Photographs of Gay Bar Restrooms
Sanctum Santorum: Photographs of Gay Bars is a project comprised of four large scale photographs. It deals with issues surrounding sexual identity, public and private space and how a traditionally base and maligned place becomes a safe space for individual expression. Aesthetic and artistic issues are discussed and comparisons made between my work and that of two contemporary photographers, Candida Hofer and Dean Sameshima.
This thesis project comes out of an ongoing body of work that I began in 2000 to photograph restrooms in gay bars in the Los Angeles area. The concept was to capture on film these inner spaces that have been overlooked by the culture at large, but have come to play a significant role in the formation of identity of many gay individuals, as well as facilitating the actual construction of the(se) minority cultures and subcultures by individual members. The resulting images show a wide range of locales, running the gamut from sleazy to sleek, decorated to institutional, funky to impersonal. For my thesis I have chosen four images. They have been shot on thirty-five millimeter film, drum scanned and printed using digital means on Fuji crystal archive paper.
This paper will address three main concerns of the work. The first is the meaning of the gay bar and the restroom in historical and sociological context of the gay rights movement. Secondly, the reality of the men’s restroom and how it both mimics and confounds dominant cultural notions of public and private space, as well as homoerotic desire. And thirdly, the visual result of these undertakings, the aesthetics and art of my project.
Historical and Sociological Context
A person’s relationship to the concept of space is central in making sense of experience, as well as in forming identity. We all look for a place to go that makes us feel safe, secure, and comfortable, to explore what we are feeling and the essence of who we are as individuals. Part of that experience of finding a place of safety involves sexual and sensorial expressions of longing, desire and the wish to explore. For heterosexuals in our culture, generally this exploration is either assumed and simply not thought about, practiced for the most part openly, or at least given some leeway regarding acceptable behavior. For many gay men growing up in this historical period, shame, secrecy and furtive questionings have existed alongside, if not overshadowed, this inevitable part of development as an adolescent into adulthood. A nominally sanctioned location that a gay man has been able to make these associations and explorations in relative safety has traditionally been the gay bar. Historically and symbolically the bar has represented the safe haven from marginilization, oppression, homophobia and cultural loathing. Cultural critics have pointed out that piecing together queer history is difficult given the fragmentary nature of the institutions that function as historical repositories, which for the longest time were solely gay bars. In fact, bars are major, if imperfect links gay historians have in “rereading a history defined by gaps, elisions, omissions” (Quimby and Williams, 2000) The gay bar has been arguably the single most important institution and historical place of reference. Even before the so-called birth of the gay rights movement in June 1969 at the Stonewall Bar in New York, where drag queens fought back against the police at a time when police raids on homosexual establishments were a fact of life, gay bars served the purpose of functioning as a meeting ground, facilitating community and liaisons of all sorts.
The bar was, and is, a place to hang out with friends, to pick up a partner for the evening, to meet a future mate, to engage in a sexual dalliance (maybe right there on the premises) or to just kill some time. It is a place that keeps the community up to date, gives an idea of what music and videos are currently popular, shows those who don’t get out much to see what people in the street are doing. It is a location that some use to gather information from flyers, posters or magazines; a place to go to for a drink, to people watch, to feel a sense of belonging, to be entertained, to escape from the grind of the everyday and the mundane. Also, significantly, it provides a “safe public space for the homosexual male gaze” (Cante, 2000) a place that is okay to eroticize other men without picking the wrong target and risking a violent response. In all, gay bars have been transformed from being merely a place, into a gay positive space.
In many ways the gay bar restroom is the nexus of the public/private dichotomy that we all experience. Located in a public place, private, personal acts transpire. Those acts involve bodily emissions, transgressions of the body which remind us that no matter how civilized we become, how many strata is built to camouflage the essential biological exigencies which humans must endure, we have not conquered our base demands. We can decorate and try to pretty them up, but restrooms remain a place to piss and shit. Within the bounds of civilized Western society, these acts are traditionally done alone. However, the public restroom is more complex than that. Architecturally, men’s restrooms, especially those in gay bars, have a closed nature. Generally, most of these locations do not have windows but only mirrors, which serve as a substitute for windows in terms of providing more depth to a closed space. But, as Lee Edelman points out in his essay “Men’s Room,” this substitution provides an additional layer of spatial complexity. While providing the illusion of additional space, mirrors actually only cause a room to multiply its self-containment, becoming more closed in on itself. Mirrors trick an eye into believing there is another space outside of which the one a person is present in, when in reality there is just more of the same interior space. One speaks of “looking into” a mirror because this process causes one to continually go deeper into the space. This effect causes the room to both contract and expand.
In men’s restrooms, as much as one tries to escape the gaze of another man, or of seeing other men in a private act, one at least even peripherally, cannot. This self-reflexiveness and sense of interiority is key to understanding the psychic affect on men in these spaces, especially in gay bar restrooms. There is a heightened sexual eroticism in the men’s room: an expression of a furtive longing in a public space. What happens in the men’s room, any “charge” that may be present stays in the men’s room and is experienced not only as private, but secret. Additionally, the public men’s room is a culturally sanctioned space where men can be together and be partially naked as long as there is an agreement with “the body’s compliance with the cultural regulation of desire.” (Edelman, 1996) Men’s restrooms are constructed to allow certain exposure of the genitals. In this sense, it then sets up the possibility of desire. The design of men’s rooms also holds the contradiction that “what is publically displayed is never directly observed” (Edelman) The urinal allows this, but prevents other orifices from being displayed. But whereas in non-gay restrooms the culturally sanctioned unstated rule would be that the contemplation of homosexual desire and action should not take place, restrooms in gay bars provide greater freedom for this possibility. I have tried to capture in my photographs this potential for erotic and sensual engagement located in the space, the both sacred and profane power this space provides. This non-traditional revered place becomes a space of respite and satisfaction. A place comprised of cold neon lights or bare bulbs, tile or granite, urinals and chalkboards, industrial paint and porcelain, graffiti and condom machines, mirrors and faucets, porno cutouts from magazines posted on the ceiling, flyers and advertisements for cabaret shows, waste baskets and toilet paper becomes the site of an essential testing ground for the development of character, artistic growth and spirituality. For many men, symbolically and historically these restrooms have been sanctum santorum, the “holiest of holies” The space meets the criterion for the definition put forth by Foucault in his description of a heterotopia: a scripted space outside of all spaces that is a site of both repugnance and fascination which also serves as a strong imaginary or fantasy inducing site. (Genocchio, 1996) For many gay men, such as the artist David Wojnarowicz, the cruising aspect of illicit encounters that take place in spaces such as these are enthralling and inspiring, leading to great creativity and rapturous transcendence (Gove, 2000)
Aesthetic and Artistic Concerns
In terms of aesthetics, I have taken hundreds of photographs of gay bar restrooms over the years. I have chosen to narrow it down to four representative images. The pieces I have created are titled by the name of the bar in which they are located. The four titles are Le Barcito, Roosterfish, Faultline and Micky’s. In terms of image selection, I wanted to convey a range of styles, moods and feelings and atmosphere that both represent some general visual truths of these bars and the culture from which they spring, but also to allow each bar’s individuality to shine through. For the ideas I wanted to convey, the photos had to be necessarily large in scale. Accordingly, they have been printed “life sized,” four feet by six feet. Two of them have a horizontal orientation and two of them have a vertical one. I want the viewer to experience these photographs in a manner akin to experiencing the spaces themselves, as if one were looking into the room, or actually walking into the room. The images are printed in clear focus except for intentional softer focus areas. I did this to delineate space and distance in the photographs, providing depth of field and establishing spatiality but also to convey the ambiance of being in a bar, and the hazy state of consciousness some patrons experience while imbibing beer, liquor or other substances, as well as the sort of intoxication one feels in some potential state of hypnotic arousal. The reality of these spaces are that they function in a nightclub environment, so these photographs were lit with primarily ambient, available light to convey the moodiness of the space when appropriate. In other images, like in Faultline, for example, a flash was called for to clearly reveal the suggestive markings on a chalboard that had been erected in the room.
There were certain physical particularities I wanted to include in order to convey these spaces as a whole. I knew I had to have images with urinals, as they are symbolic not only of the act of urinating, but as representations of sites of possible homoerotic activity, both unexpressed and expressed. I have included the signage that turns up in each “type” of bar, such as bar announcements of upcoming events, official bar signs prohibiting illicit coupling, (or tripling?) of bar patrons (“one person at a time PLEASE”), condom advertisements on condom vending machines, and suggestive scrawlings on walls or stalls, or as in the case of the Faultline image again, sexual implications on the chalkboard. Images of masculinity that decorate these rooms were also important to include. Through their imagery, homosexual desire is implied and on display. In the case of Roosterfish, this takes the form of meticulously cut out images of naked men from porno magazines that have been applied very specifically to an aquamarine painted ceiling, in funky, do-it yourself fashion. In the case of Faultline the image of a hypermasculine, leather accoutered, biker type musclebound guy with a flattop mirrors the clientele it both realistically attracts and the macho fantasy-like aura it would hope to create for its clientele who would come seeking some escapism or dream-man.
Style or type of bar is an important selective choice. One of the key questions I asked myself when editing these images was: Is this an image that could have only been identifiably taken in a gay bar? This was important to me not because there is some fundamental seismic difference between heterosexual and homosexual establishments, but in order to convey my theme of a gay or queer sensibility. This sensibility is defined by the author John Rechy as arising from being born into the “opposing camp”, therefore having an ability to view heterosexual culture with an outsider’s eye. It displays a “terrific sense of dramatic presentation that veers at times toward extremity.” (Rechy, 2000) I chose images that were representative of the various types of bars that gay men have been known to frequent. Thus, Faultline is known as a leather/levi neighborhood bar in an unimpressive part of Hollywood, on the fringes of the Silverlake area of Los Angeles, Le Barcito is a longstanding predominantly Latino dance bar in Silverlake, Micky’s is a larger, slicker dance bar on the Santa Monica strip in the heart of Boys Town in West Hollywood and Roosterfish is a more casual, but funky neighborhood bar that draws the beach crowd in Venice. Of course, the fact that these restrooms are in themselves so “decorated” is an indicator of their “gayness,” as stereotypically interior decorating is a field of work populated with a preponderance of homosexuals.
Color is extremely important in this work, both as a personal aesthetic, and in conveying the individuality of each bar. My penchant for strong color is displayed in these photographs. I have a sensual attraction for rich, lush, vibrant color and tones that pop out when placed against a white background. The color and style in these rooms is of a funky, organic do-it yourself type that is somewhat akin to the decorations in the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obisbo. As necessity is the mother of invention, these small, windowless rooms have been given spice and color, and have created their own world of ambiance: cheaply bought, simple, tacky, flavorful and effective in making a potent statement. This aesthetic has as its driving ideal that of taking small spaces and sprucing them up cheaply because an architectural revamp is not economically feasible. This “indie,” make-do attitude comes through in its style. The color of one particular image has special importance. In Le Barcito, the rich, magenta-verging-on-pink tones it gives off suggests the symbolic international historical color of gay pride: pink. In these rooms, and the photographs of them, the style and color is a response to harshness and oppression, a means of transcendence.
Contemporaries in Comparison
There are two contemporary photographers whose works shed light on my own. They are Candida Hofer and Dean Sameshima. Candida Hofer photographs public spaces and prints the images large scale. Her prints are roughly about the same size as mine, between 60 and 72 inches. Her subject matter, however, differs in that often the space she photographs is the interior of extremely grandiose buildings, capturing the sense of the monumental relics of history, the architecture of the ages. Her spaces are large communal rooms that everyone can use, and are many times meant to make a public impression. Although the photographed rooms are devoid of human beings, there is a profound sense of the communal presence of a culture. Many of these images are of elite and monetarily and socially privileged spaces, although they theoretically belong to the public at large. They speak of wealth, and as in the examples such as Igreja e Monsteira de Sao Bento Rio de Janeiro and in Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek Weimar II, provide visual documentation of the intersection between capitalism, the aristocracy, and the educational and religious institutions that have risen from Western Civilization. Even the lofty titles of these photographs speak to their weightiness and importance. They are mounted and framed. There is a clear impression of the idea of perfection and order and balance. Her photos convey an idealized sense of space and harmony and human behavior in its most well behaved realization.
Although my work is large in scale and deals with the broad subject matter of space, there are significant differences. Firstly, my photographs are of space that is defined by a minority culture. My work shares in common with hers a human presence in absence, but is more of an offbeat and individual one. In the areas depicted in my photographs, while the general public can theoretically enter and use them, by and large they do not. Secondly, these spaces are not the rarefied temples of high culture like museums, libraries, and churches, but of the spaces of a baser nature, where human instincts closer to the ground and where more impulsive, spontaneous urges play out. Consequently, in terms of historical documentation and record, these spaces are not considered worthy of maintenance, conservation and preservation. In fact, two of the spaces depicted in my project no longer exist the way they look in the photographs: they have been painted over or reconstructed to suit the evolving needs of the individual establishment. Thirdly, my photographs, while large, are not presented in a formal, rigid, elevated art manner. They are not mounted, but are clipped at the top with large 2” office binder clips. The two vertical images hang freely at the bottom and the two horizontal pieces are clipped at the bottom sides to pull the image tautly to minimize buckling and print glare and reflection for ease of viewing.
The photographs of Dean Sameshima, especially two projects he worked on in particular, Wonderland (1996/97) and In Between Days (Without You )(1998), have a lot in common thematically with my work. These works are conceptual, incorporating photographs and the titles to serve his intention. In Wonderland, Sameshima photographed a series of Los Angeles area gay bathhouses from the outside, together with a listing of certain key objects inside (e.g. three video monitors, one sling, thirty –six cubicles, etc.) For the most part, these buildings are architecturally unassuming, partially due to financial necessity and partially due to the need to be as unobtrusive as possible so as not to inflame any community passions regarding an establishment of that type in the neighborhood, even if zoned for such use. The photographs are simple, straightforward and small in scale, about 8 inches by 12 inches. This is in some ways the flip side of what I am doing in my work: the outside of a gay-centered establishment facilitating homoerotic desire, versus my photographs that are internal depictions. Sameshima has another body of work that are photographs of the inside of cubicles in bathhouses, In Between Days (Without You). This series of images displays extremely private either pre-or post-sexual space in cramped quarters. The visual information in these photographs is similar: mattress, crumpled sheets, pillow generally propped up against the wall, perhaps an ashtray in the periphery, lit by monochromatic reddish-yellowish light. The feeling is one of desire and loneliness and absence in a dingy room. The images are moody and convey a heightened sense of longing, or perhaps an altered state of consciousness and the smallness (and yet paradoxically, largeness) of what transpires in those small rooms. This work has in common with mine the theme of the psychic space of an interior space in a public domain, where notions of privacy are blurred and boundaries easily crossed. In these spaces, the walls are thin, don’t extend to the ceiling, and a very public cruising hallway is just on the other side of the door. These photographs were meant to be viewed together, and as a collection they portray a sense of sameness that is effective in conveying the overriding theme. My work on the other hand, is much more concerned with the individual spaces and how they represent each bar space’s “personality”.
After having looked at my works, the viewer will hopefully come away with a sense of wonder at being privy to a world that is primarily not one that is commonly traversed, but that is a part of the landscape of modern cultural experience. The exposure to such visual information I hope will cause a rethinking and re-visualizing as well as a re-experiencing of spaces akin to those I have depicted, or at least a willingness to understand them and the culture that has sprung up out of them.
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writing for MFA Thesis Studio Art/Photography