Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bruce Weber

Today is fashion photographer and filmmaker Bruce Weber’s birthday. Weber’s 1977 photographs of a recumbent Jeff Aquilon revolutionized the ways male models were posed and photographed—and they closed shop on the stiff faux-action poses male underwear and swimsuit models struck in mail-order catalogues in previous decades.

The homoerotic aesthetic subsequently spread to a number of other fashion and editorial photographers—Ritts, Lalli, Meisel—but Weber’s distinctive traits are a classically inspired naturalness, a sense of accessibility, and an emphasis on skin tone and the symmetrical, even sometimes blandly beautiful faces of his models more than the oiled-up muscle flexing and ironic smirking that had previously typified photography of the male physique.

His work has been criticized as tendentious and fascistic, but the main (real) complaint has been its homoeroticism—and its unapologetic objectification of the male body along the same lines as previous photographers’ and artists’ objectification of the female body.

His inspirations were photographers like Herbert List, Wilhelm von Gloeden, and F. Holland Day—minus their gauzy dreaminess—and ideas of pastoral pansexualism explored in the nineteenth century by Thomas Eakins, Walt Whitman, and Edward Carpenter.

In the late 1980s his work became more self-reflexive, showing models “off stage” at fashion events and shoots. This period corresponds with his advertising work for Calvin Klein—a collaboration that eroticized both the Klein brand and male underwear—and drew controversy from religious groups and derision and parody from feminists, media critics, and social satirists.

Controversy continued as Weber created the images and aesthetic of A&F Quarterly for retailer Abercrombie & Fitch from 1997 to 2003—which drew accusations of pornography, sexism, and racism—though (I would argue) the real bone of contention was the normalization of the human body and sexuality in traditionally homophobic and erotophobic settings such as American sports, rural living, and (the tipping point for most critics) the celebration of Christmas.

As a documentary filmmaker, Weber has developed a unique magazine-like discursive style—in films like Broken Noses and Chop Suey—whose subjects (boxing, pop singers, Hollywood) express a pronounced though always subtle eroticism and the variety of Weber’s own tastes and obsessions—both clearly rooted in nostalgia for lost youth in general and Weber’s childhood memories in particular.

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