PRINT April 1995

David Rimanelli

What is Bruce Weber? Briefly, he is one of the most successful and widely imitated commercial photographers of our time. Whatever Weber’s detractors might say, there is no denying the ubiquity of his signature style: the way his camera lingers on the luscious twists and turns of ripe male flesh; the way his predominantly black and white photographs still carry the charge of sunlight in their silver patinas; the overall ambience of perpetual leisure and effortlessly satisfied desire. With its unrepentant celebration of WASPy men’s good looks, Weber’s work has a decided homoerotic undercurrent. In fact, if male sexuality until recently remained discreetly veiled when it was exploited in the service of product merchandising, it was Weber, particularly in his work for Calvin Klein, who ushered in the change. Recall, for example, his photograph of Olympic pole-vaulter Tom Hintinhaus clad only in his Calvins, which was brazenly displayed as a billboard in New York’s Times Square in 1983—a Colossus of Rhodes the corona of whose penis was plainly outlined by the thin cotton briefs.

Fans of this aspect of Weber’s work may be disappointed by his recent exhibition, film, and book, collectively titled “Gentle Giants.” Where, oh where, are those muscly, well-nigh edible male nudes? Where is the fuel for onanistic fires? There were a few naked guys in the show and in the book; in the movie, none. Moreover there is no full-frontal nudity at all, no penises orchidaceously flowering. Oh wait—there’s one. Attached as it is to a little baby, though, this image would be titillating only to those addicted to the far fringes of pedophilic rapture, or, as the infant is shown letting loose a stream of urine into the face of a comely (clothed) youth, to pedourophiliacs.

Rather than giving us what we’ve come to expect—aggressively splendid male pulchritude—Weber takes pictures of dogs, big, slobbery, irresistibly cuddlesome Newfoundland dogs. The all-Americans who cavorted with such disingenuous innocence in Weber’s 1990 book Bear Pond are here replaced by a posse of adorable retrievers, those meat-moppets’ implicit homage to Eakins’ The Swimming Hole of 1883–85 by an echo of Landseer’s Victorian hunting scenes. Forget South Beach, Bruce, welcome to Balmoral. But the camera eye that dwelled so lovingly on beautiful men seems utterly uninspired when it comes to animals. William Wegman need not tremble, his weimaraners may rest secure: Weber’s Newfoundlands are unlikely candidates for the pet-photography pantheon.

Many scoffed when Weber’s nudies were featured in the 1987 Whitney Biennial. But whereas many of the other artists in that show, as with all Biennials, are dim recollections at best, his wall of flesh remains vivid in memory. This doesn’t mean that Weber is such a great and original photographer. His pictures are wildly derivative—on the one hand, of the kind of idealist athleticism represented by, say, Herbert List in his book Junge Männer, on the other, of ’50s Town & Country–style editorial photography. Anyone familiar with Slim Aaron’s delirious tribute to the good life of the Eisenhower era, A Wonderful Time, will recognize the germ of Weber’s version of the good life today. But if Weber isn’t a formally or even scenically inventive photographer, his images stay in our minds quite simply because of their subject matter—beautiful boys, Michelangesque men, and the unspoken (because unrepresented) promise of sex, especially of the man-on-man variety. Depriving his pictures of their characteristic obsessive subject matter—exchanging men for dogs—Weber leaves us with almost nothing to look at.

The other side of the Weber coin, the obverse of his eroticism, is his nostalgia: he has always layered his images with references to the past, in particular the ’50s and early ’60s, the time of his own childhood or early adolescence. In one of his eponymous photo books he includes this bit of oneiric reverie: “I had a dream that I went to a party at Cinecittá studio in Rome with Elizabeth Taylor and her kids Michael, Christopher, and Liza. She was partly dressed in her Cleopatra costume and capri pants . . . Gardner McKay was there in jeans, surrounded by starlets and drinking beer-looking just like he did when he appeared on the cover of Life magazine . . . Pasolini arrived alone, wearing a baggy suit and sunglasses. Everyone wanted to wear sunglasses at night, get into their sports cars and drive down the Via Veneto and flirt with—oh, I don’t know who. . . . ” In Weber’s dizzy evocation of his own fantasized dolce vita, nostalgia for movie-star glamour is crosswired with a strategically unfixed sexuality. The perfume of desire is everywhere; flirtations lead anywhere.

The film Gentle Giants, the only source of “artistic interest” in this project, purveys a similar bisexual nostalgia kick. A paean not only to canine overachievers but to bygone stars, it’s filled with archival clips from movies and news stories of the ’50s and ’60s, clips that obviously filter Weber’s memories through the screen of his desires. Weber juxtaposes shots of his beloved Newfoundlands frolicking in a field with images of the sorts of ’50s-era moviestar studs he obviously craves. It’s weird, as if the dogs functioned as ciphers or analogues for more overt homoerotic content. The darling doggies have sad, introspective, inviting eyes—the eyes one might imagine for one’s dream lover. Sometimes they pose with a certain dignified goofiness, their massive wet tongues hanging out like obscene leeches. You might want to hug them, but only the profoundly perverse would find this a turn-on. (We’re straying here into the territory that Xaviera Hollander mapped out so memorably in the South Africa chapter of her book The Happy Hooker: Ms. Hollander, starved for manflesh, does it with the family German shepherd.)

Comparison with Robert Mapplethorpe, who was nothing if not candid about his desires, shows Weber as a hypocrite about homosexuality, even in his most explicitly homoerotic big lovable studs is truly to go one step beyond. Speculation on the reason for that step is inevitable, as is, probably, its connection with the film’s function as a kind of coming-out narrative. The heart of Gentle Giant is the story of Weber’s first time at the Stonewall Bar. A friend asks Weber to meet him there; another guy asks Weber to dance; he panics and hides; he recovers his courage, finds the guy, and sweeps him onto the dance floor.

This simple narrative is clouded by Weber’s fantasy of the Stonewall’s habitués on that special night: “All the guys were dressed like the Supremes, and the girls were dressed like the O’Jays, and everybody was real friendly,” he recalls, but that friendly everybody isn’t just anybody: “I imagined 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.” This peculiar art/pop/celluloid/camp party is all the stranger in its celebration of guiltless bisexuality. It’s as if, in the course of confessing his love of dogs—sorry, his love of men—Weber found it necessary to underscore his love of women.

Perhaps Weber’s inclusiveness would be endearing if that were truly what it was, but the problem is that all of the women he apotheosizes here are divas, gay icons, perhaps even fag hags, of an antique era. Early in the film, Weber warbles a love song to Elizabeth Taylor. After this monologue, we can only wonder, So where’s Maria Callas? In Gentle Giants as in actual history, the Stonewall Bar marks a generational divide, but rather than looking forward from it (to the ’70s gay-liberation movement and its ’80s and ’90s outgrowths) Weber looks back before Stonewall, to lives like those led by some of the characters whose lives were chronicled in the famous documentary of that name. His intriguingly twisted coming-out story remains caught in the brambles of his nostalgia for, mainly, the ’50s. And despite his enormous commercial success, which demonstrates his understanding of the icons our moment desires, his nostalgic vision necessarily brings him into conflict with a younger gay generation for whom, for better or worse, Maria Callas is just a name.

The other great generational divide for gay men, however, is AIDS, and this backdrop to Gentle Giants, paradoxically, starts to give the film a subtle strength. “Yet for all its wildness,” Weber intones in a not unpleasant voice, “that was a real innocent time and nobody thought about getting hurt. I made a lot of friends then, but sadly most of them aren’t around anymore.” It is in this moment of Gentle Giants, with its longing for “a real innocent time,” that the heart sides with Weber. The ironies of the film multiply. Weber’s hypocrisy regarding his own homoeroticism, a hypocrisy rendered ludicrous in his substitution of dogs for clicks, commingles strangely with his far more sympathetic nostalgia for a freely indulged yet somehow still innocent sexuality. It is the force of that contradiction and its unraveling of the expected that give Gentle Giants the flavor of real art.