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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. Its 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 dont 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,
theres 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 Barkers 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 Gloedens 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 Barkers 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. Barkers 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. Barkers
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.
© 2002 Christian Perring. All
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
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