© George Dureau from HOUSTON
January 21, 1998
"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 photographedachieved
sometimes against overwhelming odds."
Edward Lucie-Smith on George Dureau
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
Oil on Canvas, 63 x 48 inches. ©1987 George Dureau
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.
if more of George's photos had made it
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."
there a better justification for stripping down and exposing what
most people assume they would rather not see?
© 2000 Max Verga
& About GEORGE DUREAU
Heft 34: Kultur Jetzt (Gottingen,
Includes a portfolio of photographs by George Dureau
Assault with a Deadly Camera, by Jack Fritscher (Hastings House,
1994) Includes an interview with George Dureau
Male Nude in Contemporary Photography, by Melody Davis (Temple University
Press, 1991) Includes photographs by George Dureau
Orleans: 50 Photographs, by George Dureau with a foreword by Edward
Lucie-Smith (GMP Publishers, 1985)
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