Gay Men Play- Self representations, Sex and Photography Now

As I am conducting my intensive production project on the representations of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in television (American Sitcoms) through the form of photography and short film, I felt it was necessary to research the variation of photographic styles by different photographers to capture shots of the LGB society.

Chris Boots online essay ‘Gay Men Play- Self representations, Sex and Photography Now’ explores the evolution of gay photography by reflecting on the history of photographic series focusing on the gay human beings, whilst comparing the differing representations they emit through the individuals unique methods of photography. Photographic intention is key when analysing these photographs as it completely determines what narrative is displayed within the photograph. Factors such as the framing of the shot, positioning of the subject, location and post production manipulation all massively contribute to defining the message in which the photographer intends to exhibit.

Although I have an idea of how I envisage my series of photographs portrait head shots which display the LGB subjects portrait head shots of two hetero and homosexual people. I believe it is beneficial for my project to investigate other style of photography which identify with the genre I am working on. The reason being is that by viewing other photographers work and decoding their objectives may inspire me to reshape my ideas for my photographs in order to get my message across for effectively.

My intentions to diffuse the importance of the subjects sexuality through my photographs is a result of the way in which LGB have been historically segregated due to their sexual orientation. This is one of the main objectives to present the subject as simply a human, not someone who is subjected in accordance to their sexuality. Boots has similarly agreed that the labelling of sexuality has caused much unnecessary controversy:
‘Gay men have been and are at the forefront of changing sexual and social mores, and photography has become central to the processes involved, meriting both anthropological and art- historical attention. (“Gay” is used here as a term of convenience, rather than to suggest a homogenous community. While it may be provocative to the men-who-have-sex-with-men who reject the “gay” label or simply don’t identify with it, the use of “queer” or “homo” as alternatives seem to present equal or greater problems. It is also an issue in the field that many photographic artists who deal with aspects of their gay sexuality in their work resist being labeled “gay artists.” They want, quite reasonably, for their work to be considered on its own merits rather than as some outcome of their sexuality.)’


I aim for the viewers of my work to understand the negative effect that defining a human by their sexual orientation has in regards to their expectance and equality in society- especially due to history of resistance they have faced as a community.


The theory of Voyeurism, Henning explains in the ‘The Subject as the Object’ the term as ‘a mode of looking related to the exercise of power in which a body becomes a spectacle for someone else’s pleasure’ (Henning:2000). This theory has historically had a strong affiliation with LGB photography as essentially it is the only way to exhibit and express the subjects sexual orientation. Haggerty argues ‘The concept of gay photography is enigmatic. Whilst a person can be described as homosexual by sexual preference of gay consciousness an inanimate object such as a photograph cannot’ (Haggerty:2000). Furthermore it is easy to understand why some gay photography can be interpretted as pornographic or visually explicit.
Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe had built a respectable reputation from his controversial photographs known to ‘push the boundaries’. By capturing taboo topics such as male nudity and gay imagery, Mapplethorpe wanted to rebel again censorship- but to essentially normalise the unspoken truths of the world. ‘He tested the right to individual freedom – they were not meant to be titillating, shocking or obscene, but beautiful in a traditionally classical way.’ (Tate Robert MapplethorpeModern). Mapplethorpes morals behind his imagery are definitely applicable to the intentions I aim to promote, yet the style of his photographs oppose my visual desire to connote the subjects as non-sexualized.


However whilst exploring Mapplethorpe, I came across his portrait photographs. A series of self-portraits he shot which represent the style of photograph I intend to capture, as I feel that his simple framing gives off a ‘mug-shot’ impression which displays the subject in the most basic form- free of sexual objectification.


Photographers James Bidgood and Pierre et Gilles- both large icons in the gay culture of photography, have both adopted a highly stylised form of photography with the use of hand painted acrylic drawing and digital post production effects. Although extremely aesthetically appealing with the eye-popping colours and detailed drawings, personally this style of highly manipulated photograph does not fit the brief for my photographic intentions. Instead of deterring the viewer from noticing the gay undertones in the images, actually shine the emphasis on it- which is the complete opposite of what I want to achieve.

James Bidgood

Pierre Et Giles


Nan Goldin, however has a taken the approach of documentary-photography. This is a style which I am certainly interested in as her ‘journalistic’ intention to visually document the struggles of relationships in her book ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’, corresponds to the general intention of my project- documentary through photography (along with film). Nan has described her photographs as “the diary I let people read”. I found this was relevant to both the photograph and the short videos that will accompany them, as the interviewers will involve a personal reflection regarding a derogatory word used by the media to address LGB’s, which could be seen as a diary entry. Goldwin’s imagery however is not the something I have taken inspiration from, as they quite literally do document a series of events, which is not exactly what I am doing but I am very fascinated in the theory behind the photographs and feel that I can relate them to my own.






Wolfgang Tillmans, whose casual snapshots of gay men expressing their sexuality have been embraced simultaneously by the erotic gay zine (where they have usually been published first) and the art museum. However recently he explored the the LGBT movement in Russia..


I admire how they are photographed as they are captured and the values behind the imagery, exhibiting humans in a standard everyday environment which doesn’t highlight their sexual orientation- presenting them equally to the rest of society. This is very important seeing as the being gay in Russia has become even more of a taboo, socially and politically. One could interpret these photographs as a form of oppressing sexual segregation, showing them as brave LGBT- heroic humans who are openly standing up for their equal position in society.  Located underneath the photographs are written interviews in which the photographs subject explains their opinions about their personal experience about being gay in a society which is so unaccepting and ignorant.
From the start I have made it clear that I am not trying to prove that the media represents LGB’s in positive or negative light- I am aiming to accumulate a collection if mixed personal opinions. I cannot pre-determine how the interviewee is going to respond with their experience to a certain derogatory word. This is what I like about Tillmans series of photographs, he has collected a variety of LGBT people and captured them without drawing on the main focus of the interview of the struggle the subjects face on a daily basis. Of course they are already ‘ordinary people’ however I believe the way Tillman has framed them as very ordinary looking people, participating in daily activities/routines, out in the everyday world in order to essentially shocked the viewers with the interviews. Ultimately it seems that his message he is trying to project to the audience is that these are humans just like me and you, but this is what they are having do deal with, therefore evoking empathy and awareness of how detrimental sexual status can be to ones safety. This theme will play a large part in the construction of my project, as theoretically our idea’s and intentions are extremely similar.

Out of all the photographers I have viewed, I will be concentrating on Wolfgang Tillmans and Robert Mapplethorpe’s work as my main influences and inspirations for both the imagery and the intentions which I want to display through my work: Portrait head-shots in a studio of LGB which do not initially focus on sexuality but then taken to short intimate/in-depth interviews in which the subjects reflect and document their interaction with a disrespectful term towards LGB people.

Boots, C. (2009) Aperture, Incorporated. Gay Men Play: Self-representation, Sex, and Photography Now., pp. 36

Haggerty, E. (2000) The Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Histories and Cultures. 2nd ed. London: Garland Publishing.


What am I trying to achieve

Throughout my research, I have explored a collection of LGB websites in which mass opinion seems to be that LGB people are negatively and unfairly represented in television. Some TV shows which reoccur throughout the online forums are Will and Grace, and Modern Family. Both these shows include a  portrayal of the stereotypical effeminate gay man and the gay man who is more conventionally masculine man who does not embody the feminine tendencies. Essentially representing the ‘Husband and Wife’ characters constructed through specific representations. However this isn’t the case as the LGB have vocalised through their  discontent towards how generalisation of sexual orientation has contributed to how they are structured to appear as mirroring reality, therefore further reinforcing sexual stereotypes in society.


My project intends to gather a series of opinions regarding terms which are used to define/describe LGB representations in television/film and interview 4 peoples response to them. 2 gay,lesbian or bisexual and 2 straight people, as I want to present my argument as non-biased in regards to their sexual orientation. Therefore my aim is to defy the representations of sexual orientation by presenting 4 people in a style that focuses more on their opinions rather than characteristics/elements about them that could indicate their sexual preference.  Such as clothing, physical gestures etc which are all used in television to convey a certain sexual orientation. Furthermore to achieve this, the photographs I take will be portrait head shots, eliminating anything that could imply or suggest their sexual preference. Followed by an interview consisting of a montage of extreme close ups, exhibiting a variety of the subjects facial features and body language, overlaid with their responses to the questions I ask. The reason why I am not focusing on their entire face/body is because I want to essentially keep the viewer guessing- to raise their awareness that not all LGB conform to these stereotypes and therefore provide the viewers with opinions in which they cannot judge as being biased (based on the subjects sexual orientation).