I just finished a course paper on the self portrait work of Jack Pierson and that paper left me with many more feelings than I was able to put into 4 pages. Don't worry I won't be writing 4 more pages but I did want to take this opportunity to think about white masculinity as it relates to portrait photography.
I hadn't heard of Jack Pierson before my professor recommended his work for my assignment. I was disappointed upon first searching up his photographic work, buff white men barely clothed photographed as if they were carved by Michelangelo himself. I've seen this imagery before, this is the stuff young me used to drool over as I was coming to terms with my sexuality. I consider myself fortunate enough now to have grown out of this blind admiration for the tall tan and muscly, but looking at Pierson's work still brings up these feelings of the past. These men are objects of desire, not aspirational goals. I will never look like them and I can never be with them. Pierson's elusive models make me aware of the danger of a portrait and how we are so far past a time where Brad Pitt in his Calvin's is ever considered "art"
That last statement is a little strong and I realize that society still idolizes these men but the work of Pierson truly does stand as a memento of a past way of seeing. From what I've gathered, people loved Self Portrait and praised the way Pierson explored the idea of desire. And at the time, I could see how people could love it. Pierson released this work before gay marriage was legal, before celebrities started jumping on the LGBT bandwagon, and when most people's only reference for a queer person was Ellen DeGeneres. Pierson making these incredibly homoerotic images was seen as a courageous move, something that needed to be celebrated.
I am all for the intimate gaze of a queer man making desirable pictures of men, but this isn't about the fact that Pierson was taking pictures of men, it's about the people he's deciding to turn his lens towards. Media influences our perceptions of beauty and sets the standard for good looks. Pierson work contributes to this influence in a way that just perpetuates the power of attractive white men. You enter a gallery of images depicting these men and see no men of color, no men with a BMI over 25, and that is what is deemed as "art" that decision then excludes all these marginalized groups from feeling like they can be "art" (wow how many air quotes can I use?). Obviously this is not a radical idea but I felt the need to write about it because I can't believe that the best my professor had to offer me was a recommendation of such an outdated artist.