Today, Washington DC is mantled in snow. The world is chiaroscuro, in tones of grey and white. It looks like a photograph by Colin Winterbottom.
Winterbottom captures DC’s architecture in his photographs. The city becomes a gothic landscape through his lens. The photographs are full of statues, fountains, columns, plinths, cornices and monuments. He chronicles the secret history of my hometown with images made of shadow and light.
In addition to capturing the more iconic touchstones (the Capitol, and the Monument), there is also a nod to the DC’s esoteric places. Abandoned buildings and cemeteries tell their stories to the viewer. There’s a series he’s done on the legendary mental hospital, St. Elizabeth’s—a place where my father did his internship.
DC is his muse, but it’s not his only subject. There are also studies in color (the luminous jewel toned stain glass of the Cathedral) and the abstract images that studies of rust and decay.
Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene by Gerald H. Gaskin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Legendary is a gorgeous photography book that chronicles the vibrant underground Ballroom Scene. Gaskin captures black and Latino gay men in their finery. Their outfits exist somewhere beyond couture. They transform themselves into ephemeral creatures of their own imaginations. The balls themselves, held in NYC, DC and other urban areas, are alternate dimensions, where you can let your freak flags fly. Gender warriors become proud peacocks in bold colors. The sheer beauty of these photographic compositions are astounding. Gaskin has created a visual feast that reveals this magical subculture.
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I have a complicated relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. And I don’t mean his flowers and fruit pictures. The way he fetishizes the black male body disturbs me; he makes me a partner in their objectification. I mean, these men and the light with which they are cast and their poses are undeniably beautiful. But they are just icons, and in a way, no different than the glossy eggplant photo or the calla lilies he captured.
These men are captured in black and white, on film, in the camera’s eye, and in my own. Is the baggage that I bring to these images my own or is it deeper than that?
Back in the early 90s, my then-partner created a video, a mediation on interracial relationships. The video was eventually picked up by the Festival Circuit. The video had showings internationally, including places like Italy and South Africa. I narrated portions of the video, which included a poem by Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, called The Snow Fairy, which could be interpreted as an ode to an interracial encounter. I went to a showing of the video in New York. One of the scenes in the video has me kneading the flesh of my then-partner. When the video finished, the floor opened up for a discussion about what we had seen. One man thought the video was racist. He highlighted the scene where my hands were on the the white flesh of my partner. He thought that scene showed that I was like a slave, pleasing his master.
This incident, for me, encompasses all of the issues I have with this section of Mapplethorpe’s work. The black men on display in his work are ciphers, upon which a viewer’s thoughts/agendas may be placed. Like the men in those photographs, I was a willing participant in an act that could be seen as racist, regardless of intent. The fact that I don’t think so is immaterial; in the video, I was just a symbol, an image. I’ve learned that many of the men that Mapplethorpe photographed were friends, and indeed, lovers with the photographer. Does that change the meaning or doesn’t it?
I identify with the photographer and the photographed.