What does it mean to be queer? And how does art allow queer individuals to explore their sexuality and gender identity outside the confines of heteronormative society? For Benjamin Wolbergs, these are the questions he wants the observer to consider with his latest book, New Queer Photography. Inspired by physique photographic photos from the ‘50s that were intended to appeal to a gay audience, Benajmin wants to offer a modern interpretation of queer photography that features different perspectives and styles from a young and active scene that has emerged today.
This book aims to illuminate drag, gender, queerness and trans experiences in all their variety with works of around forty contemporary photographic positions from both established and emerging talent. In order to realize his project, Benjamin has started a Kickstarter campaign running till December 22, which, if successful, will cover the production costs and publication of the book. Intrigued by his mission and resolve to get this work out there in the world, we talked with Benjamin about his main inspiration behind the project, his selection process as an editor and the impact he hopes that the book will have for the queer community.
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To start us off, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and the type of work you do in Berlin as an art director and editor?
I have been working as a freelance art director in Berlin for over ten years, mainly in the field of book design for publishing houses such as Taschen, Prestel, Distanz, Gestalten, Junius and Kettler. Usually, I get an offer from the publishing houses to design a book on a certain topic (mostly in the fields of art, photography, architecture and design) and I develop a design concept for this specific book and make the layout. However, during my studies, when I published my first book (Urban Illustration Berlin - A street art city guide about Berlin), I had already experienced how satisfying it can be to work on a project both as an editor and as a designer.
So I’m in the fortunate position, as a graphic designer, of being responsible for everything with my own books: I’m literally allowed to conceive and design the entire book from the inside (theme and content) to the outside (layout and design). This ranges from the very first idea and the development of the concept to the definition and curating of the content and the selection of authors up to the design idea and the implementation of the design concept.
What was the main inspiration and starting point behind your most recent project, New Queer Photography?
Around three years ago, I was working for Taschen on the layout of a book about physique photography with photos from the ‘50s, whose aesthetics and visual worlds were clearly intended to appeal to a gay audience. In the course of this work, I asked myself: what would a book with contemporary queer photography look like? What photographers, topics and styles would be included in such a book today?
Around that time, I became aware of the works of Matt Lambert and Florian Hetz and I started to look for other queer photographers. As my research intensified, a universe of incredibly talented LGBTQ+ photographers emerged in front of me, characterized by a wide variety of different styles and visual worlds beyond clichés and preconceptions. This is how the idea of New Queer Photography was born.
Guide us through your selection process as an editor. What criteria did you follow to select the forty photographers featured in the book?
As mentioned before, to discover the works of Florian Hetz and Matt Lambert was a kind of key experience for me. I grew up in Bavaria in the ‘80s and ‘90s with a perception of aesthetics, ideal of beauty and definition of masculinity that very much corresponded to the aesthetics of physique photography from the ‘50s: handsome, healthy-looking, strong and muscular men. And the visual worlds I discovered a few years ago of queer photographers showed a much broader spectrum of beauty, aesthetics, masculinity and gender identities in general – far beyond the (cliché) images that had been shaped over decades by mainstream media and culture.
This is why one of my most important selection criteria was to show a wide variety of different styles and visual worlds of queer aesthetics, gender conceptions and themes. And, of course, also the artistic quality of the works played an important role in my selection of photographers. At the same time, I wanted to show fine art photography as well as the works of some documentary photographers, especially because this kind of photography provides evidence in a very direct but artistic way that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual or just not fitting in gender identities defined by society can still lead to marginalization, isolation, stigmatization and violence in certain countries and communities.
“It’s important to show that artistic freedom is important and never for sure.”
Was it a difficult process?
The most difficult part of the process was the exact definition and delimitation of the term ‘queer’ in relation to my selection of photographers and their work. For me, queer was always a kind of collection basin of people with lifestyles and views that deviated from heteronormativity, and it was obvious for me to explicitly include also gay and lesbian imagery. Conversations with several photographers from the book showed me other and much more narrow definitions of ‘queer’ and I had to rethink the definition in relation to my selection in the book and find my very own approach to it.
Following up to the previous question, why was it important for you to include not only well-established and lesser-known photographers but also their different perspectives of the queer experience in this project?
There is not one definition of queer. What is ‘queer’? What does it mean to be gay, or lesbian, or intersexual, or diverse? Especially in non-Western countries? There are many different answers to these questions. And as many different photographic approaches. It depends on who you are, where you grew up, where you are living. In the book, I wanted to show all these aspects. That’s why I decided to include photographers with very different backgrounds from different countries. Of course, everybody today is connected through social media. But still, there are very different approaches and styles, and the book will definitely show that.
Male homosexuality is featured predominantly in your project, but a critical light is also shone on trans people and gender roles. Why do you think topics such as these are often relegated to the side in the queer community? What was your intention by including them in this book?
As the subtitle of the book (Focus the Margins) already suggests, with this publication, I would like to focus on topics such as drag and gender, queerness and transsexuality, which are still on the margins of social discourse. As I said before, there are many definitions of queer. But for sure, you can’t do a book about queer photography in 2019 without including these topics. That’s exactly the reason why it’s important for this book… So much is on the move right now and this should be shown.
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New Queer Photography also touches on the subject of pornography and exposes its corrupting but affirmative power. What is meant by this statement? In what way does pornography intersect with the concept of sexuality?
Porn or pornography is part of the queer culture. It’s also part of the more ‘normative’ culture, but I think the queer community has always been more open to it. Think of Robert Mapplethorpe, who really turned porn imagery into fabulous and very aesthetic photographs. Of course, the approach today is very different. Everybody can watch porn online. Of course, this has a certain impact on society, and of course this changed the approach of queer photographers.
Speaking in a more broader sense, how can art give an individual the freedom to engage and explore their sexuality beyond taboos imposed by modern society?
Well, art is all about freedom. Artists have always extended the boundaries. Art especially allows you to do that. Art is a very personal thing, you can experiment a lot. Of course, it’s very different in other countries. Many artists suffer a lot, are persecuted, imprisoned or executed. It’s important to show that artistic freedom is important and never for sure.
Even though mainstream culture has largely embraced queer culture, it can be hard to determine at times when it is appreciation or appropriation. Do you think a line exists when it comes to the mainstream’s adoption of queer culture?
Well, first of all, you would have to define what is ‘queer’. Of course, the so-called mainstream media tries to adopt what they think is ‘queer culture’. But often, it’s limited to commercials showing a gay couple. And this is only a very limited aspect of queer culture.
With this book, what do you hope to share with the world about the queer community and its relationship with sexuality?
The book is about many things. It’s about the aesthetics of the human body. At the same time, it questions the definition of beauty. It also shows different approaches to sexuality, that there are different taboos in different countries. In the end, I hope the book succeeds to illuminate drag, gender, queerness, and trans experiences in all their variety.
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