Wide Angle 19.3 (1997) 171-176
Hard to Imagine:
Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall
Tom Waugh's Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall is a lovingly and painstakingly compiled collection of evidence for the gay male erotic imagination, a visual history to complement and bring to vivid, and sometimes lurid, life the textual histories of the construction of homosexuality that have been documented by John D'Emilio, Jeffrey Weeks, George Chauncey and others. By telling this story visually, Waugh connects the advent of photographic technology to the formation of a gay culture that eagerly seized upon this new and more immediate form of communication to speak itself and its desires, albeit often in a clandestine voice audible only to fellow travelers. Waugh celebrates the courage of men who transgressed cultural taboos (as well as laws and ordinances) in order to produce, collect and preserve this most amazing visual record of their desires. The erotic power of these images and their transgressive potential remains even today, or perhaps, especially today, when threats of censorship and sexual panic proceed hand in hand with improvements in quality of life and visibility for people who practice "non-normative" sex, such as gays and lesbians. Waugh, in simply distilling, presenting and interpreting this history, had to negotiate a maze of nervous attorneys and archival administrations--and, according to his preface, make some "heartbreaking" compromises in order to see his project of thirteen years appear in print. In fact, out of thirty printers to which Columbia University Press presented the book, all but one declined to print the material. The result, however, is a body of evidence, at the same time contradictory and coherent, which itself makes up the syntax of a "reverse" [End Page 171] discourse, flaunting (sometimes coyly, sometimes blatantly) social proscriptions against male same-sex desire and social, judicial and political efforts at containment and control of that desire. "Representation is the cement of úcommunity," 1 according to Waugh, and while the more visible, post-Stonewall gay community today is diverse and varied, Waugh's collection contains the seeds of its collective erotic imaginary.
Hard To Imagine is based on certain fundamental assumptions. The first is that the nude is an erotic discourse, in spite of all historical alibis that may be applied to its existence, and the second is that homoerotic images are connected to the formation and maintenance of gay community and political affinity. In a section called "The Collector," Waugh sifts through the photo and film collections of five men whose lives spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in order to shape the four visual regimes around which he organizes the book: art, including previously canonized works by well known artists from Wilhelm von Gloeden and George Platt Lynes to Andy Warhol; physique images which emphasized the athletic male body and constituted the earliest commercial circulation of such "deeply homoerotic" photographs; illicit photography and film, underground representations that functioned without the alibis available to the art and physique categories, but instead, sought to directly divine and address the various sexual desires (in legal parlance: prurient interests) of the customer; and finally, the instrumental regime of knowledge, that is, representations created for the purpose of furthering the ends of scientific, legal or political agendas, particularly representations associated with the work of sexologists Magnus Hirschfeld and Alfred Kinsey. From Polaroids to commercially produced films, from slick fashion photography to scientific documentaries and even surveillance photographs, each component of Waugh's collection is defiantly presented in the context of its private erotic use value. In each regime, Waugh methodically dismantles the alibis that justified the existence of such representations and the disavowals of eroticism that accompanied the images in their own historical moment as well as in subsequent critical discourses about them. Stripped bare, as it were, we are brought face to face with our most human (and uncontrollable) urge to figure our erotic pleasures. [End Page 172]
Waugh and others...