Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Sitting on New York City's L Train, jerking along between Manhattan and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I have had the unsettling feeling that I've been transported back to 1979. Were it not for the numbers of ears I see tethered to iPods and the fingers pecking away at cellphones, I would believe with certainty that it was, in fact, seventy-nine. The long hair and beards and mustaches adorning hipster faces has the unmistakable look of my college age peers. I want to blurt out, "I looked just like you once!", but the blank eyes peering back at my middle-aged facade reveal that they fail to see what resemblance they share with me.
I think I look great for my age, but I don't look twenty-one, much less twenty-seven. Thank God, I feel no compulsion to dig through attics and basements, or hit the vintage stores, to achieve that style again. Dressing in middle-age, as you did in your youth, strikes me as too much like older men and women, who believe that keeping the same hairstle through the decades has somehow stopped the cruel hands of time.
Men differ today from the boys of my youth, as much as I differed from my father's WWII generation. I can't speak for my father, although I can recount stories he has regaled I and my brothers with since childhood, but I can compare what I observe today from what I remember seeing in my own early twenties.
Young men have always been conscious of their appearance, but today there is much more self-consciousness about their bodies and sexual identity. Today's man knows that other men -- aka gay men -- may be looking at their bodies, prompting them to want to look great, while at the same time to not solicit the gay gaze.
Although, I wasn't out as a gay man in my student days, I, nevertheless, watched the men on my dormitory floor and at the gym. Nudity was less of an issue, when guys were not wondering if gay men were watching them. Men all showered together, and whatever was thought was left, in public, unspoken. I recall at eighteen, shortly after moving into my college housing highrise, entering the floor's men's room and seeing an Adonis built senior, standing naked at the sink, shaving a day's stubble off his morning face. I the rush, not of lust, but of, awe. He was magnificent and that image, now burned into my memory, I will carry to my grave.
I look at the photographs that I took during that period and I compare them to photographs that I make today. People behave differently before the camera now, than they did, back then. Today, everyone is much more self-conscious about their appearance than twenty-five or more years ago. At that time, not everyone had a camera, and unlike today, a camera wasn't on everyone's person twenty-four hours a day. Today with proliferation of digital cameras and camera phones, everyone can shoot everyone else all the time. The digital speed of immediately seeing the image after you've shot it only makes people either more self-conscious or more self-satisfied.
People ask me if I shoot film or digital. I continue to shoot film because I love the look of it, and because it would cost me a fortune to buy a digital camera that could imitate my own medium format film camera. But one advantage I treasure to shooting film over digital, is that I don't have to keep showing whomever I photograph their captured image in the LCD screen. I tell them that they'll have to wait, and because they accept the wait, they become more relaxed and less conscious of their own out appearance. It means that the subject must trust me and allow me to do whatever I need to do without the subject turning into an Art Director.
Not only straight men are conscious of how they are being perceived, but gay men are conscious of it as well. While a straight man may want to avoid being seen as a sexual object, or even being perceived as being homosexual, gay men have become like women who don't want to encourage too much attention from the male sex. Such gay men want to be seen and admired, but not bothered. Nor does this gay man want, at least in public places, being perceived as a slut, so he wears his towel from the locker room to the shower, and never enters the sauna or steam room, where he knows that he'll find other gay men.