Doug Ischar


Only the outdated logo on a can of Cherry Coke and a few large boom boxes indicate that Doug Ischar’s photographs date from the mid-1980s. The striped kneesocks, polo shirts, and large aviator sunglasses clothing a dense population of sun-kissed gay males lying on the limestone and concrete blocks lining an urban lake could suggest a contemporary scene. But the photographs—exhibited here for the first time—were taken during the summer of 1985, with a 35-mm camera fitted with a short-range lens. Touching upon the long tradition of documentary photography, they chronicle Chicago’s now-defunct public gathering place known as the Belmont Rocks.

The collection of lavish pictures, titled “Marginal Waters,” teems with beautiful young men. And unlike the documentary photographs of, say, Garry Winogrand or Lee Friedlander, the images are not overly concerned with context. Most are cropped close, focusing on intertwining limbs and pressing torsos, with the neutral blue of Lake Michigan the primary backdrop; only a handful indicate that these men are convening in public. MW 06, for example, pictures a man in white swim trunks sunbathing on his stomach on the grass leading up to the lake’s rocky shoreline. This distant perspective—showing a sliver of water, distant sailboats, park litter, and a bicycle—suggests that this is a public waterfront. The rusty steel barrel garbage can and distant high-rises in MW 09 also indicate a municipal site. Another photo, MW 18, depicts a nearly nude sunbathing man directly beside a picnicking family. Neither the family nor the man seems to mind—nor even to be aware of—the other’s presence, even though they are just a few feet apart. If the history of gay photography is one of images privately created for private pleasure, these pictures of public amatory exploits, displayed in a public gallery, turn from that tradition.

The mounting, kissing, and stroking of bodies on brightly patterned beach towels, expressions of casual freedom against the deep cobalt blue of the lake juxtaposed with the pale cerulean blue of the sky, result in a titillating viewing experience. In MW 8, for instance, the bright sun illuminates from above a complex grouping of men engaged in a seemingly choreographed volley of posing and looking that recalls Ingres’s Bain turc (Turkish Bath), 1862. Ischar’s intricate arrangement of spread legs and tight swimsuits is stabilized by two men—one straddling the other, their genitals pressed together—in the picture’s center. The clear focus of the image, this coupling, shot from a low angle, anchors the severely diagonal horizon. Lake Michigan’s shoreline may make for an exquisite stage, but it is eroticism, not the context of the city, that drives these images.

As a poetic response to the photographs he took nearly twenty-five years ago, Ischar created a single-channel video, titled Forget Him, 2009, specifically for this exhibition. Assembled from a roll of amateur Super 8 film found in 1990 at a Chicago flea market, the piece preserves the two distinct scenes present in the original footage. The first half of Forget Him records a bleached-out garden in a nondescript backyard. Red and pink roses in front of a chain-link fence and a Virgin Mary lawn statue fade in and out of the overexposed film. In the second half, set in a different outdoor location, two men film each other in various states of undress; one pulls on skintight shorts that are so snug he must zip and unzip the fly to pull the zipper all the way up, teasing the camera. Text from Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street (1928) accompanies the garden footage; with the two men, Heinrich Schütz’s lamentful motet Adjuro vos, Filiae Jerusalem, fills the audio track, as the Latin lyrics, sung by two male singers, appear translated into English in subtitles. An elegiac rejoinder to the lost Belmont Rocks, the video is a deeply emotional counterpoint to Ischar’s fabulously erotic photographs.

Michelle Grabner