Queer Photographers and their Nude Portraiture

Queer Photographers and their Nude Portraiture

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) on Grand Avenue right now has an exhibit that’s closing on Monday, September 3rd: Real Worlds: Brassai, Arbus, Goldin. The exhibit features three photographers of the twentieth century whose images captured the lives of social deviants–the subjects ranged from French prostitutes to miscegenated couples to queer and trans people living their lives. In terms of content, the work can be compared to the work of the late photographer, Laura Aguilar, who passed away in May. The work of each artist challenged dominant ideas of social decency through their exposure of queerness and queer bodies. Being able to compare the works of these photographers can help us think about the ways we can productively represent ourselves to foster greater self-acceptance.


Let’s compare the photographs of Nan Goldin and Laura Aguilar. The artists come from different backgrounds: Goldin is a Jewish American woman who integrated herself into the queer worlds of New York’s post-Stonewall decade in the 1980’s; Aguilar was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley and photographed the queer, Latinx, working-class people with whom she identified.


Both photographers captured intimacy and immediacy in their portraits. Both feature queer nudes and people from working-class neighborhoods. Nan Goldin’s subject was usually that of herself and her friends in the ever-diverse New York City. The slideshow of Goldin’s work that concludes the Real Worlds exhibit features all kinds of queer intimacy in New York, ranging from nude poses to punk parties at dive bars to sexual penetration. Take a date–you two might have a better idea about how you should conclude your night.


In “Nan one month after being battered,” Goldin famously–and defiantly–took a self-portrait where she stares blankly at the camera with bruised eyes, the visible signs of her then-lover’s physical abuse. As an obese woman, Aguilar took a series of nude self-portraits in Joshua Tree National Park to render her body as one with the landscape.


As part of Pacific Standard Time, the Vincent Price Museum of Art located at East Los Angeles College showcased a retrospective of Laura Aguilar’s art called Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell. The retrospective included photographs from the span of her 30 years as a professional artist. It was the last exhibit to feature the artist’s work while she was still alive: the museum was a fitting location, since Aguilar took her first photography class at East Los Angeles College.


Portraiture has been an enduring medium throughout the history of art, and portrait photography is no exception. Before the introduction of the camera in the late 1800s, portraits were commissioned by wealthy families and rendered through paint. Paint was the standard, and European aristocrats were the only subjects who could afford to have themselves memorialized by talented artists. The camera decreased the amount of time it took to create a portrait, as well as increase the portrait’s accessibility to the public. Portraiture thus became a medium for the masses, and a means for photographers to represent people and communities that had often been excluded from centuries of artistic production and representation. You might even think about this the next time you take a selfie with your friends and post it on one–or all–of your social media platforms.


The thing to remember about these exhibits is that they matter for the reason that all representation matters, and that the relationship between the image and the person consuming it constitutes a political relationship, each with its own engagement opening up a new world of complexity. Look at these images more than once. Your feelings and your thoughts will likely change the way that you impart value onto these images.