Men in Black (Speedos).
by David Morgan
St. Martin's Press, 2000
129 pages, $29.95
PHOTOGRAPHS like the ones in David Morgan's new book Beach have a pedigree--black-and-white, formally composed tableaux of torsos called "classic" have drawn photographers from George Platt Lynes and Horst P. Horst in the 40's to George Hester and Jim French in the 70's to, more recently, Tom Bianchi, who began photographing chiseled chests as a response to the devastation of AIDS. Bianchi was asked (among other places, in this journal's Summer 1997 issue): Why don't you photograph fat men or not-so-great bodies instead of these empty, cookie-cutter California clones? Why not people with character? But character isn't the point in this genre. (Bianchi replied with a book called In Defense of Beauty, 1995.) They're chosen, these bodies, because they resemble the Greek ideal, the sculptures in the Metropolitan Museum or the Getty, even if our day has, with democratic vulgarity, gone way beyond the proportions of Praxiteles by popularizing bodies that may arguably be called rococo. For whatever you think of th is--whether you call it body fascism or absently leaf through a book like this while waiting for a friend to get off the phone--such collections (disguised as work-out books like Morgan's last one, 1999's Basic Training, or celebrations of Fire Island, like this one) are basically eye candy.
Of course, there's something serious here, too--an aspiration toward the ideal. The aspirants in Morgan's new book are photographed in a town that takes aesthetics very seriously: Fire Island Pines. Here we see men in Jacuzzis, dunes, swimming pools, outdoor showers, and surf. Most of them, when clothed, wear black Speedos. None has body hair. Most look alike. Though Morgan must be a connoisseur of butts (evident in Basic Training, too), there's not much of a personal vision here. While he satirizes the conformity (a solitary man in plaid trunks is stared at by a coven in black Speedos) and the dishiness behind these beach scenes (two men in towel-turbans, leaning in like housewives to gossip), for the most part the spectacle is presented as just that: one frieze after another of lean torsos coming at your through the surf like warriors on the Elgin Marbles--or like so many Rockettes.
That, of course, is the absurd paradox of Fire Island--the mixture of classic manliness and showgirl reality. A shot from the rear of men entering the sea reveals a lot of gnarled and twisted backs, tight muscles, hours at the gym (with the invisible caption: "Do we have to get wet?"). These photographs remind us that Martial's epigrams about Romans at the baths--whose narcissistic routines differed from ours only because they hadn't invented liposuction--read as if they were written yesterday about people at Gold's. What's odd is that AIDS did not call into question the gym culture's values. Gym culture has only expanded and mainstreamed and trickled down into soap operas, commercials, and straight boys in high school. (One of these, a lifeguard at the Pines Botel pool last summer, was asked by a friend jokingly if he didn't want to be gay. "No," he said, looking at the queens pumping iron on the benches at the gym there, "it's too much work--you gotta be perfect.")
Well, some do. Fire Island is about style, about aspiring to join an elite of looks and taste, and Morgan's book enshrines all of that. It's hard to photograph the Pines in a new way, in part because the Pines itself is so changeless, in part because the look it prescribes is so uniform. Looking at these photographs of men in clumps, one concludes that this beach really is our revenge for all those years in high school of hating sports--where, as at any adolescent hangout, looking good and looking like everyone else are terribly important. (Though the other snapshots of this place--the thousands of Kodaks taken by renters that are put into albums or desk drawers every fall--no doubt throb with pimples, hangovers, varicose veins, and less-than-perfect moments: "Oh, remember her--the night Dennis threw up?") Morgan's images--beautifully reproduced, occasionally memorable--do not propose to really plumb the depths, or even the shallows. This is the Pines as it likes to think of itself. We are given couples in t he dunes, in the hot tub, shaving nude, and in groups on the beach, but for the most part, that is all.
All this gives rise to thoughts, however. Nietzsche said that love of money is a substitute for the love of people, and one has always wondered if pumping iron isn't a substitute for the confidence or self-esteem or lack of guilt or social skills that would get us a lover without all that weightlifting. Why do we work so hard? Living with people on Fire Island obsessed with calves, forearms, pecs, and deltoids, I learned years ago, is like living in a house of Vegas chorines backstage--tough dames, and tender-hearted, too, whose elaborate armature is not simply a desire to fit in with one's chums, but also, of course, a means to attract lovers. The question, however, has always been, Are these bodies attractive or off-putting? They're meant, one suspects, to be both. They're paraded at the beach to exercise power (the power to stir desire) and to advertise the details of one's needs in a partner (for a six-pack as defined as one's own). The gorgeous body walking down the water's edge in the Pines has a sign on it not unlike the one that used to appear on New York streets: "Don't even think about parking here" (unless you're on a par with this)--even if maintaining this image often requires drugs to get through the night of dancing and coincides with the most profound insecurity.
In the end, my favorite image of the Pines may be the postcard they used to sell there of a gorgeous number in fishnet stockings and high heels, face down in a garbage can. Go figure. A beach like Morgan's presents a constant tension between reality and image, invitation and exclusion. These photographs present the paradox of the Pines and the double message of these bodies: on the one hand, hot, on the other hand, oh so cold.
Andrew Holleran's novels include Dancer from the Dance and The Beauty of Men. He was for many years a monthly contributor to the late Christopher Street magazine.