Hard to Imagine
The will to look

by Ronald Gregg

from Jump Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp.
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 2000, 2006

Review of Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Rim From Their Beginnings to Stonewall, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Thomas Waugh's extraordinary Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film From Their Beginnings to Stonewall provides an important addition to both gay history and cultural studies. Waugh astounds the reader with the weight and diversity of his photographic evidence, his theoretical explications of these photographic texts, and the history he provides about gay men's production, distribution, and consumption of these pre-Stonewall photographs, mostly in periods of stigmatization and policing of gay erotica and sex. Through his complex methodology, which brings together both historical contextualization and theoretical analyses of photographic evidence, Waugh demonstrates the importance of gay erotica in the development of a collective gay imaginary and its influence on gay political activism in the 20th century.

The book's photographs, which densely populate the book, provide an exciting and pleasurable history of the iconography of gay desires and evidence of sexual acts by gay men. Such histories were once thought to have been erased by police, families, politicians, and other homophobic persons and institutions intent on destroying and suppressing the photographic evidence of gay men's desire.

This book itself stands as a political reaction to conservative pressures to closet the images it historicizes, and it argues for the legitimacy of the author's and others' scholarship and desire. Waugh has insisted on printing sexually explicit examples of what he is analyzing, despite considerable resistance. "What shocked me in my innocence with regard to the present project," he writes, "is how much publishers, marketers, lawyers, and even archivists and technicians are part of the apparatus of censorship." Waugh found that he couldn't use certain photos either because archives withheld publication permission, his publisher's lawyers recommended that he not publish them, or legal restraints forced him to set aside erotic pictures containing subjects under the age of eighteen. Also, because of his publisher's concern with the privacy rights of some photographed subjects, Waugh was forced to use computer camouflage to distort the faces. But Waugh has persisted and has put together a remarkable visual record of gay men's desire. Waugh was correct to insist on including the images. Through visual evidence he shows the "slow emergence of a concealed and repressed love, of its acknowledgment and declaration, of its individual and collective fulfillment, and of its sharing" in the pre-Stonewall gay world (5).

It is important to note that while the photographs elicit the excitement of re-discovering a hidden past, this is not just another picture book. Through amazing long-term persistence and detective work which took him through many archives and personal collections, Waugh documents the circumstances under which these photographs were produced, individual photographers' backgrounds, photographic and filmic practices, aesthetic and iconographic influences upon producers, and legal and medical photographic documentation of "deviant" homosexual practices. Waugh, in sum, finds and reveals for us a history of erotica once thought lost, and in so doing, he elucidates the sources of, influences on, and pressures upon past and more contemporary gay men's erotica

Hard to Imagine expands on recent work by gay social and cultural historians by illustrating how important gay erotica has been to the gay world and its evolving activism under legal, moral, and political systems which sought to repress it. Pointing to homosexual eroticism's absence in many gay social histories, Waugh calls for reincorporating the erotic into gay history because, as he argues, it has been "a driving force in the gay imaginary" (6). Even under the threat of being arrested, losing a job, and/or being ostracized by family, gay men have continued to photograph the objects of their desire and their sexual practices. Gay erotica has contributed much to gay men's evolving identity, community and open activism.

Waugh casts a wide net in his search for gay male erotica. He defines the "erotic" broadly as those images that elicit sexual arousal and/or depict sexual behavior. Thus Waugh insists on depicting not only the homoerotic, but also the pornographic, and he also deals with photographs used by police and medical and psychological professionals in their work of repression and stigmatization. Waugh describes four socio-cultural "regimes" of the gay erotic:

  1. "Art" includes representations by producers/artists marked as high culture by their technical and aesthetic skills and location in the art market.
  2. "Physique culture" is marked by its kitschy, campy, low cultural pretensions and athleticism and bold commercialism.
  3. "The illicit" is defined by its illegality and thus underground production and distribution networks.
  4. The "instrumental" includes those images used by scientific, legal, and political communities to describe, define, pin down what it is that gay men do.

 For each of these regimes, Waugh analyzes what we see in the photograph or film still and discusses the historical context for that image. He notes the analytical dynamics which appear in both the presentational image, which shows the single model displaying himself to be looked at, and in the narrative image, which suggests an interaction or story. Waugh provocatively analyzes the complex dynamics of voyeurism and exhibitionism, identification and desire, and active and passive sexual practice. These dynamics help us analyze the production and consumption of these images from various perspectives, such as how the producer responds to and positions the model, how the model understands the situation and acts and positions himself, and how the viewer reads the presentation or narrative and attitude of the model.

Style and setting may evoke other tensions in a viewer's reading. First, there are raunchy, in-your-face images vs. more subdued, elegant ones, evoking classical artistic influences. Second, the erotic may be displayed or produced in either public or private settings. Power differentials also often create unequal relations between producer and model or between viewer and model. Finally, differences such as gender identification or performance, age, class, and race necessarily elicit different readings or different kinds of production of the gay erotic.

Waugh shows how the production and consumption of erotica intersect with a gay subject historically situated in a particular social, artistic, cultural, legal, political and technological world. By using a combination of historical and textual analysis, Waugh can compare how models act in different regimes and historical periods. For instance, during periods of extreme censorship, art and physical culture producers placed models in poses that sought to copy classical statuary and paintings in order to often camouflage explicit queer readings. Without censorship, these strategies lose their necessity. In fact, the regime of physical culture becomes almost obsolete when gay magazines and films can legally depict the pornographic. In the illicit regime, even in periods of public censorship of the gay erotic, models approach the camera differently: some perform sexual acts aggressively for the camera while other models shyly, embarrassingly display themselves. The experience of state repression and gay community thus influence what images are easily available, how producers and models construct the image, how the consumer responds, and how we should interpret these photos as historical texts.

Waugh demonstrates that our understanding should be complicated by other factors as well. Given the police and family surveillance of gay desire and sexual practices in most pre-Stonewall periods and locations in North America and Europe, many gay men left their homelands to visit foreign countries, especially Mediterranean ones, which seemed more welcoming of gay sexual practices. Baron Von (Gloeden's turn-of-the-century photos of Sicilian youth exploited the
photographed subject and liberated the "unlawful" desire of the gay consumer. While white artists dominated art and physical culture and often exploited men of color, new technologies such as the Polaroid camera enabled gay men of color and young men to make their own erotic images.

Both Waugh's photographs and text suggest important shifts in gay male desire and identifications over the course of the century. For instance, Waugh maps the iconographic shift in gay erotica from idealized primitive, pre-modern settings and boys of color to white, muscle men; from the "normal" sized, non-tumescent penis to the fetishized organ of immense dimensions. These shifts suggest intriguing changes in both the power of repressive authorities and the objects of gay men's desires and identifications. On the other hand, photographic evidence also suggests certain similarities in the iconography of gay erotica for the past 100 years. For example, a 1900 Von Gloeden photo of a boy on the beach resembles the 1930s young man on the beach in Otis Wade's illicit films, who looks like sexual performers in recent pornography from Eastern Europe, even down to the idyllic natural settings.

While these latter continuities in body and setting and the strategies that gay men have undertaken to disguise their images can easily lead to essentializing much of this history and the cultural study of these images, Waugh draws our attention to important changes in the social, political, economic, and technological factors surrounding these images' production. He describes shifts in the intensity and effectiveness of repression and the growing openness in photographers' depiction of the male nude and gay sex. He also points out how a changing technology has helped gay men subvert policing authorities, particularly at the point of processing. Gay men have used the multiple printing of photos, magazine publishing, 16mm film, self-developing Polaroid, hand held cameras, super-8 film and now video to subvert legal and moral restrictions

The images in this book raise many fascinating questions, some of which Waugh addresses and many of which remain unanswerable. Do the photos in Waugh's book and elsewhere try to represent a high ideal of male-male love or do they represent the everyday sexual desires and practices of the producers and models? Are these photos exploitative; was there an exchange of money between model and producer? What is the power relationship between photographer and subject? Does the subject know that his image will be used for sexual stimulation? How are the subjects posed in the image: are they looking back at us and openly exhibiting themselves, are they uncomfortable or shyly looking away, or are they narcissistically looking at themselves? How do genre and pose position the consumer of these images: to identify with the model or to possess him? Are the photos merely displaying the body for desire, admiration, or identification, or is there a narrative that draws the viewer into the performance? How do the categories of race, ethnicity, age, nation, class, and gender play into this quotient of eroticization and exploitation? As Waugh demonstrates through his analysis, our understanding and enjoyment of these various histories must be tinged with the ambiguities of exploitation and liberation.

Whether producers exploited models, found models who were willing to perform, or participated in the presentation or narrative themselves, Waugh claims that this will to produce erotic images and the will of consumers to buy/to use these images for sexual purposes in a repressive pre-Stonewall world helped gay men forge collective identities not only around desire but around resistances to repression. Throughout this history, those gay men who actively and knowingly produced, distributed, and consumed gay erotic images-whether in private or collectively-were engaged in political acts, both subtle and explicit. As mentioned above, for instance, in the regimes of art and physical culture, gay producers used classical imagery to depict the homoerotic in public art or publish legitimate magazines. On the other hand, in the regime of the illicit, gay men photographed themselves having sex and shared these photos with friends. Gay men have used the erotic imaginary as one important base for building a common visual erotic culture and an activist culture.

Through the production, distribution, consumption and representation of gay erotic images in the pre-Stonewall gay world, gay men resisted dominant society's repression and surveillance of their sexual desire and practices. Instead of the state's erasing gay desire, governments and their policing agents actually became a driving force, leading gay men either to turn to art and physical culture discourses to speak about gay desire in the public sphere or to exploit new technologies of photography and film to make private representations and share them with other gay men.

At the same time, scientists and policing agencies documented gay sex in a quest to know about or to provide evidence of illegal and deviant behavior. The state's drive to control sexuality led in a Foucauldian sense to a proliferation of new strategies for creating knowledge and new erotic texts, both from the subculture's resistance to the dominant culture and from the legal, scientific and political worlds' "sociological investigation."

Waugh's study analyzes this complex interaction between repression and resistance and shows how it works at various levels. For example, in his discussion on the regime of illicit photography and film, Waugh analyzes both the context and content of the erotic films made by the pioneer photographer and filmmaker Otis Wade in the Los Angeles area from 1935 to 1955. Waugh tells us that Wade's location in Los Angeles gave him an immediate entry into the gay world and access to the many willing sailors in the area for sex, performers and fellow spectators who wanted to see his finished films, and the media-saturated world of LA where he learned photography and 16mm filmmaking. Importantly, he also had access to a processing lab through a friend so that he could work around the institutional surveillance of mainstream processing which caught numerous other gay producers. Otis Wade's filmmaking illuminates how the gay underworld overcame repressive laws and surveillance. We learn how surprisingly bold and subversive Wade and other gay men were in depicting their gay desire under these circumstances. We also witness Wade's various approaches to filming his desire: he filmed men undressing without their knowledge, and he filmed pickups who teasingly, knowingly performed for the camera. Thus Wade's aesthetics encompassed the nervous verite of surreptitious filming and also the controlled filming of men knowingly acting in front of the camera with awareness. The ironic part of this history is that Waugh found these films and photos in the Kinsey Institute, which collects and catalogues sexually explicit photos in a sociological fashion in order to document and detail gay sexual habits.

Across Waugh's four regimes, we find different strategies for depicting and consuming gay erotic images as defined by cultural position and location. For instance, in the regime of "art," Waugh describes a variety of narratives and systems of thought employed to hide or disguise gay desire and the erotic image. That is, gay artists often engaged in both conscious and unconscious subterfuge, mystifying their desire in discourses of art, mythology, and psychology as covers for publishing gay male erotica in the public sphere. Waugh's book details these visual and verbal strategies and their evolution toward openness in the sixties when gay desire could finally be more openly declared. Then filmmakers like Andy Warhol could produce such works as BLOW JOB. However, while Warhol's patrons could see his film in a New York City theater, past consumers had to be more innovative and surreptitious. Waugh describes, for instance, how upper-class gay consumers at the turn of the century purchased gay erotic "art" in the sexual underground or traveled to more open sexual cultures where they could sexually participate as well as look.

Likewise, individuals working in the regime of "physique culture" used verbal and visual "alibis" to deflect charges of the illicit. These supposed admirers of physical culture used discourses of naturism, athleticism, narcissism, martyrism, and Greek ideals of male-male friendship to disguise and legitimize their photos of male nudes. But by the 1950s, many producers defied legal definitions of the licit and began openly, without alibi, to depict a more visible erotic gay desire. For instance, in the fifties and early sixties, Al Urban was prosecuted on three separate occasions for distributing photos of male nudes while Albert Heinecke went to prison in the fifties for using underage models. Outside of the protection of "art" and "athleticism," gay men who filmed and photographed nude men dangerously challenged the law and, as Waugh points out, "eroded the alibis" of previous images. For these men, taking a picture involved both a sexual and political act.

Waugh details this "slow emergence" of explicit gay sexual imagery across these regimes, and he traces how this imagery has contributed to gay political awareness through a community's collective desire and through postal officials and policing authorities' reactive attempts to contain and control that desire. In the 1950s, not only was Al Urban producing more overt gay erotica, gay men joined him in political resistance when they ordered, purchased, or made illicit images. They transgressed the laws and dominant sexual ideology, moving from the closet into the open with their consumption and production of illicit desire and sexual acts. The images thus illustrate both the erotic world of gay men and their social and political worlds.

To Waugh, all of these levels, from artistic photography to everyday Polaroids of sex acts, illustrate the historical depiction of overt gay sex as noble, beautiful, transformative and political (10). And in his own visual essay in which he resisted a bowdlerized photographic history, (10) Waugh legitimizes gay love, desire, and the practice of gay sex not only in gay scholarship, but in the more general world of academic cultural studies, and more radically, on the shelves of major bookstores. Like his predecessors, Waugh insists on showing what it is that these gay men and artists have produced and distributed, what sexologists have produced to illustrate their work, and what police have confiscated and used as evidence in a pursuit to prosecute and erase this desire. This is an important part of Waugh's activist agenda: to take what has been considered "voyeuristic objectification" and to argue that these images illustrate "resistance, pleasure, and courage" (5).

Waugh offers a complex reading of the production of the erotic and gives us tools to deal with the present climate; we need to be able to evaluate new technologies such as the Internet; new representations on the web and in magazines, music video, fashion advertisements, and other media; intimidations of artists, academics and consumers; and attempts to draw new restrictive boundaries around erotic images in our public and private worlds. Tom Waugh's Hard to Imagine not only illustrates a less exploitative, more liberating historical use of the erotic, but it makes an important political intervention, challenging simplistic characterizations of pornography as exploitation. While exploitative images of women, children, people of color, and others do exist, Waugh demonstrates the history of a less exploitative use of the erotic and offers a model for reconfiguring the erotic out of its exploitative trappings.

Hard to Imagine is history, cultural analysis, a contemporary political act, and an historical example of present censorship pressures and the hysteria surrounding explicit images of sex and adolescent sexuality. Waugh has bravely chartered new territory, insisting on pushing gay male sexual desire and practices not only into the academic sphere, but into the public sphere. Furthermore, what Waugh has accomplished reminds us of the incredible race against time lesbian and gay cultural historians must engage in since the erotic life of many lesbians and gay men has disappeared and continues to disappear as families and archives erase/ hide/ distort these lives. And it doesn't help that it is still difficult to talk about, much less illustrate, much of this in the public sphere.

Waugh speaks to both an academic community struggling with how to understand and teach erotic images and respond to wrong-headed censorship and to a gay community interested in the history of their erotic culture. For both, Waugh's book illustrates recent changes in strategies to resist the censorship of gay sexual representations along with the continuities and shifts in iconographic influences and narratives on our erotic culture.

Film and cultural-studies scholars such as Waugh have rightly begun to explore historically and theoretically the boundaries between the licit and the illicit. Such studies complicate our understanding of images of desires and sexual practices. In addition, some college courses now openly analyze sexual imagery, both normative and non-normative. However, in the recent climate, anyone who wishes to study and discuss explicit representations of sexual practices in the academy must know they are treading on dangerous, controversial ground. For example, in autumn 1997 at SUNY-New Paltz, two conferences, "Revolting Behavior: The Challenges of Women's Sexual Freedom" and "Subject to Desire: Refiguring the Body," explored women's sexual culture, including both heterosexuality and non-normative sexual behavior. These conferences came under political attack by conservative columnists and politicians, including Gov. Pataki, and the attacks focused on workshops on S/M and sex toys. Also, conservative critics reminded the public that their tax dollars funded these conferences which were open to "innocent" college students.

Thus, the U.S. still finds itself defining, debating, and reconfiguring legal boundaries between licit and illicit erotic images in public spaces and deciding what sexually explicit representations can be made available to private consumers. Without a doubt, conservative attacks have stymied public erotic images and even academic dialogue about our culture's sexual practices and pleasure.

Still, in the realm of film studies, since the 1980s, scholars have opened up and continued a serious discussion of pornography. Groundbreaking discussions on pornography in the 1980s in Jump Cut and by others such as Linda Williams have gone far to complicate our understanding of sexual representations and to challenge demonizing tactics. In Jump Cut (March, 1985), Richard Dyer and Tom Waugh pointed out that unlike the gender order in heterosexual pornography, gay pornography could be progressive through its more egalitarian relationship between producers, performers, and consumers. Thus, instead of censoring all pornography, these critics' work might encourage producers to make sexual representations which are not denigrating, equalizing between genders and other social groups. In Hardcore: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible, Linda Williams points out that the conclusions drawn by anti-porn feminists, conservative politicians, and religious leaders blaming hardcore porn for women's exploitation are over-simplified and fail to take into account the growing number of women who consume or make porn. Focusing upon how pleasure is constructed and the power relations suggested by gender, age, and racial differences between performers, producers, and consumers in erotic images, cultural critics have offered a more balanced discussion between considering exploitation vs. more progressive images and they offer a discourse with which to problematize and challenge the most reactionary critiques against sexual representations.

Waugh takes an even more radical step in his scholarship when he tells us from the very beginning that this book entailed not only an obsession with research and a labor of love but also a labor of lust. Waugh doesn't back away from his desire by designing a cultural or philosophical alibi to cover nor does he hide from what he is doing. He says that he enjoyed the visual material and found it sexually arousing. He challenges other scholars to admit their own desire when it is evoked by their scholarship.

Waugh has succeeded, but it has not been easy. Maybe in the future, and I'm not optimistic about my lifetime, it will seem ridiculous for a cultural historian to describe how the erotic was depicted surreptitiously through the Polaroid, super 8 film, and later video in prose, instead of with the actual visual evidence. We can be grateful Waugh insisted on its visual representation. Without these pictures, the history of the erotic would be left "hard to imagine" for many scholars, students, and bookstore browsers.