In his essay “Do Not Doubt The Dangerousness of the 12-Inch Politician,” artist David Wojnarowicz exclaims, “A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history” (144).
Reflecting Wojnarowicz’s observation, photographer Jimmy DeSana’s shocking yet beautiful images, often avoided due to his highly sexualized and subversive content, are not often found between the pages of publications on art and queer culture, in exhibitions on queer portraiture or adorning posters for mainstream Pride. Reveling in queer culture’s bottom, DeSana’s body conscious, transgressive and transformative portraits portray an alternate form of queer history and self-representation.
Currently exhibited at Salon 94’s Bowery gallery space, a retrospective entitled Party Picks reveals DeSana’s wide range of photographic styles and subjects, which he explored up until his death from AIDS-related complications in 1990. From portraits of Downtown luminaries like Debbie Harry, William S. Burroughs and Kenneth Anger to his black-and-white photo series Submission to his later more colorful, still submissive photographs, DeSana’s images take their influence from the gritty, grimy and sometimes downright gross Downtown punk scene, which flourished during the height of DeSana’s creative output between 1971 and 1987.
Looking at DeSana’s photographs in the context of both gay and LGBTQ history, DeSana’s revolutionary use and abuse of the body appears as a welcome relief from both the hyper-masculine, disco nightmare of 1970s gay culture and the coma-inducing bore of 1970s conceptual art. Similar to Robert Mapplethorpe’s infamous X-Portfolio with his celebration of S & M, fetishes and leather daddies, DeSana, particularly in his Submission series, investigates and captures the seedier side of gay culture, asserting the presence of the queer body in his photographs.
While Salon 94 probably wisely chose not to show viewers some of DeSana’s most disturbing photographs which capture auto-erotic asphyxiation, Party Picks still manages to portrays the utter depths of sexuality that DeSana is willing to probe in his art. In works like “Television,” DeSana’s manipulation and representation of the body in his photographs exists not as a record of shame but as an archive of pleasurable debasement.
In his introduction to DeSana’s Submission series, gentleman junkie queer extraordinaire William S. Burroughs calls DeSana’s sadomasochistic photographs “Catholic” and boy is he right. There is nothing Catholics love more than good debasement (just look at those Saints). DeSana’s bold photographic style and unwavering choice to represent the passive and submissive body depicts an alternative form of pleasure in debasement.
In her publication Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where ‘Black’ Meets ‘Queer’, Kathryn Bond Stockton discusses the nature of debasement and its attachment to the debased body.
According to Stockton, “More often than not, debasements attach to a person’s body, highlighting attributes of some kind of surface or calling attention to a dirty bottom depth…Debasement, that is, takes (its) place: in a body, in a neighborhood, or in a human brain. We will see that many debasements that lodge in a mind or spread throughout the brain, still enter through the body—the eye, ear , gullet, vagina or anal cavity” (24).
Looking at DeSana’s submissive photographs from both his Submission series and his later over-saturated color photographs, the distorted bodies captured by his camera lens reveal the inevitable link that is created between debasement and the body.
In works such as “Toilet,” which presents a naked man squatting in a toilet wearing a gimp mask, the subject’s rather intimate connection with the toilet connects him to, as Stockton would assert, “a dirty bottom depth.” Linking the subject’s contorted body to the debasing act itself, DeSana’s photographs captures, as well as excitably celebrates, the pleasure of debasement. With the oddly ethereal light falling on the subject’s body, DeSana renders the debased body almost beautiful while still relishing in its unsettling and dirty scene.
Questioning the potential pleasurable aesthetic power of debasement in Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame, Stockton poses, “How does debasement foster attractions? How is it used for aesthetic delight? What does it offer for projects of sorrows and ways of creative historical knowing?” (24).
Likewise, I want to ask similar questions of DeSana’s photographs. While at times difficult to look at (particularly if you have a unique form of PTSD linked to watching Nine Inch Nails’ Broken film), his photographs are nonetheless undeniably gorgeous and moving despite their difficult subject matter.
But perhaps more important than the aesthetic pleasure of debasement, what is the historical importance of depicting the submissive queer body, which has largely been shunned from both heteronormative and homonormative culture?
Debasement as Alternative Pride
As David Wojnarowicz notes in “Do Not Doubt The Dangerousness of the 12-Inch Politician,” “I can speak with photographs about many different things that the newspaper owner is afraid to address because of agenda or political pressure or because of the power of advertiser’s dollars. I can make photographs dealing with my sexuality and I do because I know my sexuality is purposefully made invisible by the owners of various media” (143).
While many may look at DeSana’s wonderfully perverse and troubling photographs as records of shame, his photographs in Party Picks instead seem to assert an alternative form of queer pride by preserving the queer bodies who do not conform to the regulated strictures of normative sexuality. Unashamed, DeSana gleefully depicts and displays the debased body as a direct confrontation with other more politically correct images of queer culture and politics.
Like Wojnarowicz’s belief in the revolutionary possibility of photography, DeSana, like Wojnarowicz himself, enacted his own counter-narrative though the use of his camera. Capturing the S&M subculture, queer bodies and alternative sexualities, DeSana emphasizes its filthy power, validity and existence through photography.