PHOTOGRAPHY BY PETER BERLIN
A new book about the seminal photographer.
There is no better moment for Peter Berlin — the artist, model, and filmmaker whose icon status is solidified with a new eponymous book of sexed up self-portraits. Against the sotto voce background of current LGBTQ voices — all trying to convince mainstream America that we’re just like them and worthy of membership in their most conservative institutions (military, marriage, the church) — comes this mostly forgotten statement of gay male libido, a violently subversive gesture. Promiscuity, even public sex, for the sake of sex alone, is currently the “dirty” unmentioned secret of today’s activists who continue their efforts to transform gay liberation into gay assimilation.
The early 1970s, when Berlin (birth name, Armin von Hoyningen-Huene) created many of the photographs featured in Peter Berlin (Damiani, 2019), was a time when exceptions to community trounced the building of community. It was a time when promiscuity was a breathless celebration rather than a threat to the stable dyad, when activists strove to end the draft rather than add their population to it, and when attacks on the concept of gender were self-invented and deliriously unconventional (consider, for example, the gender-bending Cockettes), seldom looking to the medical establishment for support.
I should know because like Berlin, I experienced firsthand the groundbreaking sexual culture of early 1970s San Francisco. During my years there, from 1969 to 1974, unbridled sex was the central focus of my life and that of most of the young queer males I hung out with. I would see Berlin at The Stud on Folsom Street, motionlessly on display against the same pillar almost every evening, his right foot raised and planted on that pillar so that his pelvis jutted forward to present his absolutely unobtainable loins to anyone with the courage to stare. I found that courage one night by my fourth beer and sheepishly approached him to say that he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. Berlin thanked me politely but never made eye contact. What could he have possibly wanted from me?
Berlin’s persona was one that did not foster connection or seek group membership. Even at the nude beach on Land’s End that we all frequented, he maintained his individuality and allure. Nude beaches have a mostly canceling effect on sexual arousal, but Berlin kept his by donning a silver Mylar posing strap — its reflected rays could be seen from more than a hundred feet away. When a friend suggested he take it off since this beach encouraged full nudity, he answered, “That would be too vulgar.” He had no interest in joining the common herd.
Gay male life was, at the time, a Romantic exploit. Individuality, narcissism, promiscuity, and fashion were qualities that defined many of us in 1970s San Francisco; and this made it impossible — undesirable — to support the prevailing institutions of the larger culture. Kindness and solidarity have always been uneasy partners to cruising and exhibitionism, which demand an alienated singularity and cutthroat competition among members of the same sex, all striving to be or get the most attractive. Such qualities are incompatible with the new definitions of LGBTQ identity, and they remain closeted as activists seek to be accepted by the very middle-class groups that once persecuted them. Then how to deal with Berlin’s photographs, these glorious images of unrepentant sexual power? That question is almost like asking what would happen if Berlin, who created some of the most erotic images of sailors ever photographed, claimed his right to join the Navy.
Peter Berlin will be in attendance for a book signing in NYC, the event is taking place on November 21, 2019 at Bookmarc – 400 Blecker Street, NY, NY. 6:00PM-8:00PM.