When I was in the sixth grade, if one boy accidentally brushed against another boy, someone would suddenly shriek, “You mo!” I had no idea what a mo was – my best guess was that it was the bossy guy in The Three Stooges – but I knew that being a mo couldn’t be good. Later, after I had learned what a homosexual was, I found that in other societies, boys and men who were not gay could touch and sometimes even kiss one another without a second thought about their sexual identity. It was obvious that in America – or at least the subset of America that I inhabited – strangely strict physical boundaries were necessary among men.
It wasn’t always that way. Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918, a provocative show organized by David Deitcher for the International Center of Photography on Sixth Avenue, is filled with 75 pictures of men clasping hands, embracing, and otherwise expressing devotion to their close friends. During this period, sitting for a photograph had a certain formality. It was something you did rarely and with heightened thought about how you wanted to present yourself. It meant remaining very still lest the image blur. The result, in this exhibit, is a kind of monument to passionate friendship.
In the emotionally effusive Victorian era, intimacy among men was often idealized as a poetic meeting of souls rather than of bodies. Men could write romantic, purple-prosed letters to friends, fall asleep in each other’s arms, and even share a bed without generating gossip about their sexual leanings. And such activities did not necessarily mean they had sex together. The most memorable photograph in the exhibit is an albumen print made in 1865 of Walt Whitman and his “rebel soldier friend Peter Doyle” – almost certainly Whitman’s lover – gazing into each other’s eyes. Each wears a jaunty hat. According to a friend, “Doyle has a sickly smile on his face: W. lovingly serene: the two looking stagily at each other, almost sheepishly.”
Almost all of the photographs in this exhibit, however, are of unknown people: wartime comrades, bathing buddies, friends on a lark, sportsmen. Many pictures of single figures in the early days of photography were made simply to document a likeness. Here, the actual subject is less tangible – a feeling between two or more men. The stiffness of early photography only heightens the emotional tenor of the images, for the men appear determined to emphasize the endearing quality of their friendships. A man will drape an arm around a shoulder, put a hand on a knee, even sit in another man’s lap. Is he gay? Our open-door culture wants the answer, yes or no. But the photographs in this Jamesian exhibition remain beguilingly ambiguous. They can keep a secret.
In our own, less circumspect time, there was a comical moment a few years ago when some American men decided to beat tom-toms together in the woods and sob out their feelings. That impulse seems to have died. In Self-Made Men, an interesting show of more than 50 contemporary pictures by male artists that Alexi Worth has curated for the DC Moore Gallery, it is rare to come upon heated views about emotional connections or “the state of Man.” (Many woman artists, by contrast, obsessively explore what it means to be a Woman.) Issues of gender – historically, ideologically, and personally – do not dominate the show. Instead, the artists really do appear “self-made.” All of their images are self-portraits of one kind or another, with the focus typically upon “me” rather than upon “man.” They individually pick and choose among the large range of contemporary styles, from traditional painting to conceptual art. This is a crowd of solitaries.
At the International Center of Photography; through 6/10.
At the DC Moore Gallery; through 5/5.