A different light

Pub date June 25, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

› johnny@sfbg.com

THE QUEER ISSUE It’s best to begin at the edge. Gay urban photography has a fleeting yet reliably revelatory home at those places where water laps up against land. On the East Coast, from 1975 through 1986, Alvin Baltrop explored the Hudson River side of Manhattan, capturing black-and-white visions of sex, murder, and architecture by cruising the piers as a peer rather than as an exploitative outsider. On the West Coast, during the ’50s and ’60s, Denny Denfield used Baker Beach and its nearby wooded areas to invent an Adam-only Eden best glimpsed solo through 3-D. And around the same time in Montreal, Alan B. Stone was hiding in a shed, looking through a shutter at the dock-working men and sunbathing boys who populated the city’s port. In the zone known as the city’s historical heart, his camera cautiously hinted at desires that could lead to prison time.

Curated by David Deitcher, the SF Camerawork exhibition "Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place" proves Stone’s photographic versatility ranged from a low-key form of William Klein–like typographic artistry to extremely subversive pastoral romanticism — in commissioned Boy Scout photos — to the candid portraiture of the beefcake genre. Such a showcase isn’t Deitcher’s intent, though — he’s structured the show (and written about it, in an autobiographical essay) to foreground a specifically gay vision and experience of Montreal from a time when men were arrested and publicly vilified in newsprint for being homosexual. Stone provides the nuanced vision; Deitcher identifies its facets and identifies with it. His analysis of Montreal through Stone’s camera takes on special resonance when placed next to Douglas Crimp’s look at post-Stonewall New York through Baltrop’s camera in a February 2008 Artforum piece.

The difference between the liberated time of Baltrop and the closeted era of Stone is evident in their views of waterfront lazy sunbathers. Perhaps the brightest — in tone and in quality of light — of the Baltrop photos showcased in Artforum (also on view at www.baltrop.org) gazes from a few hundred feet away at a half-dozen naked men as they soak up the sun, converse, and dangle their feet off the edge of a pier. The gay-lib visibility inherent to the men’s affectionate nudity is doubly emphasized by Baltrop’s distanced yet full-frontal perspective. In contrast, Stone’s 1954 photo Untitled (Lachine Canal) glimpses the back of a boy in a swimsuit seated at the Port of Montreal’s shoreline — the identity of his solitary subject remains poignantly invisible to the photographer, who, as Deitcher notes, was stricken with arthritis at an early age.

There’s a similar echo to a pair of photos — one by Stone, one by Baltrop — that depict men standing at the sunlit thresholds of waterfront warehouses. Stone’s 1954 Untitled (Dock Workers, Port of Montreal) is a furtive from-behind vision of a shirtless, assumedly heterosexual dockworker. One image from Baltrop’s "Pier Photographs, 1975-1986" glances at a shirtless man, also from behind, but from a much nearer vantage point. Attired in tight jeans and black boots, he’s the painter Alva, at work on a large piece of sexually explicit graffiti. The picture’s dominant darkness and the roughness of its lit threshold — a window-size hole in a warehouse wall — suggest an edge of menace that Baltrop’s photos of body bags make plain. An unauthorized space for gay sexuality in a bombed-out urban zone, the piers were rife with dangers unknown.

Stone’s and Baltrop’s photographs could form chapters within an imagined monograph about the changing relationship between gay sex and the city. Such a book could venture into the garishly colorful Times Square seen in Gary Lee Boas’ 2003 book New York Sex, 1979-85 (Gallerie Kamel Mennour) — the title alone prompts comparisons to Baltrop’s equally unsentimental vision of a different space within pre-Giuliani, pre-Disney Manhattan. It could draw from David L. Chapman’s and Thomas Waugh’s recent San Francisco–set monograph Comin’ At Ya!: The Homoerotic 3-D Photographs of Denny Denfield (Arsenal Pulp), to show the California-dreaming answer to New York grime, and to further reveal — through the inherent solitude of the 3-D stereoview process — the inner recesses of a pre-gay lib experience far from Baltrop’s and Boas’ sights and sites of group sexuality.

Such a book could open into film as well, since movies such as João Pedro Rodrigues’ O Fantasma (2000), Jacques Nolot’s Porn Theatre (2002), Tsai Ming-liang’s The River (1997) and Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003), and William E. Jones’ V.O. (2007) foreground age-old connections between the edges of urban society and sexuality. The portrait of Montreal that emerges from "Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place" hints at the possibilities of such a project — and leaves one wondering about the worlds of desire that can exist outside computer screens today.


Through Aug. 23

SF Camerawork

657 Mission, second floor, SF

(415) 512-2020

www.sfcamerawork.org, www.baltrop.org