GRIN AND BARE IT
Art galleries and bookshops are currently awash with images of gay people in various states of undress. Benedict Brook finds out why someone would choose to take their clothes off for public consumption, explores the motivations of those behind the lens and asks where all the images of lesbians are.
CONSIDERING he was removing his clothes for the camera, Ernesto Romo-Corella was surprisingly relaxed.
“It was easy,” says the Sydneysider.
“There were about 20 people, you got there, got naked, you got dressed again.”
Romo-Corella’s image is part of a new exhibition by established gay photographer Rod Spark that is currently on display just off Sydney’s Oxford St.
Called My Reality, Embodied Diversity, Spark’s exhibition features two photographs each of more than 50 men. The first image clothed, the second in the Emperor’s new clothes.
The photos are sparse, passport snap cold, shot against a plain background with no retouching.
One of Romo-Corella’s friends questioned why he volunteered.
“They were like, how can you do it, you’re so brave?” he says.
“It’s because it has a meaning behind it. It’s not just getting naked for the sake of it.
“You wouldn’t be doing it in the city because that’s out of context.
“But at the same time, I wouldn’t be wearing a scarf on the beach if it’s 35 degrees.”
From the backstreets of Darlinghurst to the nation’s capital, the image of the nude — particularly the male nude — is being re-assessed. Freed from its usual lair, lurking within computers accessed on a lonely night, and released blinking into the glow of a thousand halogen spotlights pointed towards stark museum walls.
Unencumbered flesh is the subject of Bare: Degrees of Undress at Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery. LGBTI celebrities, including Ian Thorpe, Carlotta and Leigh Bowery, feature prominently.
Exhibition curator Penelope Grist tells the Star Observer she is particularly fond of a portrait by artist Ross Watson of gay Olympian Matthew Mitcham. The oil painting depicts the diver in a Sistine Chapel pose but with a rich dollop of rippling six-pack.
“They’re absolutely fabulous, I really love how [Watson] appropriates that Renaissance tradition and inserts his figure into classical mythology,” Grist says.
Athletes are in abundance. Grist says this is partly because it echoes the role of the nude in Ancient Greece that represented almost God-like physical prowess.
The exhibition’s name, which avoids the term “naked”, is quite deliberate.
“Nude is planned and nakedness is accidental but bareness is right down the middle, it’s this stage oscillating between the public and the private,” she says, noting in many of the photos there is a dynamic between vulnerability and confidence.
Grist adds that when you see someone with few or no clothes, “you immediately have an emphatic response, just for a moment you think about yourself in that place and that’s what makes it a powerful and energising subject”.
However, Grist assures it’s all totally above board: “Nothing in the show is not extremely normal nudity, what you would see in the shower which is comforting but fascinating.”
It’s a sentiment Spark shares, who says one reason for the project was to explore how secure men were in their own skin.
“I would hope that I’m not objectifying anybody, that’s the opposite of what I’m trying to do by displaying a range of men of age, body size and shape and by removing the emotion where everybody is basically of the same expression and posture,” he says.
Spark says the aim was to move away from the “commercialised nature” of the nude, the “buff, hairless, muscular male,” and instead discover the diversity of masculinity in gay men.
“The rest of us exist and were just not being presented,” he says.
Not that the exhibition hasn’t faced criticism, with Spark highlighting one comment on social media which shrieked: “If I wanted to see a naked body, I’d watch porn.”
He puts it down to lingering Victorian prudishness.
Nonetheless, Grist believes the Australian attitude towards nakedness is more relaxed than the British.
“Because of the beaches and there being no issues getting fish and chips in your bikini,” she says.
Like Spark’s images, John Bortolin’s photographic book Manscapes focuses on the solitary male nude.
Other than that, it’s a world away. The clinical desolateness of the studio is replaced by the warm hues of the great outdoors of NSW’s Byron Bay and surrounds as a multitude of muscular men, nary a slither of fabric between them, casually lean against the boughs of mighty trunks or lazily lie about the dandelions.
“I love natural light and having the light on flesh just works for me,” Bortolin says.
Compendiums of men in states of undress are a common sight in gay bookshops, with more than 10 produced by prolific Australian photographer Paul Freeman alone.
Asked to identify a genre for his work, Bortolin offers up “art nudes”, saying he wanted to ensure that despite the full frontal nature of the images, they wouldn’t be seen as pornography.
“I didn’t want it to be sexual, but I did want it to be sexy,” he says.
Most of his models — only one was professional — are straight men from northern NSW.
“A lot of them said it was scary but wanted to push through personal boundaries,” Bortolin says.
“As the underwear came off, after 10 minutes, they felt comfortable.”
While he insists all his subjects knew what the final product would be a few were nonetheless taken aback: “When they saw it in a book with other men they were quite confronted, it was hard for them to look at.”
In contrast, others have put their images on social media (“they are getting all these ‘likes’ and they love it”) while five of his models came to the launch in Sydney.
“The attention they got was incredible and they didn’t care if it was men or women,” he says.
Bortolin adds that his book was never meant for an exclusively gay audience and many women have complimented him on it.
He says the reason for the concentration on men was because the fully-naked male form is so rare in popular culture.
Spark says time constraints, and the fact he knows more men, was why women are absent from his show. Meanwhile, the Portrait Gallery simply had fewer images of bare women in their archives to choose from.
“There doesn’t seem to be a lesbian equivalent to the coffee table photography books enjoyed by gay men despite the fact that lesbians are equally as fascinated with women’s bodies as gay men are with men’s bodies,” says Ann-Marie Callihana, who has been taking pictures of LGBTI Sydney for decades including for the Star Observer.
Calilhanna says art has historically embraced both male and female nudes but modern mores around sexuality has led to a divide. Women are taught to feel shame about exploring sexual interests while men are encouraged to feel strong and positive.
“It’s said that men find love through sex, whereas women find sex through love,” she says.
“This dichotomy polarises the genders and extrapolates to the visual where you will find both images of men and women displayed for male enjoyment but much less emphasis is given to the display of male or female images for female enjoyment.”
Despite his bravado, at one point Romo-Corella felt far less comfortable about his public nakedness.
“It sounds silly, but I was not thinking women would look at the photos,” he confides.
“My first response was to get out of there.
“Then I remembered that, at the end of the day, I like my body, who cares about the sex of the observer?
“It came back to the original feeling, that taking my clothes off is not as revealing as opening my true soul to those who I choose to share it with.”sh just works for me,” Bortolin says.