PRINT April 1995

Bruce Hainley

This was going to be a snug précis on how Bruce Weber has changed the way men look and on the ahistorical quality of nakedness, or on how dogs are always there, bare, curious, and wanting to be touched, and how in bed a man and his dog are always better than a man and his dogma, until I noticed how everyone, or almost everyone, makes Weber’s work into a soggy affair and quickly, nervously, leads it away from whatever they think it isn’t, when it would be more intriguing really to situate Weber’s work alongside that of someone quite different, say Larry Clark or Christopher Makos, demonstrating despite the contrast the conceptual nature of male beauty, its dependence on repetition, and the intellectual rigors of obsession, and then I thought, I don’t think so, Hon.

Ric Arango makes me tango, Ric Arango makes me sigh, Ric Arango arranges a fandango, Ric Arango makes me wonder how and why. That’s a little doggerel about Ric Arango, the star of Bruce Weber’s Backyard Movie, 1991, which could be called Backroom Movie, though it isn’t really that at all. About what Ric inspires: how and where does Bruce Weber find all these men, these improbabilities, and once found why the hell not film them naked, beyond nude, forever? Ric Arango doing nothing, or almost nothing, and someone spending a life snapping shots of Ric types and putting those pictures everywhere, are as interesting as anything I can think of. Voyeurism, scopophilia—many have become so punitive about looking. I like to look. I look to like, I’m really into staring. Staring has a starring role in my quotidian. (Some men make me pant.) Light gives pleasure, and light striking the shadowy edges of the human is perhaps how light is most liked, liked past any point of embarrassment or nervousness. (Embarrassment, nervousness, etc., because beauty can exclude; yet it is easier to talk about dislike than pleasure, especially when accompanied by erotic frisson.) Weber’s work is drunk on such light—sunshine on bodies in the forest, under cool spring water, lamp glow in hotel rooms, tungsten bright in front of the seamless, the sheen of men’s skin.

What Weber admires is not petite. Ric Arango is not petite. Margaret Willmott’s dogs are not petite. The amount of pleasure from Weber’s work is not petite either-it’s kooky, it’s daffy, it’s a three-ring circus of the not petite. It’s a beefcake scrapbook, combining the tenderness of the family photo album, the heat of porn, and the lavender of a shy fan’s stash. An attempt by the bookish dreamer to piece something together, the scrapbook is a way of making sense of one’s own lone body. The scrapbook and its derivations—the yearbook, the fanzine—structure all of Weber’s work, which is a project, like falling in love is, of making up a past that the body can exist and continue from, something like an identity.

About identity Gertrude Stein wrote, “I am I because my little dog knows me,” and then she came to think perhaps not, but before she thought either that or not that she wrote this: “And it is funny about identity. You are you because your little dog knows you, but when your public knows you and does not want to pay for you and when your public knows you and does want to pay for you, you are not the same you.” Stein elaborated identity as “not a thing that exists but something you do or do not remember.” The dogs that allowed Gertrude to know who was who and who she was were little dogs, Chihuahuas, Byron and Pepe, and big dogs, circus poodles, one then another, both named Basket. Weber’s work has been met with as many guffaws as Stein’s, since many have found it redundant (instead of repetitive) and beside the point, almost always accusing it of the taint of (self-) advertisement when displayed as art and as too arty when presented as advertisement. Swat such mosquito distinctions away. His considerations of the photographer’s identity—of one who looks—negotiates what the public knows and will pay for or not, what will and will not be remembered, and has everything to do with basket.

Weber’s most recent work, formally a study in whites, grays, and noirs, consists of photographs of dogs, mostly grand jet Newfoundlands, romping among handsome youths, young young men and older young men. Weber accomplishes such study by watching boys and not knowing exactly where this might be going: taut abs, cute butts, dazed eyes—fucking’s embodiments. Dylan tries to communicate to Inde by tapping his chest with both hands and sticking out his tongue, as if boy had become dog, dog boy. This becoming-dog echoes the becoming nature of life and desire, the flux we are all dogged by but somehow adore. Displaying in swift succession these pups and boys and dogs and men, Weber comments on how strangely bred we all are—that we are all bred, and this breeding is what creates the fleshy surprise of beauty, whether or not we are all breeders—as casually as Eadweard Muybridge in his “Animal Locomotion” series of 1883–87 commented that man is a locomotive animal. By “breeding” I mean no more than the not-quite-random result of copulation. Though in the “Gentle Giants” show Weber is fixed on the pedigree, not all his work is so—Broken Noses, 1987, for example, and his photographs for Banana Republic. However pedigree some are in their attractions and others winsomely mongrel, the variousness of it all makes up (human) beauty. Humans do it again—weird, wow.

Accompanying these photographs of man and his best friends was a new short film, Gentle Giants, “for River Phoenix,” in which Weber tells the tale of how he came to admire what he admires; how he was at the Stonewall the first time a man asked him to dance and when he did finally dance, next to him he imagined he saw “Jean Cocteau dancing with Peggy Lee, Willem de Kooning hugging Julie London, Anna Magnani kissing Dirk Bogarde, Dirk Bogarde kissing Montgomery Clift, Montgomery Clift kissing Luchino Visconti, and Doris Day swinging around with her favorite dog,” among others; how, for his 16th birthday, he wanted a car but received a camera. Weber speaks while scenes of ursine Newfoundlands, newsreel clips of young Elizabeth Taylor with her tiny poodle Bonko, film clips of Guy Madison (archetype for many of Weber’s sleepy men), and swirling shots of Weber’s childhood “Tough Ones” scrapbook—pics of young Clint Eastwood, Clint Walker, Errol and Sean Flynn, James Dean, Steve McQueen, Sterling Hayden lifting weights, Sal Mineo in the shower, young Warren Beatty, Raquel Welch, and more—combine in an exuberant, bittersweet rush.

Perhaps Backyard Movie and Gentle Giants will make up two parts of an eventual triptych about silence, the cuckoo vocalities of desire and embarrassment, and the complex thing abbreviated as “family.” The triptych would acknowledge how certain film-watching and star-collecting displace the parental, since Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, or James Dean and Sal Mineo—their movies and stills from their movies—are as responsible as any biology for the look of Weber’s photographs. A moviestar aura surrounds the often-not-famous boys and men who populate Weber’s worklike possibilities. These men exist as they are and as they never were, since a photographer can remember just what is not there. Weber invents his men, which means he employs whatever he requires (hair, makeup, styling, lighting, etc.) to have them radiate as they do in his head. In his work, as in his namesake Bruce of Los Angeles’, the real nuzzles the fantasy of the body.

Backyard Movie’s silence—its narrative appears handwritten on the screen, accompanied by tzigane violins—has the payoff of the racy, oceanic splendor of Ric Arango; the movie is as much for the ginger of Arango’s daunting ease as “for Mom and Dad,” the movie’s explicit dedicatees. In Backyard Movie and an autobiographical piece related to it, Weber writes about how his father, while making a salami sandwich, discussed the facts of life: “beating off” was “good because it cleared your head,” and his two favorite sexual positions were women “straddled on top of him or ‘doggie style.”’ A response to his dad’s lesson and to his mom’s query, “Which way are you swinging?,” Weber’s movie answers with Ric Arango—jumping and frolicking with dogs—and ends with little boys among garden flowers marching off toward some new masculinity there is no word for.

Gentle Giants goes doggie to say even more. Margaret Willmott’s big big dogs remind Weber “of tough guys with hearts of gold, like the gentle giants I used to paste into my scrapbook,” but Gentle Giants has no “live” boys, only scrapbook stills of gorgeousness now old or dead, and canine familiars—stand-ins for Weber and those he loves. It is a work of mourning, for the luxuries of silence—even of the closet—and the necessary definitiveness of voice, for loved ones gone who caused the silence and its breaking. The tonalities of these facts of life are heard when Weber says “I made a lot of friends then, but sadly most of them aren’t around anymore.”

Weber’s project encourages one to be obsessive and, still more important, wrong as possible, and in doing so is a reprieve from so much that is dogmatic. And what remains? This mongrel life we are already leading, the shaggy possibility that when someone asks, Make love to me, another will respond, I want to fuck you until you howl and tremble and grin like a beautiful dog.

Bruce Hainley is a writer who does not live in New York. He contributes regularly to Artforum.