February 2000 Cover Story
Photographer Rob Colgan:
Not Just Nudes
BY KAIZAAD KOTWAL
Living in what is ubiquitously called the media age simply means that we are deluged by images. Intersecting with this media age are the post-feminist times and the era of gay liberation seeking social and economic equality. Envelop all these cultural churnings under the umbrella of a consumer society and the proliferation of male images (in various stages of disrobing) as objects begins to make complete sense.
It was inevitable that there would come a time when objectifying the female form to sell products from beer to dishwashers would simply no longer suffice. For one thing, women were becoming more vocal about their blatant objectification as mere commodities. At around the same time, Madison Avenue and every company with goods to sell realized that the gay demographic was an important target to up the revenue ante. The resulting confluence of these strange forces was an unprecedented emergence of male bodies (mostly unclothed) selling everything from salted peanuts to garden hoses.
Today, we are immune to seeing perfectly chiseled male forms on product packages and larger-than-life billboards. We forget that only a decade ago Bruce Weber's photographs of naked men selling underwear (a product even the models defiantly didn't wear) shocked the nation and tickled America's semidormant, ever-present puritanical roots. But religion and propriety be damned, there was money to be made and lots of it!
This liberation of the male form, unprecedented perhaps since ancient Greece, has brought a mixed bag of blessings for photographers of the male form. Columbus photographer Rob Colgan is keenly aware of this dichotomy where more and more male images are needed for consumption, while at the same time it becomes harder and harder to legitimately reclaim the nude male as an art form and not merely as consumer seduction.
Rob Colgan who has just turned forty, could never have imagined in his wildest dreams when he was growing up that his profession would involve photographing nude men and that in many ways it would not only be acceptable but culturally necessitated. Colgan hails from Elyria near Cleveland, although for many of his formative years his family moved to Alexandria, in the "dead center of Louisiana."
During a lively interview in his spacious studio in the Buggyworks Building, Colgan talked about how life in Louisiana greatly influenced his formative experiences and continues to contribute to his work. According to Colgan, Louisiana was "a spooky, mysterious environment for a kid, with unusual animals lurking in the swampy landscape of that part of the deep south."
He grew up the baby of the family, with two older brothers and one older sister.
"Louisiana was the first place I saw a dead person," Colgan recalls. He and his siblings were exploring a graveyard on a "perfectly overcast, Halloween-like day" when they came upon an open grave, freshly plundered by grave robbers. "At six, seeing that old man lying there in the casket with a tuxedo stuck with me," Colgan says.
Decaying objects surrounded by the lush fertility of mother nature is a major theme in Colgan's work. That organic nexus of the dying and the living, immutably linked to each other, captured in the same image, make for some of Colgan's most potent works. These works are very reminiscent of those of Bill Costas whose images exhibit a tenacious relationship between the power and beauty of youthful men and the decaying and crumbling environments they inhabit.
Weekends of Colgan's childhood were spent with his family, "driving around visiting plantations, mostly decaying, in a time when no one had heard of architectural rehabilitation." He would later realize that these exploratory sojourns through plantationland would hone his love for architecture and the environment. Both feature prominently in his photography.
Also featured prominently in Colgan's work is a love and deep admiration of the male form, stripped of all its social masks and cultural facades. As a gay man, he knows all too well about masks and facades. For Colgan, who came of age in an era when homosexuality was definitely for the closets, "coming out was a difficult and rather bad experience." He came out to himself in his teens but remained in denial until he went off to college at The Ohio State University.
"College was the best thing I ever did," Colgan says, insisting that it was thanks to his parents that he ended up at a large university rather than at a smaller college which he had preferred. He found himself pressured to go against his quieter and more shy nature and forced into interacting with different cultures and diverse people. "I ate it up," Colgan says, reflecting on his undergraduate years.
While college exposed Colgan to other gay men, he found few openly gay men with whom he could identify. And thus, the battle to break open the closet doors continued. His entire coming-out process was consistently hampered by a "really negative experience with a school teacher," who used power and status to break the boundaries of trust, values and, worst of all, innocence. Colgan is understandably hesitant to talk about this but believes that the experience influenced much of who he is and what he does.
Photography has been for Colgan both passion and therapy. He is known for his nudes, but he also does still lifes, landscapes and series wherein he creates a collection of images united by a central
theme, idea, or object. One of these series is a stark and surreal set of photos all involving a large, reclining sculpture of Christ, postcrucifixion. The statue is both poetic and camp, and Colgan seems to relish juxtaposing that 200-pound slab of plaster in environments ranging from an operating room at a hospital to abandoned relics like the now demolished Old Penitentiary building. These images are both profound and profane. Raised Episcopalian, Colgan developed a healthy mistrust of organized religion from a very early age. "Deep down I have spirituality," Colgan explains, "but I hate people who manipulate basic concepts, like televangelists, which is religion gone insane."
Whatever the image, Colgan says that he is always trying to make some sort of statement, thematically or contextually. His nudes range from the erotic and powerful to the lyrical and earthy. Colgan says that he is deeply interested in dichotomies where the strength and sensuality of his young models is set against the tension of decaying buildings or wild, uncontrolled landscapes. He believes that the nude male is a "symbol of the most basic power and simplicity." These bodies, young and open, stripped of their social trappings, are imbued with meaning by the poses, moods and lighting in which he embraces them.
"I like younger models," Colgan explains, "because they are in a transitional time in their lives and as such are blank slates." Colgan says that he looks for models "who are unique and who have an unusual look." Ninety percent of his models are gay, although sometimes "it is easier to work with the straight ones because they bring less baggage to the shoot about sex and sexuality." Often he will watch models for a while before he asks them to pose. Even though photography is a still medium, great photography always suggests and captures motion. "I like to see how they carry themselves," he says. Colgan prefers to use "friends or friends of friends" because he is hesitant about approaching strangers. If he does approach strangers he shows them his work to create trust and comfort.
Colgan's hesitance is completely understandable. Impostors, pornographers in the guise of artists, are a dime a dozen and many models have had bad experiences, making them dodgy when approached by a legitimate artist. In this age of an exponentially growing internet, where cyberporn is more plentiful than safe drinking water, nude photography is having to redefine and reclaim its legitimacy and relevance as an art form.
Ohioans are no strangers to this debate between art and porn, primarily because of the Mapplethorpe exhibition in Cincinnati in 1990 which sparked a national debate, pitting art against prurient images created simply to arouse. Colgan agrees that the fundamental line distinguishing art from porn is "the intent of arousal and sexual release versus creating something with a contextual and aesthetic message."
Black and white images are not sufficient to guarantee legitimacy. After all, there are a lot of pornographers clicking away sans color. In addition, nude male photography is further set apart from its feminine counterpart, since arousal in men is easily identifiable, but not usually recognizable in women subjects. The penis comes with a lot of baggage, especially in capitalistic and patriarchal economies like the United States. Exposing the male's most vulnerable assets is a stripping away of more than just clothing - it is a deconstruction of masculine power and most men and many women are not comfortable with or accustomed to such exposure.
While we may have become more accustomed to seeing perfect pecs and amazing abs strewn across the landscapes of our commodity culture, there is still a lot about male nudity that has yet to be analyzed and understood. And it is here that nude photography has a claim to relevance and legitimacy in our culture. All art, and photography in this case, is about allowing us a different way of looking at things, causing us to wonder and to question.
Colgan gets his real rise out of photographers like Duane Michaels, Bruce Weber and Arthur Tress. His work owes a debt to these artists and it is evident in the wide array of images that he has amassed. Colgan says that he sells his images rather cheaply because "I want everyone to have them in their homes." His work is picking up and is being picked up. For a long time photography played second fiddle to Colgan's day job in the Department of Neurology at a local hospital where he works on brain testing and other such cerebral things.
Colgan's work was most recently published in a Millennium calendar in Columbus, sold to raise revenues for AIDS services. His edgier and more erotic works will be part of an exhibit titled "RAW" at A Muse Gallery (996 West Third Avenue), showing February 1 thru February 29. Colgan continues to work prolifically and has plans to release a book in collaboration with graphic artist Alan Jazak.