In David Wojnarowicz’s essay “Do Not Doubt the Dangerousness of the 12-Inch-Tall Politician” in his collection Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, Wojnarowicz exposes the ability of photography to depict sexualities or experiences that are ignored or silenced by mainstream, popular and heteronormative media. As Wojnarowicz states, “As a person who owns a camera, I am in direct competition with the owners of television stations and newspapers; though my gestures of communication have less of a reverberation than a newspaper photograph has because of the amount of copies the newspaper owner can circulate among the populations coast to coast. The only difference between a newspaper owner and myself is that I believe I represent a different intention in what I point my camera toward. I have a desire to open up certain boundaries and release information that unties the psychic ropes that bind the ONE-TRIBE NATION. 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 advertisers 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).
Like Wojnarowicz’s use of photography to capture his own underrepresented sexuality, photographer Benjamin Fredrickson’s current exhibition at Daniel Cooney Fine Art further reveals the power of photography to not only document but also to break taboos. Touching on often stigmatized subjects including sex work, HIV/AIDS and fetish communities, Fredrickson’s stunning and socially significant exhibition explores his experiences as a sex worker in the Midwest, as well as his participation in gay sexual culture in both the Midwest and New York where he currently lives and works.
Spanning years of Fredrickson’s creative life, the photographs in the exhibition take viewers from dungeons to deceptively all-American Midwestern living rooms, juxtaposing the familiar with the explicit. Using only a Polaroid camera, Fredrickson’s small photographs appear as spontaneous snapshots, allowing the viewer to become the voyeur.
With his honest portrayal of sexuality and fetish, including mummification, Fredrickson’s photographs recall many notable queer photographers, namely Robert Mapplethorpe’s X-Portfolio and Jimmy DeSana’s Submission series. Even though I adore and admire both photographers (and suspect Fredrickson does as well), Fredrickson’s photographs construct a different and perhaps deeper emotional relationship between the subjects, the photographer and the viewer. For Mapplethorpe and DeSana, BDSM and other more graphic aspects of queer sexuality seemed to be a means to shock audiences despite their own participation within these communities. Conversely, Fredrickson’s depiction of gay sexuality–while undeniably frank and unwavering–also features a palpable sense of care and even, love.
Appearing frequently in his own photographs, Fredrickson collapses and erases the often alienating divisions between the photographer and subject or in many cases, the participant and documenter. Fredrickson’s self portraiture ranges from a gorgeous photograph of himself in a bath in full makeup to having sex in a dungeon with a partner who is only visible through straps to an affectionate moment showing the care conveyed by touch in “Self Portrait with Stuart.” By placing himself within these scenes, Fredrickson conveys a certain vulnerability, fearlessly employing his own body as a central figure in his photographs.
Connected to his use of self-portraiture, HIV/AIDS also looms large throughout the exhibition even though it may not be obvious at first glance. HIV positive himself, Fredrickson’s depiction of his own sexuality and sex work becomes an assertion of sexual possibilities for a positive gay man.
For example, his photograph “Self-portrait with Mike” presents Fredrickson nude on the lap of a paunchy older john. As Fredrickson explained in a fantastic interview with Dazed & Confused, “In ‘Self Portrait with Mike, 2009’ I am sitting on a ‘john‘s’ lap. It was taken after I had tested positive for HIV and was looking to meet other positive guys. I met him on manhunt and he did not match his pictures when I showed up, which was great because I had all of my camera gear with me. He was high on meth when I got to his place so I agreed to only photograph him. With the photograph I wanted to explore the generational gap between us, and the choices we were making as sexually active HIV positive men.”
In addition to the social importance of Fredrickson’s photographs, the photographs are also just aesthetically beautiful. In portraits such as the impossibly flexible “Jake” or “Micah,” Fredrickson’s sensitive camerawork captures the men’s bold gaze into the camera, creating arresting and captivating images.
By avoiding a judgmental look at sex work or sexual subcultures, Fredrickson’s photographs instead construct a space for dialogue about undeniably difficult and important issues. By openly depicting his own sexual experiences, Fredrickson’s photographs act as a medium for topics such as sex work or HIV/AIDS to be discussed in an honest and candid way, overcoming long-held stigmas.
As Wojnarowicz–who also was a sex worker himself–writes in his essay “Do Not Doubt the Dangerousness of the 12-Inch Tall Politician”–near perfectly describing the effect of Fredrickson’s Polaroids, “When I was a kid, I discovered that making an object, whether it was a drawing or a story, meant making something that spoke even if I was silent. As an adult, I realize if I make something and leave it in public for any period of time, I can create an environment where that object or writing acts as a magnet and draws other with a similar frame of reference out of silence or invisibility. Or that object or piece of writing can give me comfort as well as others. To place an object or writing that contains what is invisible because of legislation or social taboo into an environment outside myself makes me feel not so alone; it keeps me company by virtue of its existence. It is kind of like a ventriloquist’s dummy–the only difference is that the work can speak by itself or act like that ‘magnet’ to attract others who carried this enforced silence.” (156)