves to George's camera may be a tribute to their courage. But the fact that George Dureau has photographed them in a way that makes his belief in their beauty unmistakable challenges us to think hard about the kinds of beauty we are used to extolling.

George and I talked for hours and he showed me photographs that had not made it into his book. There was a little man from Atlanta, a very hot-looking lawyer, whose friends insisted he pose for George. And so he did. I had seen him once during a visit to Atlanta and was impressed by his handsomeness. There were photos of another little man with patrician looks and seemingly mismatched limbs. A bare-chested man with a prosthetic-arm hook draped across his chest was someone I had seen coming out of a gay bar in Chicago.

But there were also photographs of men whose bodies could only be called perfect. Those men seemed surrounded by an aura of danger, as if George sought another kind of differentness when choosing them as models.

ALLEGORICAL PORTRAIT with SATYRIC DEVICE
Oil on Canvas, 63 x 48 inches. ©1987 George Dureau


S
adly, George's books are hard to come by these days. A trip to a local gay bookstore will net dozens of albums of well-muscled men in exotic surroundings, often engaged in equally exotic acts. Few of those models reflect the people who buy the books and even fewer offer bodies that challenge our perceptions about what is perfect and what is desirable.

I don't know if George Dureau's mission to photograph those other bodies grows out of his own sexuality or the need to shock. Most likely his motives combine the two. Unfortunately, I met George only once. Since our meeting I had noticed that one or two of his photos could be found on web sites that featured pictures of disabled men.

Some people protested that such photos objectified men with disabilities in a negative way. Most sites have stopped using them anyway, mostly because of copyright issues. To me, it seemed incredibly positive that for a short while pictures of disabled men were given equal play on the Internet alongside pictures of hunks and bodybuilders.

Perhaps if more of George's photos had made it onto web sites, disabled men themselves would have been able to view the images in a new way, as something that gives pause, stimulates in unexpected ways, and manages to put men with different bodies, clothed or unclothed, on an equal footing with the stereotypical "normals."

Is there a better justification for stripping down and exposing what most people assume they would rather not see?

© 2000 Max Verga

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By & About GEORGE DUREAU

Fotografie Heft 34: Kultur Jetzt (Gottingen, 1984)
Includes a portfolio of photographs by George Dureau

Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera, by Jack Fritscher (Hastings House, 1994) Includes an interview with George Dureau

The Male Nude in Contemporary Photography, by Melody Davis (Temple University Press, 1991) Includes photographs by George Dureau

New Orleans: 50 Photographs, by George Dureau with a foreword by Edward Lucie-Smith (GMP Publishers, 1985)

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MAX VERGA (BearMax@aol.com)
has been an activist ever since getting a call from a friend reporting that he'd been in a riot at the Stonewall Bar only hours before. He began his activism with the West Side Discussion Group, later became involved with its offshoot theater group, and was one of the founders of Mainstream, a gay-disabled group. For more about Max, see his longer biography.