There are myriad ways female artists seek to subvert the hierarchy and inequality of the male gaze — the term feminist scholar Laura Mulvey introduced in a now-famous 1975 essay to describe the sexual objectification of women by male artists.
Christa Blackwood photographs young men. The Austin-based artist shoots in medium and large format film, fusing historical photo-making processes — tintype, photogravure — with contemporary methods and conceptual strategies. It’s an approach that is at once a nod to the history of photography and a critique of the medium and its representation of gender.
“The Boys of Collodion,” Blackwood’s provocative series, begun in 2013, featured slender, pretty, shirtless young men — friends of her then-teenage son and daughter — in boudoir-like sepia-toned photogravure portraits. A chemical used in 19th-century photographic process, collodion is know for rendering the minute details treasured in early portraits, and the detail in Blackwood’s images is likewise sublime. Large red dots, however, are super-imposed as if printed on the model’s chests. It’s a lovely, subversive gesture: A female photographer with young male muses who are marked with the signifiers of the commodification of art, the red dot.
In her “Boy Play” series, begun in 2018, Blackwood again trained her lens on many of the same models — now in their 20s, still seductive — this time shooting them in brilliant color, their faces and bodies resplendent in blue or pink makeup.
“Boy Play” is no less a subversive take than Blackwood’s previous work, but one derived from a more directly personal place.
“(This series) was developed in response to a relationship that I had with a deeply closeted man,” says Blackwood. “I became aware of, and acquainted with, a number of other closeted men that keep their actual sexuality hidden from most people. Their public personae functioned as a mask allowing them to be seen in contrast to their actual selves. Obviously, sexuality is much more complicated than merely an issue of gay, bi, or straight identity. It’s my hope that ‘Boy Play’ represents this complexity, casting young male bodies in varying shades of color to show the blush and blur of gender and sexual identity.”
Blackwood makes her images in camera, using large format film — 4×5 and 8×10 cameras — and working in her backyard studio. “Boy Play” is printed on semi-transparent film screen material which adds a next level of luminosity to the image. Blackwood frequently exhibits the prints unframed. The prints’ edges curl slightly and will flutter if someone whooshes by.
Raised in Oklahoma, Blackwood took her first photography class at age 12, graduated high school early and majored in classics at the University of Oklahoma. By the late 1980s she was in New York where a job as a staff photographer for New York University meant free tuition. Taking a class or two at a time, Blackwood completed her master’s in studio art over the course of seven years.
At the same time, New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s percolated activist street art. The urgency of the AIDS crisis and the rising awareness of identity politics in the art world led to actions. On the night in 1991 the Kennedy family heir William Kennedy Smith was exonerated of rape charges in a high profile case, Blackwood and cohorts plastered Lower Manhattan with posters referencing sexual violence.
Blackwood joined the artist-run Women’s Action Coalition, a feminist organization whose members included artist Kiki Smith and scholar Lucy Lippard and whose actions and protests frequently dovetailed with the Guerrilla Girls.
After landing in Austin in the mid 1990s, raising two now-grown children took priority. In the last half dozen years or so, Blackwood’s artistic practice reignited, and her work exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the U.S. and abroad. This summer “Boy Play” is on view at the Rochester Museum of Fine Art in Rochester, New Hampshire.
Working with the same models for several years now, Blackwood maintains a strong communal and collaborative spirit in her studio. Her daughter Ceci is her studio assistant. And the men at the center of the photographs have emerged as thoughtful contributors to the artistic and intellectual trajectory of Blackwood’s work.
Says Blake Robbins: “I have felt objectified, often, but our objectification has always been necessary throughout the process. I posed with the understanding that the piece was an experiment in the female gaze.”
Robbins credits Blackwood with helping him broaden his understandings of gender and sexuality.
He says: “I believe that all toxic ideologies perpetuate themselves through their own invisibility, and that by directly addressing patriarchy as a historical condition, Christa’s art fights for alternative futures.”
Likewise, model Richard Culleton acknowledges the objectification inherent in Blackwood’s project, but says: “I’ve taken part in my own objectification at times in this series.”
“I really love the use of the body as a visual texture, just kind of a form that’s there and part of the image.”
“What I love the most about Christa’s work is how the portraits now retain that natural kind of innocence of the first ones we did,” says Culleton. “I think having portraits of men being vulnerable is important as something that just needs to be out there. To me it’s an expression of softness. I think we’re always going to need that in personal art like this.”