The Stonewall riots should not be seen as the only shaping force in the development of contemporary gay male photography, but it makes a convenient dividing line. Put simply, Stonewall contributed to the sexual revolution and the sexual revolution contributed to the development and visibility of a gay male subculture that in turn contributed to gay male photography.
Although erotica may be the first genre that comes to mind when gay male photography is mentioned, the category comprises more than erotic photography. As a meaningful element of the fine arts and contemporary culture, gay male photography must also be recognized for its particular contributions to fine art, photo-journalism, and advertising, as well as erotica.
Since Stonewall, gay male photography has become decidedly more political. In the 1970s, in the heady atmosphere of gay liberation and community building, gay male photographers were particularly concerned with documentary and photo-journalism. Sexual liberation, self-representation, and community documentation became popular photographic themes.
In the 1980s and 1990s acceptance and commodification of the male body emerged as a staple of gay male photography, as epitomized by the famous Calvin Klein underwear ads in New York's Times Square.
Although the male body has always been a crucially important image for gay male photographers and for advertising to the gay male community, the Calvin Klein ads were a marketing breakthrough that continues to influence advertising and representation.
But perhaps the greatest single influence on contemporary gay male photography was AIDS, whose impact began to be felt most strongly in the mid to late 1980s. If Stonewall solidified the celebration of the male body found in earlier periods, then AIDS forced photographers to see the gay male body very differently.
Moreover, the health crisis redefined notions of community, which now no longer coalesced solely around the eroticism of the male body, but now also around questions of frailty, mortality, illness, loss, and transformation.
The Stigmatized Status of Gay Male Photography
Gay male photography was already a thriving creative and economic force for many photographers and consumers before 1969. But the commercialization of gay male photography became infinitely easier in the post-Stonewall world. However, this ease should not be confused with acceptance. Today, in fine art galleries and museums, gay male photography continues to be stigmatized as a marginal or subcultural art form.
The stigmatization of gay male photography, of course, parallels the state of gays within society as a whole. However, with gay mayors in Berlin and Paris, along with gay and lesbian elected officials across the United States, the gay and lesbian community is finding increasing acceptance, which translates into increasing acceptance for gay and lesbian art.
Ambiguity in Gay Male Photography
All images that fall under the rubric of gay male photography are not fine art, just as all erotic images of the male body are not pornographic. This ambiguity may in fact be the clearest expression of what has been gained since Stonewall.
Strict boundaries continue to fall away and distinctions, both subtle and extreme, can be found between fine art, pornography, and a wide range of politically charged visual strategies. Gay male photography can sell clothes, cologne, embrace S&M subcultural practices, celebrate gender bending, and increasingly encompass just about any subject.
Please take a look at the following pages on this blog site to see specific examples of gay photographers who have contributed to the art world post Stonewall.