In a poetry workshop three years ago Catherine Bowman offhandedly asked if I took photographs in addition to writing. I had been rereading Aaron Smith’s first two books and using poems like “Diesel Clothing Ad (Naked Man with Messenger Bag)” and “Dear Matt Damon” as prompts to explore my attractions to men I could never sleep with: fashion models, jocks running through Indiana’s campus in tiny red shorts, Adam Levine, etc. Aside from quick snaps with disposables or my phone, I had never taken a photograph. “These poems want to be cinematic,” she said. “You should try it.”
I imagine now that Cathy hoped I would take one or two portraits to learn the images in my poems needed to be sharper, but instead I almost entirely replaced writing poems with taking photographs. The allure of spending an hour rearranging an amateur model in my living room outdid that of spending an hour conjuring him onto a blank Word document. I was surprised by how many college town strangers were willing to pose for me—often nude—and though it was more difficult than I’d imagined it would be, I went about building images that honestly showed why I was interested in photographing them. Truth was what interested me most in photography: No matter the staging, that model looked like that for at least a sixtieth of a second.
When I began showing my photographs to people I felt the need to explain away my intentions. “This isn’t just a hot guy,” I’d practice. “This is the shame I feel for wanting to look at him even when I shouldn’t, even though I shouldn’t.” Or, “This is what I imagine my neighbors see through my windows.” Or, “This is the body in time. Haven’t you heard of Eadweard Muybridge?” And while I think these aspects of my photographs are important, the history of gay photography is littered with excuses (see: “physique pictorial”) to show the photographer’s interest without expressing desire. Here I was in 2016 nervously falling into that tradition when I believed we shouldn’t have to. Why should a beautiful man be a novelty? I spent months thinking about what was stopping me from saying that some men simply are art, worthy of documentation and dissemination.
Cue Aaron Smith, again arriving in my life with the answer and impeccable timing. After a seven-year wait between his first two books, I wasn’t expecting his third, Primer, so quickly, nor for it to answer such a specific question. An excerpt from “Poem for Straight Guys”:
…Not afraid to undress
where I could see, and, yes,
I looked. Thanks for letting me stare at
what I wanted to stare at,
figuring out how I felt…
Thanks for going shirtless.
The realization, of course: agency. When the aforementioned jock runs through campus in tiny red shorts, he does so realizing people are going to see him running through campus in tiny red shorts. Ditto for guys competing in wrestling tournaments and showering in the locker room. And while the men who posed for my photographs signed releases acknowledging their willingness to be seen by me and my camera, the additional unknown of whom would later see those photographs gave me pause. Suddenly models were trusting me with their likenesses, and while I’ve been careful about where they’re shown, I worry about what others think about my showing them at all. I worry about intellectualizing an impulse.
But then, don’t most artists? Most poets? The call to create seldom comes from anywhere but the gut; you make what you must and worry about contextualization later. What interests me here is the distinction between photographers and poets: the former writes to place his images, the latter makes his images with writing. The poet’s context is the poem itself, how a line is broken or a title employed. The poems in Primer, for instance, largely develop from memories, reflections, and misplaced affections; they’re turned into art by Smith’s deft phrasing and line breaks. From “Still Life with a Hundred Crucifixions”:
I never talked to men
after sex, just got dressed
and left, but he asked me to stay,
naked like that on the bed—
even after we’d gotten off,
toweled off—so I stayed,
though I was afraid to see him
as a person: his face tired
in the lamplight, suddenly older
than his online pic…
The image itself is a familiar one to many of Smith’s readers: a pair of naked men on a bed, the look of surprise and resignation on one’s face that—once lust has worn off—his companion isn’t quite what he’d envisioned. But what deepens this poem is the singularity of the lines: “I never talked to men” clarified with “after sex,” then “I was afraid to see him” with “as a person.” Both the speaker’s devastation and humility are palpable. The situation wasn’t what he’d expected, but with these lines we see enough of his history to suggest he wouldn’t have given this stranger a chance even had it been exactly. Yet he stays, keeps looking. He waits to see enough to pass along the image.
The most important lesson I learned from Smith’s earlier work is th