Photographing Desire

No. 5 – Buenos Aires, August 2004

The theory of “difference” generated a new attitude in the field of art philosophy in relation to the categorization of styles and trends. The possibility of talking about art related to a certain sexual orientation began to be taken into account. Is it possible to differentiate gay art from non-gay art? Laura Batkis introduces us to Claude Cahun (artist from the beginning of the century!) and Philip-Lorca di Corcia.

Claude Cahun was a photographer who threw the first stone in the art world, exhibiting the lesbian fantasy that formed the basis of her aesthetic revolution. In a world that, until then, was almost exclusively reserved for men. More recently, the era of Safe Sex promoted telephone masturbation, ejaculations chatting on the Internet, and a whole set of practices of what we might call, taking the term literally, new practices of “oral sex”. Philip-Lorca di Corcia captured with his camera that universe of desire for sale in a set of portraits of California taxi boys that capture the unfathomable beauty of urban loneliness.

Man Ray and Dali’s friend

The last wave of feminism brought to light one of the most interesting personalities of the interwar period. Photographer, writer, literary critic and revolutionary activist, Lucy Schwob was born in Nantes on October 25th, 1894.

At the age of 15 she adopted the name of Claude Cahun, thus beginning a path in which transvestism would be the basis of her entire life, adopting different personalities that she later documented in her photographic self-portraits. By that time, she had already left her father’s house, to take refuge in her grandmother’s. Not only did she change her name to that of a boy, but she also walked around dressed as a boy, showing her rebelliousness by walking on the arms of her lover, Suzanne Malherbe, her “alter ego” – as she called her – who was also her half-sister. Suzanne also changed her name, although intermittently, to Marcel Moore.

Educated in a family environment that belonged to the French intellectual bourgeoisie, her father was an editor of Jewish origin, and her uncle was the famous symbolist writer Marcel Schwolb, author of The Children’s Crusade, among other books.

In her photographs, Cahun places herself on the limits of the artistic avant-garde by breaking with traditionally assigned gender roles. In settings prepared with careful scenography, the artist is photographed with her head shaved, other times with very short, platinum-colored hair, disguised as a sailor or a femme fatale. She is always hiding behind a grotesque and bizarre masquerade, shamelessly provoking the viewer under the sole desire of her own will.

Cahun made art and her own life always what she wanted, eluding the prejudices of the time, with a freedom very close to that of her surrealist friends, like Man Ray or Salvador Dalí.

In 1922 Cahun and Malherbe moved to an apartment in the Parisian neighborhood of Montparnasse. Claude and Suzanne were one of the best known female couples of their time, like the ones formed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas or Marguerite Yourcenar and Grace Frick.

At that time, they frequented the “Confraternity of Esoteric Art and Theater”. Cahun began to connect with the artists of the Surrealist movement led by André Breton, who wrote to her: “You possess great magical ability. I also think you should write and publish. I believe -and don’t repeat it- that you are one of the most curious spirits of this era”.

Encouraged by the “godfather” of Surrealism, Cahun set out to write, taking a clear ideological stance. In 1932 she joined the “Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists”, which was backed by the communist party and by Trotskyism. In the “Congress for the Defense of Culture” (1935), Cahun shared the bases of her Manifesto The Defense of Culture, the last vacillating space of imperialism. The artist examines the possibility of developing a poetic and symbolic act that acts indirectly in the implementation of an effective revolutionary consciousness. In the same year, she participates in the foundation of the “Counter-Attack”, together with Breton and Georges Bataille. She also exhibits one of her photographs in the International Surrealist Exhibition, held in London.

In 1938, Claude and Suzanne moved to the Normandy Island of Jersey, on the English Channel, and settled in a house they named “The Nameless Farm”. During this period, they wrote pamphlets against the German forces, until they were finally arrested in 1944 and sentenced to death.

It is precisely during the period of their imprisonment (from July 25, 1944 to May 8, 1945) that a large part of Cahun’s work and archives were lost, due to the multiple raids on the “Nameless Farm”. They managed to escape death penalty and were released after the war ended.

We know that Claude planned to return to Paris to join her surrealist companions, but she became seriously ill and died at her home in the English Channel in 1954. Suzanne then moved to Beaumont, resuming her work as a designer and illustrator of books and magazines until her death in 1972. Today, Claude Cahun is one of the pioneering artists in exploring issues related to androgyny, the characterization of diverse social roles, metamorphosis and self-representation. Her influence in the 20th century was enormous, especially in the photographic corpus of American artist Cindy Sherman.

Underworld of drugs and prostitution

Within the same field of gender art, Philip-Lorca di Corcia stands out in the current American scene. He began to take his first shots using his friends and family as protagonists in everyday activities, such as the photo of his brother Mario in the kitchen, opening the door of the refrigerator. His images are like frozen moments of a story, in a narrative where what is shown seems to be a fragment of a film script. As the artist states, the whole history of cinema is the inspiring source of his production, especially filmmakers such as Jean Renoir, Truffaut, Fritz Lang and Hitchcock.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1953, di Corcia studied at his hometown university, and then at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where he graduated in 1975 and then earned a master’s degree in photography from Yale University. After finishing his studies, he began to alternate the path of artistic photography with a commercial career, working for magazines such as Esquire, Condé Nast Traveler and Details. This experience in the commercial field was a key element that he embraced in his photographs, appropriating the vocabulary of popular imagery, with certain features linked to the tradition of Pop Art, especially Andy Warhol, and American Hyperrealism.

But unlike pop, the protagonists of his works are not the “rich and famous”, but, on the contrary, the common people, the typical inhabitant of the concrete jungle with the distinctive New York cultural mix, where the common blond James Dean circulates among the exoticism of European and Asian immigrants. The banal acquires a particular drama from the way in which di Corcia places the lights, both natural and artificial, making them take on an animated presence of a rare strangeness. At times, a certain cold and objective conceptualism, very characteristic of American art, can be found in the artist’s creative process, in which nothing is left to chance and the photo is product of a previous, carefully studied project. In this sense, it relates to the photography of Ed Ruscha, William Wegman and Robert Cumming.

In his series of urban images, he travels through different cities of the United States and creates scenes in which an appearance of spontaneity is overlapped by a hieratic focus that draws the eye’s attention to the attitude of a character, his face, or his clothes. The incisive realism of this series, however, acquires a remarkable poetic quality that emerges from a certain theatrical atmosphere that commits the viewer in a psychological way to the anonymous protagonists of their stories: a redheaded woman walking down a New York street, the Asian community in Chinatown or a girl pumping gas at a gas station.

His curiosity to explore people’s intimate lives led di Corcia to investigate the underworld of drugs and prostitution in Los Angeles, near Santa Monica Boulevard. This series, produced between 1990 and 1992, was carried out thanks to a grant awarded by the National Endowments for the Arts. The artist had to endure the protest of the most reactionary wing of government politics, such as the complaint by Senator Jesse Helms, who litigated against the granting of this type of aid to obscene artists, who worked with images with explicit homosexual content.

Di Corcia accepted the challenge after signing a document declaring that he would use the grant to conduct a sociological survey of certain minority groups but avoiding scenes of explicit sex. Interestingly, this apparent impediment was an absolute achievement, because in these photographs of cab boys, the objective distance and austere narrative overcame the low blow of pornography and enhanced a perverse sensuality overflowing with contained eroticism.

The titles of these photographs give us specific information: name of the portrayed person, place of work, age and “fees”. Among them we find, for example, Todd Brooks, 22, Colorado, U$S 40; or Gerald Hughes, 25, California, U$S 50. 

Working with an assistant and taking the streets and motels as his stage, di Corcia enters the world of prostitution, to capture in his photographs the absolute and unmasked truth of the daily life of these characters, to whom he offers, in order to pose, the sum of money proportional to their services as a taxi boy. As an unusual document of male prostitution, this series by Philip-Lorca di Corcia has the merit of highlighting the beauty of a marginal world, without falling into the apocalyptic cliché of the easy manipulation of sensationalist impact. This is the reason why his photographs suggest a seduction and a mystery that exalts these beings as the overflowing incarnation of the inevitable helplessness of contemporary loneliness.

Cindy Sherman (1954, New Jersey, United States)

She could be considered Cahun’s successor in the way she photographed herself (they are always self-portraits), but, in her case, mocking what she calls the “passive altar of male desire” to the maximum. Her photos of women in different poses and situations, show with irony the complex paths of female subjectivity.