MoMento 9: Mark Beehre and Robert Gant

MoMento 9: Mark Beehre and Robert Gant

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MoMento 9: Mark Beehre and Robert Gant.

Joint Introduction by Chris Brickell and John B. Turner

Published by PhotoForum, March, 2012

This issue of MoMento features the remarkable work of two gay New Zealand photographers: Robert Gant, from the 1880s, and Mark Beehre’s latest work made 120 years since. Beehre’s naked portraits follow on from the seminal portraits and oral histories in his book, Men Alone – Men Together (2010). Outlets for the work of homosexual photographers in New Zealand have perhaps been the most underground in this previously underground medium of photography. Attitudes and laws, have changed over time, though, so we can now see aspects of New Zealand life and society that we may not have been familiar with, from the inside. John mentioned that internationally, great photographers like Minor White and Duane Michals – followed by the more deliberately provocative Robert Mapplethorpe – were among the most prominent photographers to provide insights into gay society through their work and example. And that they helped to demystify what was projected as some kind of weird no-go zone akin to a mysterious disease. He recalls that smutty innuendo rather than factual accounts of gay life and practice added to the confusion of teenagers like himself who experienced their sexual awakening in the 1950s and 1960s, and were fed racial as well as sexual myths, such as the claim that Asian vaginas were rotated 90 degrees. Japan, after Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima was fearfully alien to New Zealanders then, as was the perception of homosexuality, which such perverse myths perpetuated. The terrible AIDS epidemic was–and is still is– tragic, but the upside is that people now know more about gay or bisexual lives, however private or public they may be. This is the essence of Mark Beehre’s work, and the desire to explain gender differences was the basis for my research leading to the publication of Mates and Lovers, a history of gay New Zealand (2008). John says that my history is so full of pictorial evidence that he, for one, sees it not just a social history, but ‘a significant contribution to the history of photography in New Zealand’. Time will tell, but if the timing had been different I would certainly have included Mark Beehre’s groundbreaking work. His essay, ‘Men Undressed–an exploration of the naked portrait’, was first exhibited at Photospace Gallery, Wellington, in March-April 2011, and is about to be shown in Australia. A significant feature in Mates and Lovers ...., was the profoundly revealing photographs of Robert Gant, which are the subject of Chris’s second book, Manly Affections. He notes that English-born Robert Gant (1854-1936), who was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, worked as a chemist based in Wellington, Masterton and Greytown. In the years before the concept of ‘homosexuality’ had any real currency in New Zealand, he felt his attraction for other men most keenly. Gant lived the last 25 years of his life with a male lover, the draper, Charles Haigh. Gant, under the pseudonym of ‘Cecil Riverton’ was also an actor who specialised in female roles. His gentle and humorous photographs of his friends often contain homoerotic and fetishistic touches, but there is also a strong sense of intimate mateship among his friends. We know little about these men’s homoerotic engagements – most (but not all) of them married in later years – but, either way, these relationships were close, tactile and intense. We think that Gant’s work is significant not only for gay communities, as part of gay history, but for social historians and the general public, because it reveals hitherto hidden aspects and invites us to consider the emotional and erotically complex lives of our Victorian ancestors. We suspect also that these insights may also help our European, or perhaps, more accurately, our British “Christian” attitudes to homosexuality, by aligning them a little with Asian, Polynesian, and other cultures less hell bent on prejudicial finger pointing it not just a social history, but ‘a significant contribution to the history of photography in New Zealand’. Time will tell, but if the timing had been different I would certainly have included Mark Beehre’s groundbreaking work. His essay, ‘Men Undressed–an exploration of the naked portrait’, was first exhibited at Photospace Gallery, Wellington, in March-April 2011, and is about to be shown in Australia. A significant feature in Mates and Lovers ...., was the profoundly revealing photographs of Robert Gant, which are the subject of Chris’s second book, Manly Affections. He notes that English-born Robert Gant (1854-1936), who was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, worked as a chemist based in Wellington, Masterton and Greytown. In the years before the concept of ‘homosexuality’ had any real currency in New Zealand, he felt his attraction for other men most keenly. Gant lived the last 25 years of his life with a male lover, the draper, Charles Haigh. Gant, under the pseudonym of ‘Cecil Riverton’ was also an actor who specialised in female roles. His gentle and humorous photographs of his friends often contain homoerotic and fetishistic touches, but there is also a strong sense of intimate mateship among his friends. We know little about these men’s homoerotic engagements – most (but not all) of them married in later years – but, either way, these relationships were close, tactile and intense. We think that Gant’s work is significant not only for gay communities, as part of gay history, but for social historians and the general public, because it reveals hitherto hidden aspects and invites us to consider the emotional and erotically complex lives of our Victorian ancestors. We suspect also that these insights may also help our European, or perhaps, more accurately, our British “Christian” attitudes to homosexuality, by aligning them a little with Asian, Polynesian, and other cultures less hell bent on prejudicial finger pointing when it comes to sexual identity.1 Confronted with so much posturing of the male body in the past (and the female body perhaps more so) through romantic idealisation and barely disguised eroticism – Mark Beehre’s naked portraits are wonderfully and notably posture-free, insofar as a naked man can be completely comfortable in front of a camera. Or in front of a doctor, for that matter. One imagines an inner dialogue: Q . “You want to check out my body?” (And compare it with yours.) A . “OK.” Q . “Is your’s bigger than mine?” (This may not only be a male preoccupation.) A . “Mmmm, (laughs).” (Food for thought.) — Chris Brickell and John B. Turner, February 2012.

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