The Queer Body as Seen Through the Viewfinder: A Conversation with Photographer Matthew Morrocco

· Updated on October 30, 2018

I first met Brooklyn-based photographer Matthew Morrocco in 2011, at a Mykki Blanco show outside of a temporary art space on Walker Street in New York City. He told me he was a photographer, but I hadn’t yet seen his work. That is until his name started to increasingly pop up in familiar places. He photographed himself with older men in vulnerable, intimate situations: naked on a bed, leaning on a balcony ledge, seated by the windowsill. His photographs were powerful, drenched in commentary about the ways in which the aging gay body was perceived in a post-AIDS world, and what the younger gay generation’s responsibility was in the face of the changing political landscape. More often than not, those politics were personal. That’s why he systematically includes himself in his photographs, collapsing the viewer, photographer, and the subject into a single praxis.

“Mirror Image,” 2017, courtesy of the artist

But the tour de force is his recent work, Orchid.Seasons, where Morrocco slides into monochromatic bodysuits and photographs himself in poses borrowed from classical painting. Curious about exploring the thin space between self-representation and self-effacement in response to intolerance, homophobia, and social expectation, Morrocco’s work effectively allows for a more comprehensive dialogue about the queer body and sexuality. We spoke to him about his recent projects in light of the release of his book Complicit.

“Kissing Rolf,” 2013, courtesy of the artist

Michael Valinsky: Complicit was one of your first photography series, where you sourced your subjects on Grindr. The attitude toward Grindr has significantly changed in the past seven years, in that people are a lot more open and public about using it. How have the changing approaches toward Grindr affected the outcome of the project?

Matthew Morrocco: I don’t think I ever used it as anything other than a tool to find people, I never thought of it as a structure on which the work functioned. I guess that is to say, I kind of stopped using it a year or two ago.

I will say that I think it’s an important alternative to gay bars, that for people like me, who don’t really drink, has been an important meeting place and has social value beyond sex. But I’m not so sure things have really changed that much.

For me, I’m much more open about the work I’m making than I was before. I want people to know about my experience making these pictures but a lot of that has come with getting older. I was 20 when I started making these pictures. I’m 28 now.

“Self Portrait with Scott on the Couch,” 2012, courtesy of the artist

MV:  The photographs have been presented in countless forms (vinyl, framed, etc.). Why have you opted to go for the book form?

MM: I wanted the work to be read in a narrative sequence. A lot of things happened in the years that I was making pictures—both good and bad. I wanted the work to exist in a format that could read like a story.

I modeled the structure of the book after Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. That book had a similar arc to what I went through when I made these photographs. A young kid angry at his family, at the world he lived in, going off in search of an adventure and then coming back to still find the people “who loved him most of all” waiting for him. As well, Sendak was gay and his books were so important for generations of American children. I wanted to discuss, reference, and build on this legacy.

“Portrait of Abdu Ali,” 2017, courtesy of the artist

MV: You’re always featured in the photographs in Complicit, and I remember us talking about how invested you were in the triangulation between viewer, subject, and photographer. How did these notions evolve in Mirror Portraits?

MM: This series was a little different. This work is more about portraiture than about a scene or tableau. This work speaks more to the way images function online through repetition and refraction than about a specific stance for the viewer. I wanted the viewer to feel more on the outside of these images. The structure of it, revealing the camera, seeing the mirror setup. The work is a closed loop; the viewer is excluded. They are just a viewer.

MV:  How did you select the subjects for Mirror Portraits?

MM: I wasn’t very particular about it. I mostly photographed people that I wanted to spend time with and whose company I enjoyed.

MV:  What’s the importance of mirrors here and what role do you think they play in online self-representation?

MM: Mirrors, the silver ones we know today, are an early form of technology and were invented around the same time as the camera in the 1830s. In my opinion, their history and legacy are bound up within the same history and the idea of “vanity.”

For many people, vanity is negative and bad. In my opinion, vanity, mirrors, photography, and social media, help bring people a sense of self-worth. Like a Lacanian child who looks in the mirror and recognizes himself as distinct from his mother for the first time. I think recognizing and creating oneself as distinct from others, whether through photography, mirrors, or social media, or all of the above, are important stages of personal and emotional development.

“Portrait of Theresa Chromati,” 2017, courtesy of the artist

MV: As it explores the creation of identities and persona through social media, the Mirror Portraits series also invites artists with their own artistic practice into a space outside of social media, where you have the authority on formulating an aesthetic identity. How do you go about setting up the scene of representation? Do your subjects have as much agency as you in constructing the setting?

MM: The setting was very specific and always the same. It was in my bedroom. I placed one large mirror on the wall, and a three-mirror-set across from that. The subject and I were in the middle. The mirrors opposite each other made an infinity mirror and, in some of the pictures, you can see things that were hanging on my wall at the time the photo was made. Sometimes there are flowers, or my dog peeked her head in. The process was very organic, and I wanted the pictures to feel like they were made in a place where someone lived.

“Kneeling Among Berries,” 2017, courtesy of the artist

MV: Following two series where you feature prominently in all the scenes and where the affirmation of identity and desire is important, Orchid.Seasons, as you’ve spoken about it, is a response to all the times you’ve made yourself invisible. Can you talk about that?

MM: From ages 12 – 18, around the time I started realizing I was gay, I hated looking in mirrors and I hated having my picture taken. I remember in middle school when I had to walk from the locker room to the gymnasium, I had to pass a room full of mirrors where they held ballet classes. I always used to look down and walk past the room as fast as possible so that I wouldn’t have to look at myself.

Looking back on that time in my life, I remember feeling like a ghost. Almost as if I didn’t exist. Sort of like a deus ex machina that moved my body like a robot. I remember family members asking me things like “how are you,” and their feelings of consternation and pity when I’d respond, “I don’t know.” It was as if I wasn’t really in control of my life and no one knew anything about me.

When I started making pictures, I was really excited about asserting my identity and I did that often throughout a lot of my work. But now, in many ways, I think this invisibility, or this inability to ascertain one’s sense of self—because when you’re queer you are too often required to suppress yourself in order to survive—characterizes a lot of the queer experience and I’m curious to find it again. Ellsworth Kelly remains closeted in many ways and a lot of this new work is about his legacy. How does his work fit within a queer canon? Does it really matter that he was queer? I think it does, so I’m exploring issues related to that.

“Still Life 2,” 2017, courtesy of the artist

MV: While your physical identity is covered up in the bodysuit, your body is prominently more sexualized, in its movements and shape. How did you negotiate the balance between covering up apparent sexuality and the eroticism that ensues from anonymity?

MM: I am not sure that anonymity is essentially erotic. But as the body suit is pretty fitted, it basically shows off my body without the genital details, some things are heightened. A lot of the poses I use come from old paintings—most of which are pretty erotic. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, figures on Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s Grande Odalisque. But I wanted the work to look effectively neutered of a specific identification to reference a denial or inaccessibility of my personal identity within the space of self-portraiture.

“Standing Among Berries,” 2017, courtesy of the artist

MV: You’ve talked about how there’s a need for the opening of “queerness.” Can you talk more about what you mean here?

MM: I think I was specifically talking about a class I took in grad school in which the professor was lamenting the mainstreaming of queerness. His view was that queerness has a specific function as well as definition within academia and that when it goes mainstream it cheapens the idea.

In my opinion, queerness needs to be accessible to everyone because it helps other people think about their identities within a spectrum. Whether it’s sexuality, race, or gender, the presence and representation of ideas within these larger structures needs to be constantly expanded on, revised, and revisited.

Otherwise queerness, race, and gender will always remain one thing and new voices within each of those categories will be stifled and everyone suffers. Straight people need queerness just as much as gay people do and we have to stop isolating ourselves to one aesthetic or idea if we are going to move forward.

“Hugging Tree,” 2017, courtesy of the artist

Complicit is due for publication this month. To pre-order, click here.

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