Portraits seem to be a given. We spend our lives studying other peoples' faces trying to learn about who they are, as well as something about ourselves. I think of each photo session as a conversation, and the body of work as a reflection of revealed intimacies.
The forced environment of being photographed makes that conversation complex, but also results in an intimate, responsive human interaction. I talk to my models. I ask them questions. I do everything in my power to make them comfortable and at peace.
It's sort of like having dinner with someone or a casual cup of coffee... or a lengthy dinner with good friends or making love with your partner, for that matter . It's a document of a certain time when two people are exchanging something. And in that it has the potential to be a very revealing conversation. Great intimacies can be exchanged during that time that may not have been exchanged before and may never be exchanged again.
For me an unsuccessful shoot is one in which I don't know my model by the time it's completed. A good portrait is a representation of someone that articulates both physical and emotional character — character that may or may not be much more subtle in everyday interactions. My ultimate goal is for the model to show who they are to themselves and to allow confidence and insecurity to lay naked on the surface.
The Dead Bird Series began out of circumstance. Soon after moving to Las Vegas for graduate school, I started to notice dead birds everywhere. Of course there are dead birds around all of us, but for some reason I was just beginning to take particular notice.
Intrigued as I was, I'd often pay attention to see what happened. Most people never even noticed. Maintenance staff removed some. Others simply began to decay. Due to the arid environment, though, they'd only decay so much. Then they'd begin to petrify. This fascinated me, and rather then watch them be ignored, I took it upon myself to care for these dead creatures, and eventually present them back into the world photographically.
The birds to me are about loss and death… and beauty. Death is something that's an anatomical thing: you're living, you're breathing, you die, you decay. The consciousness, the emotions, the psyche... none of those things are there after death. Loss is different. It's about being without. It's about the response when those things are no longer there.
I think humans have some pretty messed up conceptions about death and death rituals because they confuse it with loss. The bird series was a way of trying to relay that death can be beautiful in its own way, if we allow it.
There's a quote by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the author of On Death and Dying, where she says that if people had healthier ideas about death they'd have much healthier lives. I heard that quote just a few hours after coming out of an HIV test in the early '90s when the fear of HIV testing was much more stigmatized - a positive result seemed an automatic death sentence. But for me, hearing that, on that day specifically, gave me the healthiest response to life and death I'd ever heard up until that point.
I think it's that spirit, that beauty, in its refreshing wisdom, that inspired this body of work.
The polaroids began after my first semester of photography. It was summer vacation and I didn't have access to a darkroom, so I purchased a vintage Polaroid land camera from the late 1960s. For the next year I shot almost solely 3x4 inch polaroids.
The problem was that they were a peel-apart image and you were to throw one part away. It was always that part that I found interesting. After months of experimenting, I discovered a way to make photographs out of the disposable Polaroid negative.
The subjects were usually close friends who allowed me an opportunity to do more than portraits. The work tended to be more about figures in environments. They seem to be a perfect example of a young photographer learning as much as he could about the field of photography with a very limited-use camera. A photographer who ultimately wished he had the discipline to be a painter.
I always appreciated the abstract nature of the works. They seem to represent a time or a space without definition — qualities that still interest me today. They're clearly influenced by the work of Man Ray while working with nude figures, solarization and light. However, were I working on them now, with the technological advances of computers and scanners, the work would, I think, look extremely different.
I'm still fond of them, even sentimental, and if anything documents my coming of age as both a person and as an artist, it's this body of work.
Grad school was a time in my life when I was questioning my own mortality and feeling a sense of confusion and remorse about not being HIV positive. Having come into puberty at the onset of the AIDS crisis, I equated sex and death on a literal level.
Using appropriated imagery, I started combining or layering gay erotica of the last 25 years with images of religious paintings from the renaissance - mostly by gay painters. I don't like to use the word porn because I don't think sexuality or representations of it are pornographic. I think rape is pornographic, I think war is pornographic, I think so many other things in the world are pornographic, but I don't think sexual representations of consenting adults are.
The work I was creating became about heroicizing the sexual figures in print media — the 'gay porn star' as superhero, the idea that a 'porn' model is an ideal. They're the Harrison Ford, or Tom Cruise of fantasy. The man everyone wants to be. It's extremely superficial and artificial, yet something we all grasp towards in different ways, reaching out to different things.
It became a new iconography, an artificial one, but one with roots in desire. One that questioned the things we idealize.
I used to think the word artist was a title you couldn't give to yourself. Too many people gave themselves that title when it was really a rank you had to earn and prove you deserved. It had to be bestowed on you by others.
Now I'm not sure what I think. I create work because it makes me happy. It helps me know myself. It creates a dialog, not only with myself but with other people as they view it.
Sometimes I think that that nonverbal communication can be very important… quite priceless. It creates a different language that denies the vocabulary of words, but is instead about the visual decisions we make everyday in our own lives.
I chose to become a photographer because I saw things in frames, broke things down visually into squares, into rectangles, into two-dimensional compositions.
The expediency of a camera documents those visuals.