Ray Cook – Beer, Blokes and Buboes
Ray Cook’s photographs address a number of distinct, if interconnected, ideas and concerns – sexuality, AIDS, unanticipated survival, shifting identity, male bonding – but they share a strong defining quality. A sensibility. A style. More than a style, a character. It’s an approach to image making that not only creates the theatrical mise-en-scène but articulates its complex and multivalent mode of action. It is a sensibility that, when named, will almost certainly be misunderstood, misattributed. Reduced to its narrow populist usage. Seen as a diminution when in fact it is a key. A key that opens a secret garden of inner desires, fears and dreams. The name of this sensibility is camp.
Camp is notoriously hard to define and many who have tried have done so from the vantage of a personal and particular agenda. I am sure I will do the same. But no matter, because it is not my intention to constrain Cook’s work in a narrow semantic pigeonhole, so much as reflect its complexity in the glitterball of camp.
While the ideas behind Cook’s photographs come from life – very often the specific conditions of his own life at any given period – the stories they relate are conjured from the imagination, grow out of the spontaneous interaction of friends at play and draw on the lexicon of gay mythology.
A well-built young man gazes out at the viewer, his arm raised to shade his eyes. Behind him a mass of feathers suggest angel wings. It’s a black and white photograph but the feathers have been toned pink. He is naked save for a pair of sheer tights, patterned with swirling lines, that trap and display his genitalia. The title spruiks: For a Good Time Call Hephaistion.
Hephaistion was the close companion and reputed lover of Alexander the Great. A skilled strategist in battle and a charmer socially it is said that he and Alexander were devoted and did not try to hide this in public. Masculine, charming, passionate, courageous and gay. A role model. His translation to Brisbane in the late 20th century, dressed for a dance party is not simply the juxtaposition of incongruous storylines, but a synthesis of allusion drawn from the dictionary of camp. Such allusion is many levelled and the dictionary has many pages, so to help understand it I will take a brief look at two significant figures in the history of homoerotic photography.
The evocation of the antique world and especially that of ancient Greece has long been the stage set for homoerotic fantasy. At the turn of the 19th to 20th century a minor Prussian aristocrat, Wilhelm von Gloeden, gained fame (and, in circles that knew a thing or two, not a little notoriety) for his tastefully arranged images of local youths – naked or lightly draped – set against the ruins and landscapes of Taormina in north east Sicily. Von Gloeden was a skilled photographer and there is no doubt his images are consummately crafted. They are also, to modern-day eyes, plainly homoerotic. Yet, at the time his images, especially those that avoided full nudity, were collected by the highest echelons of polite society who passed through Taormina on the Grand Tour. Indeed his fame as a photographer and his evocations of the ancient world did much to put Taormina on the early tourist map and make it what it is today. For those drawn to the love that dare not speak it’s name, however, the message was clear, and, for the trusted visitor there was the added possibility of an invitation to join one of the nocturnal Bacchanalia von Gloeden organised in the hills outside the town. And so it lasted until World War I and the subsequent rise of Mussolini closed him down.
While the name of von Gloeden faded from the public scene and art abandoned romanticism to set off down a brave new road in the interwar years, his story lived on in the minds (and fantasies) of gay men during the repressive years prior to the advent of sixties counter-culture. But it did more than live, it evolved. It became emblematic. Von Gloeden had had many copiers in his own day, but in later decades his images – and the idea of his images – became a kind of code for echoing what was imagined as a golden moment of (homo-) sexual liberty.
Following World War II, and especially in the United States, a new version of the homoerotic evocation of the ancient world gained popularity. Perhaps its best known proponent was a photographer in Los Angels called Bob Mizer. He ran the Athletic Model Guild (AMG) and published many pocket-sized magazines depicting artfully arranged male nudes in settings that suggest classical antiquity – albeit the classical antiquity of B-grade sword-and-sandal movies of the day.
There were a number of differences here. The men were much more muscular. Von Gloeden’s youths had been ‘ephebes’ – in the stage between child and man. As such they did not threaten the self-image of patriarchal authority. The men of AMG were exemplary specimens of all-American manhood. And the settings were Roman in flavour, not Greek as had been the case for von Gloeden. Not all AMG’s product was set in classical antiquity, sporting scenarios also featured, but all shared the associations of men fit and ready for combat. As the west and east set in for the Cold War, the trappings of healthy male virility and implication of readiness for conflict helped to normalise the images into the otherwise repressive postwar years.
Mizer’s images differed in another way from those of von Gloeden. They were overtly camp. While one may look back at von Gloeden’s fey evocations of classical antiquity and find them camp, this is in the eye of the beholder and not the spirit of the maker. But for Mizer camp was a language that allowed him to simultaneously mask and reveal the erotic intent of the images. It all depended on whether you could read the signs.
It can be difficulty in retrospect to see how the images produced by the Athletic Model Guild could be anything but overtly homoerotic, but they flew below the radar in fifties America delivering their payload to gay men in hiding well beyond the big cities of the east and west coast. This sleight of hand is part of the ironic pose of camp that presents a stylised exaggeration of the very thing it purportedly seeks to mask. Jean Cocteau, writing in Vanity Fair in 1922, called camp “a lie that tells the truth”.
If the appropriation of styles and scenarios from other times and the cloak of fine art respectability were aspects of the camp strategy – both impetus and excuse, camouflage and confession – then the failure to be totally persuasive was also an essential element. The lie that tells the truth must make its lie perceivable for that truth to be grasped, if only by those with sensibilities attuned to recognise it. The subtle gap between the ostensible evocation of the antique world in the images of von Gloeden and the recognition of local youths playing dress-ups is the chink though which one glimpses the living eroticism. It penetrates the glass wall between the academic interest in the lives of long ago and the carnal potential of the present. Camp asserts the unspeakable in the guise of the safely unreachable. Here camp is not just a stylistic sensibility but a subversive tool.
I have taken time to explore a brief history of the work of Wilhelm von Gloeden and Bob Mizer to help understand the visual vocabulary that Ray Cook draws on in his images. This is not to say the full antecedence was known when the images were made; the evolving language of camp can be articulated without a detailed research into its etymology. Cook has taken these and other elements to synthesis something that is uniquely his own, but to read the work it has, I believe, to be set into its historical context. The bizarre characters and fantastical storylines of his early work and The History of Love are the counterpoint to the very community of (to quote Cook’s own description) ‘misfit’ friends who perform these roles. The referencing of tropes from the wider history of gay representation set the experience of life in Brisbane recovering from the conservatism of Joh Bjelke-Petersen into a global and historical perspective.
Cook’s images introduce another quality – the burlesque. One of the sustained aspects of his work is that it takes place in a space that always declares its artificiality. Unlike von Gloeden’s idyllic landscapes or Mizer’s nouveau-riche poolside decks and sporty locker rooms, Cook’s images inhabit the twilight world of the circus sideshow. But as any child and many adults will tell you, the side show and the circus are places in which to suspend disbelief and put a muzzle on good taste.
In Go Cart a man with a Mr Punch face is pulled by an unseen force outside of the frame via a cord tied to his balls. He grimaces and grips a stubby of beer. He in turn pulls a second man who has a dildo sprouting from his head like a unicorn and is similarly secured by his genitalia. This second unfortunate has no legs below the knee and rolls along on a set of pram wheels. It is powerful image: ludicrous in its narrative and lucid in its execution. With its allusions to SM and oral sex, to bars and beer, the bonds of community and the bondage of conformity it is an image that cracks a joke with those in the know – not mocking but ironic. For camp, as Christopher Isherwood has observed, makes fun out of the things it takes seriously rather than making fun of them.
And then there was AIDS.
To make fun out of a serious subject like HIV and AIDS at a time when political correctness (not to mention humane good taste) demanded utter solemnity was to turn the tables in no small way. After all, at that time HIV was both an imminent death sentence and a social stigma. But this kind of in-your-face inversion is at the core of Cook’s practice. He just goes about it in such a beguiling way.
Death and stigma suggest plague with all its attendant social as well as medical connotations. Cook emphasis the association by linking the physical manifestation of AIDS in the lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma with the swellings of bubonic plague. However, these buboes are not represented by ugly sores, but pearls. He evokes a disfiguring aspect of a wretched disease with lustrous gem. It is a poetic allusion with a razor’s edge that equates the cruelty of value judgement with the proverbial indifference to the beauty of pearls demonstrated by swine.
If the pearls suggest beauty it has to be said that most of Cook’s props are distinctly grotesque: skulls, monstrously phallic horns, bones, dildos and dying vegetation. The fantastical and incongruous that is at the heart of the grotesque finds a particular potency in photography. The camera’s love of detail and its tendency, especially when shooting in black and white, to aestheticise the textures and forms of things over their meaning. (Think how easy it is for the camera to make poverty seem quaint or suffering sentimental.) And the notion of the photograph as a mirror of the real world makes odd and unexpected combinations of objects seem all the more dramatically unnatural. It was a phenomenon exploited by photographers such as Arthur Tress, Richard Kirstel and Ralph Eugene Meatyard in the sixties and seventies, and Clarence John Laughlin a couple of decades earlier.
While camp uses the veil of history like a stripper to simultaneously (and entertainingly) disguise and draw attention to the present nature of things purporting to be safely in the past, the temporal confusions of grotesquery tend to dislocate and alienate. Wolfgang Kaiser, in his classic study The Grotesque in Art and Literature (1957) proposes: “The grotesque is a play with the absurd … an attempt to invoke and subdue demonic aspects of the world.”
Perhaps the most immediate relation, at least superficially, is to the work of Joel Peter Witkin, whose tasteful arrangements of furnishings, drapes and cadavers in studio settings that look like they are straight out of the 19th century have divided the art world. Witkin’s aim was not simply to challenge our attitudes to the body post mortem, but to suggest a temporal slippage, to make the images appear as if they were very old.
Cook’s early images have a similar patina. Printing through wet tissue to aesthetically degrade the image details, using chemical agents to change the silver image and introduce warmer tones, scratching and otherwise ‘distressing’ the film – all served to make the images appear more like fragments of a lost civilisation than works of contemporary art. However, this Witkinesque evocation of a mythical past and the elegant trampling of deep-seated taboos (Witkin’s whimsical handling of the deceased, for example) is a point of departure for Cook, and never became a guiding influence.
The impetus behind Cook’s work is always his own experience. Despite the dress-up and the displacement from the realm of the real world, these images reflect the unfolding of a life’s experience. But they do so in a distorting mirror. For these works are not by their nature confessional diaries or simple autobiography, but distilled essences, elaborately blended. Like the perfumer Cook takes imagery and ideas that in their original form might be sickly, banal, rank or overpowering and blends them into an image that, for all its constituent vulgarity and disease is oddly affecting, lingering tenaciously in the imagination.
As I have been writing this essay the image keeps coming to my mind of Patrick Süskind’s gothic anti-hero Grenouille creating the ultimate perfume amid the fetid stench of 18th-century Paris. I am not of course suggesting that Cook’s life equates to the melodrama that novel recounts, but that qualities and observations carried inside the narrative do have some relevance here. Grenouille’s unique skill comes at a cost – he is forever an outsider. It’s a position given metaphorical weight in the opening of the book with the newborn Grenouille tenaciously refusing to be snuffed out in stillbirth. He grows up observing the world as a stranger and the novel’s achievement is to show the grotesquery of the real through his eyes. Wolfgang Kaiser described the grotesque as “the estranged world” and while we often associate this with the realm of fantasy, it is most potent when one sees the familiar in terms of the grotesque, casting oneself as the outsider.
The sense of estrangement – of being in a world you never expected to see – was the focus of Cook’s next body of work, At First I was Afraid, I was Petrified. The fey burlesque of his History of Love came to an end with the realisation that HIV was not the death sentence that had been anticipated. New therapies had been developed. Unexpectedly, life went on.
These new images are portraits and constitute some of his coolest and most formal of Cook’s oeuvre. Stripped back to minimal settings and costume he photographed men who represent those who continue to live with HIV. Unlike the earlier work many of these subjects were not part of a close-knit community of friends but men he had never met before. He had recruited them through Gaydar, an on-line contact site for gay men. And here there is a clear distinction drawn between the individual and the part they play in his work. The HIV status of these actors is unknown, they simply perform a role. It is ironic that the works which seem most like portraits of individuals are in fact furthest removed from the reality of the subjects’ own stories. It is a subtly camp ploy that confounds attempts to view the work from the comfortable perspective of a ‘them’ and ‘us’. The very dislocation of the performer from the role played in an image that nonetheless demands we engage with it as if it were a portrait denies the luxury of safe distance. Where, after all, in such a slippery scenario would safe ground be located? Each subject/performer is a cipher – at once empty in themselves and the key to unlock a deep-seated empathy in the viewer.
But survival was not the only unexpected development. The very context of what it meant to be gay was also changing. The witty elegance of Noel Coward and the pantomime foppishness of John Inman coalesced into the stylised self-parody of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Gay and straight met on the would-be level playing field of the metrosexual. Equality was, it appeared, to be found in superficiality. Gay identity was repackaged as a (straight) customer-friendly new commodity: the always amusing and somewhat asexual style queen.
For a queer bloke from Brisbane more interested in beer and sexual politics than Benetton and skin purifiers this was perhaps the most dispiriting turn yet. How could he relate to this stereotype? The resentment Cook felt found its outlet in a series of self-images poignantly entitled Not With A Bang But A Whimper. Donning a vaguely vaudeville striped shirt and baggy pants and a clown’s red nose he performs a series of parodic parables in which he caricatures his life. Props from past work reappear like toys from childhood – once potent instruments of fantasy now detritus. He sweeps the bones and dildos out the door and juggles the pearl buboes like the miniature galaxy in Men in Black.
These works are his most reflexive and his most critical. His clown persona is alone, his playthings discarded, his vanity mirror reflects only the vanitas of a skull. If his work forms one continuous piece of theatre, this certainly marks the end of Act One.
Lifting the curtain on Act Two his recent work marks a return to the quest for innocence – for the ludic licence of his earlier work. That early work had been made with a tight group of friends whose lives have since moved on and are no longer available to him as models. The subsequent works were mostly made with strangers (…At First I was Afraid, I was Petrified) or by directing the camera back on himself in isolation (Not With a Bang But a Whimper). But in the most recent work, made with students and colleagues at the university where he now studies and teaches, the fresh, open and fearless sense of playful experimentation returns. His subjects are a new generation for whom sexuality is not a big issue or, indeed, necessarily a fixed foundation for identity. While Cook’s early work was made at a time when a tight-knit, mutually supportive and socially separate community was a support and defence for gay people, there is simply not the same need today. The interactions being worked out here are as much about male bonding and blokey play as they are about the confirmation and celebration of a specific sexuality.
A young man smirks proudly at the camera; his skinny body bears the pallid outline of a singlet. He oozes Bogan. The boxing gloves he wears seem more aesthetic than athletic. His claim to a moment’s notoriety is not the sweet pugilistic science but the enviable ability to balance a tinny of beer on his cock. He is a triumph of the kind of happy vulgarity that alcohol and testosterone can brew. And the joy of the picture is that it is delivered not with pious judgement or a supercilious sniff but with the warmth of one who affectionately embraces the absurdity of mankind. “Camp taste is a kind of love,” wrote Susan Sontag in her Notes on Camp (1964), “love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of ‘character’”
For all its gothic excess and sideshow knock about Ray Cook’s oeuvre addresses the fundamental questions we all face in life: finding a place, finding love and facing the inevitability of death, whenever that comes. Although they are grouped under a series of rubrics, each body of work is not a separate entity but merely a division of one continuing story into convenient chapters. And the underlying story, once grasped, is admirably coherent, surprisingly personal and disarmingly frank. There is no self-glorification here, nor is there indulgent self-loathing. Cook’s skill is the curious but effective marriage of the whimsical and the blokey; the idealistic and the stoical; the located and the estranged. “In the end these are not separate bodies of work, addressing separate issues,” Cook says of his work, “but an ongoing serial narrative about what it’s like to be me.”
But this is certainly no ego trip. Indeed there are aspects of his work – his Codpiece, Portrait Of The Artist As A Complete And Utter Wanker, for example – which quite consciously parody (and critique) the self-aggrandising tendencies of art-world affectation. Such deflationary tactics are themselves qualities associated with camp. Camp, as Mark Booth concluded in his exhaustive book on the subject, “sees through the many pompous pretences and dishonest compromises of the grown-up world. Maturity, it infers, must not be taken seriously. ‘Experience is fraud,’ says the Spirit of Camp. ‘Strive for innocence.’”
The demimonde of the sideshow, the strategic vulgarity of burlesque, the dark complexity of the grotesque and the ironic inversions of camp all come together in the photographs of Ray Cook. But it is that underlying desire for a kind of innocence – albeit impure and intemperate – that defines the essential character of his work.
And you get the sense that when the camera is put away and the costumes hung up, it’s off down the pub for a few beers.
Gotta love it! Your round mate…?
This essay was first published in Ray Cook – Diary of a Fortunate Man (QCP 2007). This beautiful monograph can be purchased here.
Images (from the top):
© Ray Cook For a Good Time Call Hephaistian ND
From Baron von Gloeden’s ‘arcadia’ to Fifties beefcake
© Ray Cook Go Cart ND from the Transportation series
© Ray Cook Plague Survivor ND
© Ray Cook …At first I was afraid, I was petrified ND
© Ray Cook Reconfiguring the Constellations in the Night Sky of my Youth 2004
© Ray Cook 1986 2006