Los Angeles

Gary Lee Boas

Karyn Lovegrove Gallery

Gary Lee Boas’s photograph In front of Badlands at the corner of Christopher and West Street (all works undated, from the series “New York Sex,” 1979–85) shows a rainbow coalition of male types on a sunny day at the intersection of gay and gay: gym bunnies, shirtless exhibitionists, older gents. In addition to setting the scene, the surrounding greenery, blue sky, and balmy light can also be regarded as signs of the somewhat paradoxical naturalness of the men fraternizing and hooking up, caught—or about to be—in the calm eye of gathering hurricane AIDS.

Eugène Atget photographed a Paris that was rapidly vanishing; Boas’s accomplishment is to have recorded a fan’s relation to stardom that is no longer possible and a carefree sexual license that is no longer viable. In doing so, he has become an Atget not of unpeopled, condemned sites of the populaire but of that which makes up the populaire: phosphorescent bodily presences, jouissance’s vitality and its labor. Seventeen expertly chosen, newly printed “sex” photos from Boas’s astounding collection—numbering ninety thousand shots and autographs of every permutation of “star”—give a potent idea of how this work has yet to secure its proper place. Molly Nesbit has limned how Atget’s decision to put his work in historiographic and library repositories troubles his project’s being taken as simply aesthetic, emphasizing its crucial, politic toil. Boas’s work provides even more evidence that photography at its best complicates any neatly aesthetic status. By paring away everything (technical slickness, aesthetic conceit) except the intense, strange specificity of one anonymous human being encountering another and finding, if only fleetingly, recognition, notoriety, perhaps even love, Boas returns the photograph to its subject—and to subjectivity.

While Boas’s photographs of New York sex clubs, porn stars, and strippers continue his pursuits as a fan, he’s also tracing connections between Hollywood stardom—considered to mesmerizing effect in his book Starstruck: Photos from a Fan (1999)—and the stardom of its too frequently sublimated twin industry, porn. Which is to say that to view bubbly, buxom Annie Sprinkle in her nurse’s uniform surrounded by a bevy of louche boy beauties—Mapplethorpe’s Mr. 10 1/2, Marc Stevens, among them—is to confront a Lucille Ball of sex. Before Disney gentrified Times Square, Hollywood’s Others performed at the Show Palace, Show World, the Follies, and Magique.

The art-historical importance of Boas’s photographs of gay porn stars Aaron Gage, Lance, and Leo Ford twinned by lobby promos hasn’t been surmised, but their onto- logical consequence should be apparent. Study their anonymous equal in Stripper at the Show Palace caught midmove: one blue Adidas kicked back, his tube sock pulled tight around his calf, his posture taught, a bow tie ringing his neck while a magic cloud from a smoke machine occludes most of his body. Portrait of the artist as a young dude, it’s complex, actual, and surprising: being, stripteased.

Boas knows his subjects as well as Atget knew the rues and environs of Paris. What he’s written about his friendship with Marc Stevens can stand as testament to why he continues to take his camera with him everywhere, so that a semblance of what he’s known is not forever lost: “All I remember was he was scared of dying. He had such a zest for life, death meant nothing but idleness, and to him, there was no afterworld, death was death. You die, you rot, you stay in the ground. He lived in that fear of death. Ironically, I feel the same way. I live with that same fear.” Boas still resides in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, place of his birth, in the heartland of the Amish—a people who abjure being photographed because the images produced are idolatrous.

Bruce Hainley