Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Saturday, March 1, 2014

At work

Five handsome men, visting from Los Angeles for the Mr. San Francisco Leather Contest, came into the restaurant today. They asked if they could move to a window table that had just been vacated. I suggested they give us a moment to clear it and clean it, to which one responded that he would be glad to clen it. He added he would even do it naked if I gave him an apron. Since I am not wanting to dissapoint a customer …

He was even kind enough to pose with me in front of the restaurant!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Mapping difference.

I am an advocate for Body Freedom; the idea that the human body is natural, normal, and good, and therefore need not be kept hidden from view in public spaces, that there are benefits to be derived  from not doing so, and that all bodies are beautiful. In San Francisco, body freedom was set back with the passage of 2013’s nudity ban, which requires the coverage of the genitalia. The Body Freedom advocates, the ban, and subsequent protests have garnered international press. This past Sunday, photographers from New York Magazine were in San Francisco to shoot some Body Freedom Activists for an article on the ways in which San Francisco might be losing its liberal values. An email was distributed by one of the Body Freedom activists which stated, “ [the photographers] don't want to see nudist who are heavy. They are cool with a little bit of chubbiness and they are cool with people of all ages but they don't want to photograph people who are heavy. Please don't take this personally, it's just our shallow culture where superficial things sell.” 

How we accept diversity in bodies and define what is acceptable can be mapped visually by viewing photography of people and bodies through time. Even more telling, however, is seeking to understand the ways in which photographs of bodies deemed unique, deformed or disabled were used, interpreted and exhibited in the time in which they were produced. Photographs originally produced as research material for the United State’s Army Medical Museum during the Civil War intended to document the types of diseases and injuries a doctor would be confronted with on the battlefield. By 1867, however, they were housed in Ford’s Theater for public viewing. These photographs, including ones showing soldiers holding strings which traverse  the holes in their bodies left by bullet wounds and naked amputees sitting or standing next to their amputated limbs would continuously travel the United States on touring exhibitions after the war, appearing in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition as part of a celebration of national identity. Although photographs of naked soldiers with exposed genitals were artfully covered by fig leaves by this time, their eyes and faces remained uncovered, revealing them as portraits rather than specimens.

Nineteenth-century exhibitions were not limited to examples of medical specimens from the Civil War. The exhibition of actual people with real and alleged physical anomalies was wildly popular in circus, museum, carnival, world fair and amusement park side-shows.  Along with these exhibits flourished a highly profitable business in marketing photographic images of these people displayed as “freaks,” people without arms or legs, dwarfs, unusually large individuals (obese as well as tall), conjoined twins, and others with physical differences which would be classified as disabilities today. These were studio portraits, taken by professional photographers in their studios with painted backdrops, props and appropriate costuming. In Picturing Disability: Beggar, Freak, Citizen, and Other Photographic Rhetoric, Robert Bogdan suggests these photographic studies fell into two distinct categories: the aggrandizing mode and the exotic mode. In the aggrandizing mode, according to Bogdan, the freak was pictured as an upstanding, even exceptional person with a highly regarded social status. Attributes such as social position, achievements, talents, taste, intelligence were fabricated, elevated, or exaggerated. Bogdan explains that the exotic mode took the opposite tack, pinpointing the exhibit’s strangeness and alleged foreign backgrounds. Developmentally disabled persons were often directed as exotic “Aztecs” or “Africans.”

While the intent of the Civil War medical images was to document, inform, and then commemorate; because their purpose is to reveal that which is normally hidden from view, one cannot help but feel the voyeur when viewing them, seeing what would normally be most private presented in such a straight-forward manner. This effect is heightened by the age of the photographs, as one is accustomed to seeing Victorian portraiture with all of its attendant coverings which tended to give the body almost an upholstered look. This is similar to the feeling encountered by the public when confronted with a naked Body Freedom activist, or nudist, in a public setting; that vertiginous feeling of viewing something which is recognized as having been heretofore forbidden but with which one is now confronted and expected to know how to properly re/act. It is the same effect I remember experiencing the first time I was confronted with seeing a woman with a mastectomy at a nudist event, or indeed, my first encounter as an adult gay man accustomed only to the sight of other naked men with nudist women at a mainstream event. The photograph does allow the relatively safety of contemplation of the static image, however, without fear of the discomfort to which a live encounter might lead to.

While the soldiers in these medical photographs had no agency in their display, the freaks encountered in the side-show memorabilia presumably had more. Although we are tempted to view them as victims of capitalist hucksters, and surely some must have been, we must also remember that for many the occupation of freak allowed them to earn a living on their own terms. As Bogdan states, the human exhibits shown “were [often] better off financially than the people who purchased their pictures.” The medical photography and the side-show freak are evidence of the nineteenth-century’s obsession to catalogue, categorize, and pathologize. 

Freaks are shown as the antithesis of normality, yet on some level we recognize that their abnormality is a construct, a shifting line between and “us” and “them” paradigm. Looking at these photographs allows us to see the shifting lines of normality through time. As the boundaries and definitions of normality have changed over time, the value placed on being normal has also shifted depending on the cultural climate. Today we seem to possess a compulsion to absorb the abnormal and freak within the everyday until it becomes banal. The exclusion of certain body types in photojournalism about the loss of “liberal values” is but one example. There must be a better way to accommodate difference without explaining it away as a product of our imagination and incorporating it into the commonplace.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Naked Prophet

During the summer of 1990, between his junior and senior year at Monte Vista High School in Cupertino, Luis “Andrew” Martinez began to ponder his role in life. Standing 6’ 4” Andrew played on his high school football team, wrestled, and held a black belt in Judo. He was a popular student with many friends.Sitting on a park bench next to his best friend on a very hot day, Andrew thought about the total inanity of having to wear clothing in such weather. He realized that, in spite of the obviousness of this truth, he was prohibited with the full force of an entire nation, and of virtually every person he could conceive of from taking the next seemingly logical step. For Andrew, this moment, sitting on a park bench on an unbearably hot day next to his best friend would have lasting repercussions.  Andrew would begin to question and critique the entire structure of western capitalist values. Indeed, he came to the realization that nudity could be used to illustrate an entire system of unquestioned and thus rarely challenged political beliefs. For Andrew, “the relationship between the self, politics, the state and nudity [was] so telling that [he] could pick [that] one symbol to sustain his critique.

Andrew Martinez wrote that he hoped to begin an “enormous struggle for body liberation” by appearing naked except for sandals, the ubiquitous student backpack, and a peace sign and house key that dangled from a chain around his neck on the University of California, Berkeley campus on September 10, 1992. Once the commotion from his initial appearance died down, he became a standard fixture on campus, even acquiring the moniker of “the naked guy.” No one really seemed to notice and, according to one of Andrew’s professors, John Tinkler, not noticing was something of an unwritten law on campus. But someone must have noticed because, according to Jesus Mena, Berkeley University’s media director, “his behavior really was beginning to disrupt the educational process.” Some students and staff felt “very offended.”

On January 23, 1993, Andrew Martinez received an expulsion letter from the University of California at Berkeley. According to UC spokesperson Jesus Mena, student and faculty complaints played a role in Andrew’s expulsion. Students felt they were being harassed and complained about it, Mena claimed. Some were threatening to drop out of classes. Mena said there were complaints of the same type from staff as well. Andrew said no one ever complained face-to-face to him. He felt students who were offended should have talked to him about it or “gone to a psychologist. It’s just the human body.” According to reporter Julie Aquilar of the Daily Californian, many students were unhappy about Andrew’s expulsion. Students expressed such sentiments as: Andrew didn’t bother the student body, the expulsion is evidence of how much the university controls everything we do, and it is unfair considering how Berkeley is known for supporting individual rights.

Andrew Martinez received a medical diagnosis of schizophrenia in 1997. He would spend the next decade being shuttled between jails and mental-health facilities. In January of 2006, he was living in a half-way house when he was charged with battery and assault with a deadly weapon and was placed in solitary confinement in the maximum-security section of the Santa Clara County jail awaiting trial. His mother, Esther visited him in early May and Andrew told her how very tired he was. He had had enough. Esther called the prison when she got home and asked them to check on Andrew. The prison informed Esther that he was fine. She called repeatedly and each time received the same answer. Andrew was found dead in his cell on May 18, 2006, with a plastic bag tied around his head, an apparent suicide. Esher Krinn filed a wrongful death suit against the county of Santa Clara for ignoring her repeated calls warning of Andrew’s despondency. The County of Santa Clara settled for $1 million and altered its policies regarding notification of family members for suicide attempts.

Andrew Martinez did not want his legacy to be just “the Naked Guy.” For Andrew, nudity was the perfect symbol through which he felt he could communicate all that he saw wrong with current political and social constructs. The capitalist fueled madness of unlimited consumption and resource exploitation from a resource limited planet, our unwillingness to accept and recognize ourselves as mammals whose survival depends on our relationship with all other species on the planet, and our inability to live in the moment; to realize that our lives are not what we remember of our past or plan for our future, but right now. 

Yet because of the media’s exploitation of a subject with so many intersecting possibilities for “infotainment:” nudity, youth, beauty, sex, and the “craziness” the media views as quintessential Berkeley; Andrew quickly became known globally as “the Naked Guy,” and thirteen years later his death received media notice for that reason as well. 

Since 1992 the Body Freedom movement has emerged on a global scale with activists such as Stephen Gough, known as “the Naked Rambler” for having walked the length of Great Britain, from Land’s End to John O’Groats, in 2005. Stephen was arrested once he arrived in Scotland for breach of the peace. He refused to get dressed. Since then, he has been released and rearrested when he steps outside the prison gates naked, so that now he has spent nearly seven years incarcerated for refusing to get dressed. According to Stephen, “The human body isn't offensive, If that's what we're saying, as human beings, then it's not rational.”

Photographer Spencer Turnick travels the globe photographing women and men naked against various backdrops, from civic centers to deserts, to glaciers. In 1992, while working in New York City, he was arrested five times, after which the artist filed a Federal Civil Rights Law Suit against the city, which wound its way up to the Supreme Court on appeals. The Court affirmed Spencer’s first amendment right to make his work. However, the City of New York has subsequently denied Spencer a permit to work there, so he has since taken his work abroad to avoid arrest.

In 2003, Conrad Schmidt conceived of the World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR), which has grown into an international clothing-optional bike ride in which participants plan, meet, and ride together to deliver a message of a cleaner, safer, body positive world. In 2010, the WNBR occurred in 74 cities, in 17 countries around the globe.

Apparently, Body Freedom is a movement which is not going away, but rather seems to gain strength each year. Growing concern with climate change and species extinction has resulted in many questioning the efficacy of global capitalism in its current form with its patterns of unlimited consumption and unlimited growth. Examining our place within the closed ecosystem we inhabit, how we view it, and how we view ourselves, I believe, is so imperative to our survival, that even historians must face this challenge. It is possible that Andrew Martinez, his vision and his message were prophetic. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013