In January 2021, The Little Black Gallery’s co-founder Ghislain Pascal launched BOYS! BOYS! BOYS!, a magazine devoted to promoting queer and gay photography. Originally a fine art focused digital platform, BOYS! BOYS! BOYS! runs in parallel to GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS!. The London-based gallery released this BOYS! BOYS! BOYS! project as a one piece bi-annual magazine that includes exhibitions, books, photography courses and competitions. Pascal proudly announced that many books published shared their title with the magazine, starting in 2019 and 2020. Said books sold out and the royalties were donated to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, established in 1992.
A compelling question for this publication is: what is meant by queer and gay photography? Is there a specific set of characteristics in the photographs that suggest they are for or by members of the queer and gay communities? According to Christoph Ribbat, queer photography consists of “images that undercut fixed notions of identity, desire, and gender.” In the early 2000’s, “queer photography” still referred to a reversal of “straight photography,” represented concepts such as truth, accuracy, and evenness. Queer photography, to use a colloquialism, threw a wrench in these photographic pursuits by taking the opposite as a fundamental artistic goal. All “queer” photography existed in a state of otherness to photography of exactness and truth. These terms lay a faulted foundation for understanding queer and gay photography in 2022 as the semantics still suggest that it deviates from a higher artistic purpose: mastery. If we continue to think of queer and gay art as being in relation to other forms, it cannot develop the autonomy its continuing artists demand. It is not a reversal of “straight art” because queerness is not a reversal of heternormativity; they are not two sides of the same coin but two separate currencies.
“The pattern here demonstrates that there is no one set of characteristics or experiences that unify members of the queer community, apart from shared ambitions for visibility.”
The question still remains: what is queer and gay photography? More than a decade ago, Toronto Metropolitan University’s Image Centre hosted an exhibition entitled What It Means to Be Seen: Photography and Queer Visibility. The exhibition’s guest curator, Sophie Hackett, examined a tremendous breadth of photos and images dating back to the early 1960’s, arranging them with the express purpose of, as stated in the exhibit’s abstract, “bring[ing] to light a sense of collective characteristics, experiences and ambitions for queer communities.” Hackett’s gallery carefully curated and argued for the presence and necessity of queer visibility through unspecific characteristics, like multiplicitous experiences, and collective goals of the community. This pattern demonstrates that there is no one set of characteristics or experiences that unify members of the queer community, apart from shared ambitions for visibility.
Queer narrative in photography appears to be an undeveloped area right now. Reminded of a recent exercise in identifying narrative at the most basic level, I regurgitate it here: students of architecture are often asked to provide narratives for objects as an exercise in humanising the world. For example, in a recent critique seminar I attended, one student explained that the textured grips on a pair of pliers told a story about their use, and one student brought a used bar of soap, worn down in specific areas. We learned, from the bar of used lemon soap, exactly how the user washes their hands. More abstractly, the object tells a story, but what actually happens is that students invent stories for what they carefully observe. Photos of humans do have stories, albeit far more complex ones than a bar of soap, but they are incomplete at best, creating a subjective context for the viewer upon which to build and weave a narrative of their own. Narrative, then, has a great deal to do with empathy, understanding and relatability.
“The larger question remains in a different shape: what is distinctive about queer narrative?”
What is most striking about the images in BOYS! BOYS! BOYS! is the humanness of the pictured people. They appear, almost, to embrace their humanity more fully than others in daily life. How often do people feel comfortable with their own bodies? Or, with the body of another? Queer narrative in photography cannot be reduced to mere visual shock factor; this is not its defining feature. A defining feature of narrational queer photography does not exist because to categorize it would require us to establish its separate existence from any other human form of photographic narrative. The larger question remains in a different shape: what is distinctive about queer narrative?
With the above context, we now approach the photographs in BOYS! BOYS! BOYS! The fourth volume was made especially relevant by the inclusion of Irish photographer Charles Moriarty. His unreleased photographs of Amy Winehouse first appeared in a self-published book, Before Frank, in 2017, followed by Back to Amy in 2018. Since the release of these photos, Moriarty has been involved with LucasFilm and the National Portrait Gallery. His work in BOYS! BOYS! BOYS! verges on the political, while moving with the distraction of intimacy. By political, I do not mean overtly political, but rather symbolically. For example, Moriarty’s Plate 026 features a nude figure wearing only a decorated military coat and beret of unknown origin. The figure crouches on two black surfaces with one hand supporting his weight and the other extending outward to the viewer in a wide arc. An uninviting expression looks at you, coldly with a bit of confusion. No less about vulnerability, the plate draws a sharp contrast between the dark coat, hat, ground and background with the figure’s pale torso, waist and legs. An uninformed eye might remark that the image is propaganda.
“In collaboration with PhotoIreland’s The Library Project, BOYS! BOYS! BOYS! opened a new exhibition to launch the fourth volume of the magazine at 4 Temple Bar Street.”
Moriarty’s Plate 004 [feature image] appears colourless and nostalgic. In contrast to the vulnerability of Plate 026, the male figure of Plate 004 withholds himself from us, doubling back, clutching his shoulder and effectively shutting off access to his chest and body. His arms form the vague symbol of a cross, and his position faces away from the photographer. In spite of his suspicious diffidence, or the diffidence read from his body, he gazes directly at us with a passive expression on his face. I should not fail to mention the sheer bodily strength he seems to possess, which counteracts the meekness of hiding one’s body and provides an image of many contradictions.
In collaboration with PhotoIreland’s The Library Project, BOYS! BOYS! BOYS! opened a new exhibition to launch the fourth volume of the magazine at 4 Temple Bar Street. Ghislain Pascal and Charles Moriarty arrived in Dublin for a reception on October 4, during which the exhibit first opened to the public; the viewing successfully ran until October 23.