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NightswimmingReview - Nightswimming
by Stephen Barker
Twin Palms, 1999
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Nov 21st 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 47)

Nightswimming is an extraordinary book of black and white photographs.  Stephen Barker took these pictures in a park, mostly at night, of men with other men.  The images are dark and often blurred.  There must have been very little available light, and Barker did not use a flash.  The men are partially clothed or naked.  The pictures are taken from low on the ground, high up looking down, or straight on.  The men are in couples or in groups.  In some of the photographs it is clear what the men are doing together, while in others it is too dark or blurred to tell.  It’s a very odd spectacle. 

Most people would think of public sex at night in a park decidedly seedy, and would certainly not want to be photographed at the scene.  In many of the images, the men don’t look attractive; with their underwear around their thighs, exposing their round bellies and lumpy buttocks.  Barker is not glamorizing this secretive activity, but neither is he condemning it.  If anything, he might be showing an unexpected beauty to the glimpses of bodies suggested by these images.  Indeed, there’s a hint of ethereal mystery here, inherent in the anonymous clutching of other bodies and the wordless meeting of strangers.  These images are sensual and yet sorrowful.  Barker is not celebrating the activity of these men, but he is in a sense honoring their experience.

The power of Barker’s work here is subtle; it helps to compare his approach to other photographers who make male sexuality a prominent theme.  Much of the most commercial gay photography features muscle-bound hunks.  More interesting photographers include Robert Maplethorpe, whose well known pictures of men are always in sharp focus, highlighting particular parts of the body, combining a formal beauty with a fetishistic pleasure, often with a strong dose shock value.  Wilhelm von Gloeden’s nudes of young men from the end of the nineteenth century posed them as objects of nature and natural beauty.  Greg Gorman's Just Between Us presents a rather adolescent version of gay beauty admired.  But in Barker’s images, the men are certainly not posing for him, and indeed, they have gone to this nighttime park precisely for the anonymity of the experience.  They are also not passive; they are there for a reason, in search of pleasure or release.  They are not idealized males, and their bodies have the flaws and beauty of most other bodies.  Barker’s pictures are striking not because of a scandalous revelation about homosexual activity, but because of his loving, awed representation of a shared experience of gay men.  One might ask whether his representation is true to the actual experience, and I imagine one could get a variety of answers from different people.  But that would be asking the wrong question.  Barker’s images are not meant to serve as documentary evidence; rather, they show this sexual activity in a different light.  His work is innovative and surprisingly moving. 

 

Link: Publisher's Website

 

© 2002 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.


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