Los Angeles

José Quintana

Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies

In its presentation of diverse male subjectivities, José Quintana’ series of photographs is conceptually as well as visually seductive for the viewer usually starved of male objects of desire. Photographed in color and with the calculated spontaneity of photojournalism, the images are positioned as artsy yet “anthropological” studies of American manhood. While hung with a sometimes heavy-handed didacticism in thematic groups, the work thwarted the potentially clichéd effects of this arrangement with the humor and empathetic impulse underlying these far-from-simply-celebratory images. White men, black men, Latinos, studs, geeks, straights, gays, transvestites, cowboys, doctors, muscle-men, soldiers, and businessmen—these men are erotic or repulsive, sublime or absurd, depending on one’s point of view.

True to the documentary-art format, these photographs seethe with an underlying psychological tension: at an army base, an Anglo soldier stands looking at his young son, who is dressed in military camouflage gear and scowling at the camera; a rabbi cuts the foreskin from a tiny baby’s penis as two men, presumably the father and another male relative, look on and laugh ecstatically at this initiation ritual; a handsome African-American teenager in black-tie escorts his date in sparkling-white taffeta to a formal dance and, arms crossed defensively, looks coolly into the camera. In some images, homosexuality is explicit: a white and a Latino man are shown seated arm in arm in front of a poster promoting AIDS awareness. In others that depict seemingly straight-identified men interacting in social and professional scenarios, homoeroticism smoulders between the subjects—barely contained within the chafing restraints of Western masculinity. Thus a body builder—muscles straining, naked chest gleaming above a tiny bikini bulging with his “manhood”—is held tightly from behind by a clothed male assistant as he pumps his iron. Quintana’s tender regard for his subjects/objects lends them a pathos conventionally viewed as incompatible with masculinity.

The least successful images, to my mind, are those that, like Diane Arbus’ pictures (which I’ve always been ambivalent about), gain their visual interest from the “freakishness” of their subjectscross-dressers and Mr. Universe types. Other images seem overtly sentimental: a white doctor cradling a newborn in his arms; two men of color gingerly holding their babies. Yet even these images can be viewed as pushing at the conventional boundaries of masculinity by representing men whose actions are shot through with nurturing femininity. The simplest acts of male behavior are turned into poignant rituals; in one picture, a naked man faces a mirror, shaving, and a trickle of foam runs down his muscular back into the crack between his buttocks.

This last picture also includes something effaced in the others: a reference to the photographer (in the mirror, a hand holding a camera is visible). This appearance of the making subject begs the question of whose masculinity is being expressed here. But, in fact, by playing out the intersubjective exchange of all human relationships (the power dynamics of which are exaggerated in the photographic moment), these pictures expose the contingency of all sexual and other group identities. Approaching his subjects “man to man,” yet with the unfair advantage of wielding a camera, Quintana both enforces his particular point of view and enables a variety of male subjects to project identities that are sometimes masculine. sometimes feminine, but most often somewhere in between.

Amelia Jones

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