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When Cameras Collide
Dureau, Disability, and Dueling with Mapplethorpe
Interview by Jack FritscherNew Orleans. In March, 1991, I met with George Dureau who had photographed Mapplethorpe who photographed Dureau. . . .
Dureau is languorous, witty, and ripe. He mixes art and sex and food and human relationships together the way he mixes paints on his palette, splurging them across his canvases, with such vigor that he recently hit himself in the face with a brush. There's southern passion in the man who drew in the cold Robert from a colder Manhattan. The difference between them is the heat of passion. Dureau was a painter before he was a photographer and he remained both. Robert had studied sculpture before he was given a camera.
Their common interest is the black male.
"Robert and I," George said, "could hardly be more fundamentally different."
"Yet there are similarities."
"But different sensibilities. Robert and I started photographing about the same time. Perhaps our photographs of black men, where some people see similarity, is where we were most divergent.
"My photographs look like my paintings and drawings. I'm very much a humanist. I'm very involved with the people I shoot. My photographs are family pictures. Very sentimental. Sam Wagstaff [Robert Mapplethorpe's patron] couldn't abide that. He never for one moment would have tolerated Robert shooting people with my compassion, because compassion was highly inappropriate for the market Sam had in mind for Robert's career. Wagstaff was a real fascist. He despised minorities – not that anybody has to love them; they piss me off sometimes, too – but he really hated the whole idea of anyone making beautiful statements about the poor. I remember Sam looking at a large selection of my photographs. He just kept staring at me as if to say, you must be crazy to like these people: lovely, handsome, young men, poor whites and blacks, oftentimes with missing limbs. My photographs say quite clearly that I like everybody I photograph. . . .
"I must tell you, one day, Robert and I photographed each other," said George. "I posed with a model up against huge, battered columns. It was my idea. He wasn't very manipulative. I suspect he was more directorial with people who were important to him. He didn't fuck with me and I didn't with him. Maybe it was because we knew too much about the same thing. We didn't want to expose everything about ourselves. We weren't in the least attracted, but were fascinated by how different our approaches were to art. As it was, quite by accident, Robert and I used the same camera and the same paper and the same film and all that causes some similarity, which is coincidence more than a 'departure.'"
I said, "I notice your influence on Robert in certain photographs, especially one of his model, Thomas, who is posed, full-length, nude, torso arched back, his face so far back he's faceless, and it's in his presentation of arms that Robert references you. Thomas's arms are raised up around his head and disappear at the elbows. He also virtually amputated the arms of another model. I wouldn't have thought much about this amputee' stylization if your work did not exist. Actually, that pose is a classic physique contest pose I used in a series of 'Self-Portraits 1979.'"
(A prime example of Mapplethorpe's referencing Dureau's amputee stylization is his photograph of a black model, Ken Moody, 1983. In the Schirmer/Mosel edition of Mapplethorpe's Ten by Ten, Photograph 56, Robert displays Ken Moody back to the camera, in a way that causes Moody's arms to look amputated. Robert's reference, quoting race and gender and pose from Dureau, also references ancient classical statues whose perfect forms ancient vandals broke from their perfect moment.)
"Many of my models are deformed, by birth or by accident. Some are just drop-dead gorgeous. People seem to respond with affection to physically impaired people. Some respond foolishly. Sam Wagstaff was one of them. My models are people who are beautiful and sexy and the fact that there's a stump where an arm or a leg should be doesn't mar their sexiness or their beauty. You don't say, 'Well, let's throw out this little Roman sculpture because it's partly broken,'" said George sarcastically.
"Perhaps people respond to your work because you make literal, in your pictures, the parts that are missing. You confront them with the notion that we all have parts missing in ourselves."
"My work elicits much affection."
"Robert's doesn't," I replied.
"Of course not. He was always a classical formalist. Some of my work is classical and the sense of form dominates the subject, as Robert's always does. Mostly, my work is romantic in the sense that the subject is so important that it almost always goes off balance, because it just has to, because I can't bend this model around anymore, I can't tell his story formally because I make contact with the person coming out of him."
"Robert often stepped in and did your ironing," I commented.
"Exactly. He cleaned up my work to make them respectable for respectable queers with money," said George.
"Gay photography, at least in the magazines, certainly shies away from deformity, except the deformity of big cocks. Ordinary people rarely appear. They take a backseat to super, heroic, built, and media-handsome men. At least some gallery shows, and some photography books, are beginning to break that taste by showing persons who are living with AIDS."
"That's what I mean when I say Robert's art speculates others," said George. "His models are meant to be looked at. He pushed them all into a sort of calendar-boy pose that, even when they're looking menacingly at you, you're saying, 'Oh, that's Robert's Mr. December.' "
"You mean his work looks commercial, as if the photograph is trying to sell itself as a product to mainstream money," I said.
"I know it! He makes his models look too available, whereas mine look like something dragged in off the street, which they were. His were dragged off the street, too, but he presented them in a way that every good faggot will know what this means. With mine, every good faggot doesn't know what this means. He was very commercial. He used to ask me, 'George, how do you live off this? Who's going to buy these things?' That was his big worry."
"It sounds like you assault a social consciousness."
"And he assaulted checkbooks. It's true. I'm so comfortable dealing with handicapped people. I have lots of intellectual, sophisticated handicapped friends, some who are lawyers for the disadvantaged, and they invite me over to discuss sex, because I'm the only normal person they know who knows about having sex with handicapped people. One time I almost died when, in this group of handicapped people talking about sex, I had taken a friend and his wife, neither of whom was handicapped. There was a girl with no arms, and all this couple wanted to talk about was what it would feel like to put their arms around a girl with no arms."
"That sounds like a scene from Todd Browning's Freaks, where the 'normal' woman, surrounded socially by the physically impaired, realizes in that group, she is the freak," I said.
"Exactly. 'Now you're one of us.'"
This excerpt originally appeared in Jack Fritscher's memoir, Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera (Hastings House, 1994). An index of the book is available at the author's Website, along with author interviews.
Jack Fritscher's two interview videos
This page is part of the disabilities issue of True Tales, which includes articles, stories, photography, and links related to leather and disabilities.
RELATED ARTICLES IN TRUE TALES
Drummer Readers on the Eroticism of Disabled Men. Reactions to the publication of George Dureau's photography in a gay leather magazine.
George Dureau: Nude Male Photography and Art. Introduction by Mark I. Chester. Includes links related to Jack Fritscher.
Drummer's "Maimed Beauty" Issue. Links related to an issue of the gay leather magazine Drummer that featured George Dureau's photography.
Writing on Robert Mapplethorpe by Jack Fritscher. Includes an article from Drummer. [Jack Fritscher, Ph.D.]
of Robert Mapplethorpe by George Dureau; picture of Jack Fritscher and
Robert Mapplethorpe (1979). Click on "Front Cover" and "Back Cover."
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