whitehot | September 2008, Interview with Vince Aletti
Don Whitman (Western Photography Guild)
portrait head c. 1960
courtesy Presentation House, Vancouver
Amarie Bergman Interviews Vince Aletti
28 June to 3 August 2008
333 Chesterfield Avenue
North Vancouver BC
Canada V7M 3G9
“Male,” an exhibition of works drawn from the personal collection of curator, writer and photography critic Vince Aletti, premiered earlier this year at White Columns, New York, and was recently featured at Presentation House, Vancouver.
Amarie Bergman: Was there an early influence on your ideas about masculinity?
Vince Aletti: Rock and roll. I started my career writing about pop music, so rock musicians and singers were a huge influence. And I guess it all kind of goes back to Elvis Presley. Not all of the 50s were about conformity, and because of Elvis, I grew up with a very fluid idea about masculinity. Elvis had almost feminine good looks and a sexy body; he was masculine but not strait-jacketed. He had an enormous influence on a whole generation of guys. There were push and pull influences in that period too with actors like Marlon Brando, James Dean, and, later, Jean Paul Belmondo. They suggested there was more than one way to be a man.
So there was a sense of potential, not a pre-written script about how to act, in my teens, even if I didn’t really know how to act on it. I’ve always collected images, and early on it was record sleeves and album covers. At the exhibition at Presentation House I included an album cover of Fabian, who was a typical teen idol of the period—and the stereotype of a young Italian American. Not a great singer, but great hair and great looks! He was one of the Philadelphian boys—that’s where I was born—and projected an urban Guido sexuality, but he played with it, too.
When I was writing, starting in the late 60s, my main idols and influences were Motown and soul singers like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, and especially Smokey Robinson. I loved his music, his lyrics, and his voice, which was high and really sweet. He was handsome but not macho or obviously sexy and there was something both masculine and feminine about him. He was the lead singer and songwriter of The Miracles and that was my favourite soul group for years. I loved the Temptations, too, especially their sweet-voiced singer, Eddie Kendricks, who went on to make one of the first disco hits.
Bruce Bellas [Bruce of LA] Untitled c. 1960
courtesy Presentation House, Vancouver
AB: How have your ideas about masculinity changed over the course of your maturity?
VA: They didn’t change radically, but I hope they evolved. Mick Jagger and the Stones were major influences – sexy, feminine, masculine—and helped shape my ideas about what a man can be. I became a music critic for Rolling Stone, specializing in R&B and soul, and I guess I became part of the culture just by putting my enthusiasms into print.
AB: In your introduction to MaleFemale (Aperture, 1999), you say that “every picture tells a different story; together, they begin to add up to a definition of masculinity or femininity, but only if they’re understood in the plural: many masculinities, multiple femininities. More, more, more. … In the end, every definition of male and female is personal, and it’s that idiosyncrasy we value, need, and how to encourage. Who do we think we are?” You answer your own question with: “A work in progress.” I admire the simplicity and truth of this. We can, by association, say your collection is a work in progress, defining masculinity. Yet it is not a fixed or complete entity. As you write in your statement for “Male” - nine years after MaleFemale - “Masculinity is still mysterious to me. If my collection is about anything, it’s about masculine variety and its infinite possibilities …” I have a feeling that you want to keep the mystery or the mystique of what it is to be a man, via the photographs you collect, tantalizingly alluring. Not understood. Not known. Having no absolutes. Your thoughts?
VA: Exactly: No absolutes!
AB: In your interview with Madonna in MaleFemale you reveal that one picture that’s been up on every dorm room or apartment wall you’ve ever lived in was a Richard Avedon photo of Lew Alcindor* from a 1965 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Why was this particular image through many moments of time, carried with you?
VA: I was hugely interested early on in Richard Avedon and his fashion photographs. In his photograph, Alcindor was incredibly handsome, a tall, thin, young man, gangly but graceful, wearing a uniform and holding a basketball. He was just a New York teenager, not yet a national star. He has long bare limbs and seems so self possessed, not self-conscious about his attractiveness or sexuality. So loose, and standing alone on a Harlem basketball court.
Wilhelm von Gloeden [boy in plaid shirt] c. 1900
courtesy Presentation House, Vancouver
AB: Do you have a masculine ideal? Is there someone who seems like perfection?
VA: No one ideal, but many. I’d have to go back to Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. But there's a lot of different men that embody an ideal. Again, Mick Jagger and Jean Paul Belmondo, along with Alain Delon, the young Sean Penn, the young Antonio Banderas, Justin Timberlake. I like guys who project a sense of knowing who they are but are still putting it together. A fluidity in approaching their own identity and iconography, playing with masculinity and femininity. And Justin Timberlake definitely echoes Smokey Robinson.
AB: I understand that your father was a serious amateur photographer and there was a darkroom in the house, along with a continual array of new images of your dad’s work plus photographic books and magazines. With this amount of exposure to the field, did you ever want to be a professional photographer?
VA: No, it never occurred to me. I’m far too intimidated by the work of ‘real’ photographers. I take Polaroids and the usual snapshots. But even so, when I want to take a serious portrait, I get a photographer friend to do it.
AB: You began to collect images in a more profound way after you fell under the influence of Peter Hujar. Hujar took a photograph of you in 1975: you appear self-contained - your arms are crossed, your closely fitting knit shirt is buttoned - and yet you have an expansive and divinely composed expression on your face. Can you tell me about your relationship to the man, the photographer and his work?
VA: I met him through a friend who was also in the music business. I didn't know him as a photographer at first. He was charismatic and very attractive in a way he himself never entirely understood. When I saw his work as a photographer, I was drawn to his way of seeing people—truly connecting to people as a way of shaping his world—and relating to them so intimately. We lived across the street from one another in the years before he died, and I’m still fascinated by him and his work.
Peter Hujar, Manny Vasquez, 1980
courtesy Presentation House, Vancouver
AB: Who else in history would you have liked to be photographed by?
VA: Richard Avedon and Irving Penn first of all. Both would have revealed something because they both have a way of photographing that is intense and intelligent. A sense of reaching out, similar to Peter Hujar. They really connect with their subjects and I always have a sense that they want to understand them. Who wouldn’t want to be among the portraits they chose to make? I can’t imagine anything better.
Diane Arbus—I'm curious what she might have seen. Being chosen by her would have been an honour, although I don’t imagine her subjects felt flattered. But to be one of the people she photographed would be exciting, like entering into a certain kind of modern history.
And I would have loved to be photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, with her soft, blurred focus. I wonder what she might have imagined me to be in her private mythology.
To see yourself in a picture can be confusing and off-putting. I don't always recognize myself but it is always a bit of a revelation.
AB: Your collection could be called sexually provocative but you say in your statement for this exhibition that the subtext to your male subjects is desire, and the attraction to each of the subjects is usually more soulful than sexual. It seems to me there is a fluidity between those terms, as well as with the terms pornographic and erotic: and desire can slip and slide into them—sometimes sequentially or often simultaneously. Would you care to comment?
VA: The soulful connection is the most important. I’m attracted not just to a guy’s body but to something in his personality. Of course, that’s projected mainly through his body, his face - eyes, lips - and a way of presenting himself. It’s what his body is saying to me. I can't distinguish between and don't want to divide the person and their sexuality. The pictures that interest me draw on both things.
I'd like to add that the collection itself is not a statement. It came about piece by piece over the years, without a particular goal in mind. I want to surround myself with what truly satisfies and excites me. Essentially, it’s a private collection—something I put together for myself, with no idea of bringing it out into the world. I’m not intending to say anything with it. That’s why it’s odd to be making a formal statement about the collection. It needs to be understood as a whole. That said, it is exciting to put it into a gallery like Presentation House and to have people respond to it.
AB: I heard about a study¥ via the Georgia Straight’s Savage Love column which found men prefer erotica that plays exclusively to their professed sexual orientation. On the other hand, heterosexual and homosexual women tend to become sexually aroused by both male and female erotica, and so they have a bisexual arousal pattern. Would this explain why women are transfixed by your photographs in a similar way as gay men are? How then would you explain the captivation that some heterosexual men have with viewing your collection? Do these men perhaps find examples of other men they’ve known—a memory kind of thing—or is it that they’re simply curious by nature, intrigued with their own masculinity and/or have a tendency to be fascinated by diversity?
VA: I hadn't thought of the sexuality of the audience before now. I noticed women respond to it strongly and I'm very happy about that. It doesn't surprise me that heterosexual men would respond to it. The images are reflections of themselves and I imagine they’d be interested to see how they fit into this group of photographs, not as gay or straight men. All men are interested in reflections of who they are—how they stack up against other guys. They might not appreciate the comparison but the range of men in my photographs is so broad that it’s far from exclusive. The collection doesn't set a standard, an artificial standard, that men need to come up to. It is a way of presenting masculinity that is very broad, not one way of looking at men. The pictures are all different ways of being. It is not about gayness in a particular way.
Marion Michelle, Untitled (One-legged man with crutch, Mexico), 1941
courtesy Presentation House, Vancouver
AB: Andrea Fraser commented in a recent lecture that, “A collector lives in a different world than an artist (or a photographer) but he, as well as his collection, is also subject to exposure in order to make an exhibition possible to be viewed.” Do you feel your collection has exposed you or revealed who you are when the photographs have been exhibited? In what ways?
VA: Revealed, yes. At White Columns, I put up the smaller, more ephemeral images on the gallery's bulletin board—a three-panel corkboard under glass—to provide a broader context for the exhibition. In a sense, these are pictures that are more typical of my larger collection than what is shown matted and framed: old Polaroids, physique pictures, newspaper clippings, vintage postcards, antique photographs, magazine covers and magazine pages. At Presentation House, I used the foyer space to give a similar introduction to the collection. In a way, this material floats below the more formal “collection.” And these more fragile, smaller pieces are much more revealing of me than the pictures in the frames. But what exactly is being revealed, I’m not sure. I’m waiting for someone to tell me.
Each of the constellations of smaller pictures expands into the larger images; it introduces them and fills in the blanks. I pin them up on the walls with pushpins, not as precious objects. Connections are made between them: one to one, one against the other. In the main part of the shows, I installed the framed work on shelves, like I do at home. Here, I change things regularly, layer and juxtapose them, and that’s a lot harder when one picture is formally hung next to another. There’s no particular hierarchy within the collection. A piece by an anonymous photographer matters as much to me as a Nan Goldin or a Larry Clark. I combine the material and allow people to work out their own discoveries. A number of photographs at Presentation House are from student shows, and they are just as interesting to me as work by Roger Mayne or William Klein. One of the things that I most appreciate is when people go through the show looking at the work without a checklist, not to look for the big names but to make discoveries.
One of the pictures that people always comment on is one I picked up from a student show by graduating seniors at the School of Visual Arts in New York by a photographer named Jesse Cesario. It’s an extraordinary picture, a luminous picture that is really moving to me: A young father with his son on his lap. [Jesse & Oscar 2005] The relationship is sketched in with the father’s intense gaze and the delicate, protective way he’s holding his son. It’s beautiful and tender, and it’s one picture that people really seem to relate to. And this delights me.
AB: Speaking of luminous. One of the main characters, a photographer, in Luminosity a book by Frank McEnaney is obsessed with the idea of luminosity = emitting or full of light. Realizing that he has seen this quality only in photographs of Marilyn Monroe, who "stood for the divine spark in us all," he spends his entire life searching for the secret of how to achieve luminosity in his pictures - something he has done only once and by accident in his youth. Is the achievement of luminosity, within a photograph that you collect, something that you are subliminally attracted to, in addition to soulfulness? Which photographs, besides Cesario’s, stand out for you in the exhibition as luminous?
VA: Many of Peter Hujar's images have a luminosity and soulfulness. In this show, his picture of a young Honduran friend of mine, Manny Vasquez, is especially strong, and in Peter’s eyes, Manny has a real luminosity.
The two Russian boys by Ingar Krause [Juvenile Prison, Alexin Russia 2003] are not trying to project anything but they have a kind of light. They are emotionally stripped down, and hiding their feelings and I find it very moving.
Jim Hamilton [Coney island gang member] 1977
courtesy Presentation House, Vancouver
AB: A collection and, by association, its collector, forms a locus of remembrance. In other words, the reality of an object is a way for the mind to experience thought, sensation and feeling—and also to recall them. Milan Kundera in Slowness alludes to this: “For what is formless cannot be grasped, or committed to memory.” A photograph of a man can be looked at, held, kissed, admired, dreamed and thought about—in the moment—as well as remembered. How do you see yourself as a collector in a world of photographic artists?
VA: Long before I was a “collector,” I had drawers and boxes full of photographic images. Most of them had no particular value except to me. They were just pictures torn form magazines or old photos I found at the flea market or small, classic male nudes from the 50s and 60s that I’d bought for a dollar or two. I’m glad to be able to afford larger and more recognized photographs but I’ve never stopped looking for and amassing other sorts of pictures, too. I surround myself with images that mean something to me and resonate in my life. The collection evolved in a personal, casual way. I didn't intend it to be a collection or think about it as one. It was more about things I responded to—really an extension of myself, not unlike buying a postcard. If I like it, I'll get it. There’s no need to justify it. Nobody I feel I have to explain it to.
AB: What is your overriding visual inspiration?
VA: I don’t think there’s one overriding one, but one inspiration in putting my pictures together is Sam Wagstaff. He was a curator who became a collector of photographs in the early 70s, before many other people were into it, but he was probably better known as the mentor and lover of Robert Mapplethorpe. He also had a show of his collection at the Grey Art Gallery in New York that Peter Hujar took me to. The show and its catalog made a big impression on me. What inspired and excited me was his broad approach—not one theme or one subject. Wagstaff was a serious collector who bought work by well-known photographers along with unknown and anonymous ones. His range was historical but without a sense of hierarchies. No 19th-century image was more important or better than something that was taken two years ago. The exhibition got me thinking about a collection as a personal way of seeing—a quirky and idiosyncratic vision. Looking back, it was a turning point in being a collector for me—not self consciously putting something “major” together, but buying what you could afford. It opened a door and gave me an impetus.
In addition to Wagstaff, John Szarkowski at MoMA was an inspiration too. He collected and exhibited all kinds of photographs for the museum, breaking down genres. He showed publicity shots, anonymous photos, all sorts of vintage material that was interesting in and of itself. It didn't matter if it had an “important” name attached to it or not. Its value was in the eye of the beholder, the eye of the curator, the eye of the collector--someone who could bring this material to light and give it a sense of importance and not be shunted aside. "Art photography," I realized, was not the only thing worth looking at …or collecting.
Vince Aletti reviews photography exhibitions for The New Yorker's ‘Goings on About Town’ section and writes a regular column about photo books for Photograph. He contributes occasional features and reviews to Aperture, Art + Auction, Art & Antiques, and Photoworks. He wrote for Rolling Stone and was the art editor of the Village Voice from 1994 to 2005, and the paper's photo critic for 20 years. He is the winner of the International Center of Photography's 2005 Infinity Award in writing. Aletti wrote half of the 101 brief descriptive essays that form the backbone of Andrew Roth's The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century (2001) and has written introductions to books by Michael Thompson and Ingar Krauss (both 2005) and Marc Cohen and Kohei Yoshiyuki (both 2007). In March of 2002, he co-curated a show of Steven Klein's fashion photography for the Musee de L'Elysee in Lausanne, Switzerland. He worked as a consultant and key contributor to an exhibition about the rise and fall of disco that opened in November 2002 at Seattle's Experience Music Project. “Flesh Tones: 100 Years of the Nude,” a show of photographs he organized, was at New York’s Robert Mann Gallery in 2003, and he was the curator of a show of work by the art director and photographer Henry Wolf at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in 2005. Andrew Roth's PPP Editions is publishing "Male," a book of work from Aletti's collection sequenced by Roth and with an essay by Collier Schorr, in November.
Parallel to the exhibition “Male,” White Columns has published a compilation of Aletti’s 1970s column on disco music (‘Disco File' —originally published on a weekly basis in Record World magazine).
* Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (born Fredrick Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr.); April 16, 1947, is an American athlete and retired professional basketball player, widely considered one of the greatest NBA players of all time
¥ Northwestern University (2003, June 13). Study Suggests Difference Between Female And Male Sexuality. ScienceDaily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/06/030613075252.htm