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The Passionate Camera, Photographing the Bodies of Desire
Deborah Bright, Editor
Routledge, 1999
ISBN: 0415145821; $30.00 (paperback)
Reviewed by Michael Walker

Photography is an unique medium among the visual arts, a medium that was born as much out of science as of artistic creativity, and a medium that has been applied as much to pragmatic purposes (journalism, cartography, biomedicine) as it has to the fine arts. Furthermore, it can be said that photography is just as important for the revolutions in communications technologies it precipitated (printing processes, film, television) as it is for the accomplishments that photographers have achieved in their arena. Yet photography has become one of the pre-eminent artist mediums of the late twentieth century and has taken on something of a special role within the microuniverse of gay and lesbian arts.

Given the traditional lack of gay themes in Western painting and sculpture and the careful veiling of such themes when they have been included, photography, as a medium that can "tell things like they are" has allowed gay and lesbian artists the critical agency to comment on society through their own mindset, giving the world a clear and inarguable portrayal of life outside of the heterosexual mainstream. Photography has also paved the way for dynamic crossovers from the performing arts to the visual, spanning the chasm between drama, film, and video arts and the world of traditional fine art that stands on the other side. Photographs to this day are taken more seriously than performance pieces among certain art communities (though this is quickly changing) and photography often leads artists to more elaborate works in film, as in the cases of Cindy Sherman and Larry Clark.

Deborah Bright, a professor of photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, has assembled a wide-ranging collection of essays and photographs representing a diverse assortment of photographers, artists, critics, and scholars concerned with portrayals of gay and lesbian themes in the photographic arts. Her book, The Passionate Camera, is a welcome addition to the growing field of scholarly research and commentary on the role of the visual arts in gay and lesbian life. There's no doubt that Professor Bright had her work cut out for her in editing such an anthology, as she desired to intersperse the essays with galley-like pages exhibiting photography that was directly or indirectly related to the essays themselves. She also had the challenge of selecting essays that would represent the best current scholarship in photographic studies and art history while offering enough of a parity of gay male and lesbian examples as well as those dealing with people of color and various national/geographical examples to truly offer the reader the type of diversity such a book should be able to provide. I can say with confidence that Bright was able to achieve these goals, producing a work that reads less like a conventional anthology and more like an extended seminar on her topic, drawing in various voices but structuring them in the cohesiveness of a single-volume edition. Despite this cohesiveness, the individual essays are still very readable as stand-alone pieces; in reading this book, I often found myself reading one essay and then going on to some other task, not feeling as if I had absorbed any less for it.

The essays themselves and the writers represented are, as stated above, diverse in scope and approach, and present excellent critical appraisals of their subject matter. Among my personal favorites are Liz Kotz's essay "Aesthetics of Intimacy", Mysoon Rizk's essay on the early work of David Wojnarowicz, and José Estaban Muñoz's incredibly well-crafted essay on Larry Clark's photographs of young heterosexual men. This last essay deserves special mention for two reasons, first, it is one of the most lucidly written works of art criticism I have read over the past year or so, and second it is one of a few scant attempts to locate Clark's work within the gay canon. Larry Clark, best known for his 1995 motion picture Kids, has long been involved in photographing adolescents living on the fringes of society and has maintained himself as an exclusively heterosexual artist, despite the fact that many of his earlier photographs are highly homoerotic. Few art and film critics have dared to challenge Clark's stated position and not many have even considered the latent homosexual undertones of his work in general; whether or not Clark has gay leanings or not is unimportant, but the significance of his work to gay youth could be very important, given his notoriety and the controversy Kids caused. Clark is perhaps the only person in the art world who is decently well-known outside of this world among young people, and this role cannot be ignored. I am very pleased to see that Estaban Muñoz has not ignored it and has instead produced such an amazing essay on Clark. The only thing lacking from this essay is Clark's photographs themselves, because Clark denied Estaban Muñoz permission to reproduce them in this book. A pity, because these photos would have added so much to the commentary.

I only signal out the above essays because I enjoyed them the most, they were extraordinarily well-written, and they covered ground ignored in pervious critical efforts. All the essays in this collection are well-crafted and deserve to be included and all offer something different from each other; it seems that far too often anthologies on the arts tend to overlap with one essay containing a good half of the content covered elsewhere in the book. Sometimes this situation is unavoidable, but Bright managed quite well to avoid it in this case. The fact that most of these essays were written rather recently adds to both their poignancy and relevance. Coverage is given to social issues raised by not only the artistic work of gay and lesbian photographers, but also by how the mass media has utilized images of gays and lesbians in its attention to gay-related issues of the past two decades.

Thus, the documentary use of photography is not ignored, but is rather included within the sphere of consideration that it deserves. The production quality of the book is impressive as well, providing as high a quality of photolithographic reproduction as possible without running up an exorbitant price tag. Like the essays, the photographs and artists included were well-selected and represent the true spectrum of the variety in contemporary gay and lesbian fine art photography. I believe this book will long be the leading anthology of its type and should deserve a place on the bookshelf of all who are interested in gender, gay and lesbian issues, and the fine arts. Furthermore, I hope that it will encourage college professors of photography and art history to consider teaching a class on gay and lesbian photography, as The Passionate Camera is clear evidence that enough worthy examples of this broad genre exist to merit inclusion in the history of art in such a manner.

Michael Walker is the interim Science and Medical Editor of Oasis Magazine. His poetry, commentary, reviews, and fiction have been featured in the magazine since 1996 and he contributes to a variety of other publications. He may be reached at: MCWalker@hotmail.com


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