Thursday, February 26, 2009
Interview: Gerald Mocarsky
I first met photographer Gerald Mocarsky in Fall 2005 at a Chelsea gallery. It was at an opening for a group show related to the publication of Self-Exposure: The Male Nude Self-Portrait (Universe, 2005). His images were among my favorites in the show. Since then Mocarsky (aka Jerry) and I have become good friends, but we also have a helpful working relationship where we discuss our work (my writing, his photography), both of us seeking feedback and sharing ideas with one another. Mocarsky is currently part of a group show at Ch'i Contemporary Fine Art gallery in Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood known for its trendy restaurants and artists' lofts. The works on display are from his series War Paint, representations of women over 40 applying makeup. "Susan #2" (right) is from that series, a body of work Mocarsky refers to as a "Pandora's box" of cultural references about how society perceives women. The interview below comes from a series of questions and answers exchanged through email.
bklynbiblio: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Gerald Mocarsky: I grew up in a small town outside of Hartford, Connecticut called Rocky Hill. My parents were extremely young when they had my sister and I, eighteen and nineteen, so I basically grew up with them. By most accounts I was considered a very odd child. My interests and passions were not a typical male behavior. I enjoyed gardening and conversations over sports and fighting. I come form a working class family so becoming an artist wasn't really an option.
GM: I always wanted to be an artist but wasn't sure if I had any talent. The very first photograph I remember taking was of a Heinz Ketchup bottle. I used my sister's Kodak camera. I remember getting a rush with the feeling that I had given this common item importance and that my sister would wonder why. I attended a junior college studying business with no passion and little direction. I became extremely depressed with my decision. It wasn't until I reached a real crisis that I was able to move beyond the doubt and fear and begin to study art. I studied all the traditional disciplines: painting, sculpture, photography, and film. I will have to say my decision to be a photographer was almost spiritual. My dad bought me my first real camera for a class trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I learned to load the camera on the bus. When I was walking through the Museum there were two missionaries or nuns painting a reproduction of a Bouguereau painting. I quietly asked if I could take their picture, they nodded yes. I looked through the lens, snapped only one image, and I knew I had captured something special. It was like a voice telling me, "This is what you are meant to do."
bb: Do you have a favorite photographic image?
GM: Oh, this is a hard one. There are so many I love. I will have to say Helen Levitt, Untitled, New York (soap bubbles and girls), from about 1946. [Click here for image.]
bb: Your series War Paint represents images of women over the age of 40 applying makeup. Why title it War Paint?
GM: The title comes from a conversation I overheard between my aunt and mother as a teenager. In short my Aunt Tilly told my mother that when she was young they called makeup war paint. That reference was so visually rich and symbolic it always stuck with me.
bb: What do the images signify for you as an artist?
GM: The images signify so many different things to me that I can only reduce it to a feeling. It is the sensation you get when things are about to change, the moment before you realize change has happened. Makeup tends to make women look younger, almost unreal. So when I see a woman transform before my eyes, the tension of change is visual. It is the push from maturity to youth and back to maturity that I'm trying to capture. This tension is filled with cultural concepts and personal beliefs. I want these images to be a bit of a Pandora's box into how we as a culture feel about women as they age.
bb: For a woman to bare herself in front of a camera like this is unusual, in particular for a woman who normally wears a lot of makeup. Our Hollywood-like sense of beauty makes revealing one's true self shocking and ugly. Did you find it easy or difficult to find women to participate in this project? How did some of them react to the idea of revealing themselves in this way?
GM: Many women who I thought would be great for this project have told me in a very nice way that they were not interested. In the beginning I found much older women were more willing to participate. I think it might be that they have had more time to deal with the aging process. Asking a woman to show herself in a vulnerable situation like that is understandably difficult. This hesitation was exactly what I want to explore. I feel their mental image of themselves is far more grim than the reality.
bb: Would you consider this project to be portraiture or documentary?
GM: I think of this project more as a documentary. When I do portraiture I'm interested in capturing something about a subject's personality. In this project I'm looking for images that support or raise questions about a larger idea. Although these images are portrait-like, they are edited to tell a specific story.
bb: From an art historical perspective, I'm fascinated by your use of mirrors in many of these works, because it fractures the presentation of the subject (e.g., "Momma," left). In some of the images, you see the mirror reflection of the person, while in others the mirror cuts into the representation of the subject. Mirrors symbolize vanity, but they also represent alternate realities, like in Alice in Wonderland, and make statements about the viewer looking at the work. Were you consciously using this device, or was the mirror more of an aesthetic choice for you?
GM: First, I love the idea of seeing one's reflection in the mirror. The image is not of our mind's eye, it is far more accurate than that. I think when people have a healthy perception of themselves they can feel a love for the reflection without judgement, but for many women there is self-hatred toward that reflection. I also wanted to recreate the dynamic of watching my mother do her makeup on Saturday mornings, while I laid on her bed talking to her.
bb: Let's talk about another one of your series, Men Who Dance with Men. Tell the readers about this project.
GM: The series Men Who Dance with Men is a photographic documentary on male dance partners. Most of the shoots were done during actual dance situations, rehearsals, performances, etc. A very sensitive black-and-white film allowed me to work with existing lighting.
bb: The PBS/Logo Channel documentary show In the Life aired a segment about you in January 2008 working on this project. What was that experience like? [Click here to download and watch the segment.]
GM: Working with In The Life was a great experience. While we were actually putting the shoot together and filming I had no idea how it was going to look. When all the editing was finished and the sound was laid over the piece I was very relieved. It was very nerve-wracking because there were so many variables that were outside my control. The group at In The Life are great people and really dedicated to the gay and lesbian cause.
bb: What does the idea of men dancing with men signify for you on a personal level?
GM: Today when I see men dancing together it signifies acceptance. As a young gay person it was very difficult to see men dancing together. I was not used to seeing men being affectionate at all with each other. Men dancing together was very odd and shameful. I was taught that men should relate in a very macho way.
bb: What do you hope to accomplish by sharing and publishing these images to others?
GM: My hope in showing this work is to give the average person the opportunity to see what male-male affection looks like. It's my hope that with continued exposure that these concepts will become less disturbing to the general culture.
bb: How important is New York City to you and your work?
GM: I really love living in New York City. It's the best and worst of everything. It's the human condition magnified. With one ride on the subway the displays of humanity are endless. I personally as an artist find it very important to stay in touch with this. It's a place that the affluent and homeless are forced to coexist right next to one another. This is an extremely ambitious place and I feed off of that energy. With all that said, there are days when all I want to do is to go someplace quiet and be left the hell alone.
bb: Do you have a favorite photography story, such as an encounter with a photographer that you cherish?
GM: I was in a thrift shop with [conceptual artist/photographer] Sandy Skoglund and we were having a very lengthy discussion about a coffee table for her piece Atomic Love [click here for image]. I remember saying to her, "Yes, the table is nice, but does it say cheese doodle?" After I heard this come out of my mouth I looked at the guy behind the counter. He didn't even look up. I knew I was in the right city.
bb: The straight community often doesn't realize that for gays and lesbians their sexuality plays varying degrees of importance in their lives and what they do. Which do you see yourself more as: a gay photographer, or a photographer who happens to be gay? Or is there even a difference for you?
GM: How about I put it this way: I'm a human being who does photography who is also gay. My gayness comes into my work all the time. It is part of me just like my experiences as a Caucasian or a male. I feel some of both statements are true. I'm proud of being a gay man so I don't give much though to this kind of thing.
bb: What type of camera and film do you use typically?
GM: I use a traditional Nikon 35mm Camera. I have both a manual version and an auto-focus. I tend to like films that kick up the drama, very fast speed black and white, so I can use available lighting. I feel this give more of a theatrical effect. For color I tend to use Fuji film because of the rich saturation of greens and blues. I will use a very slow shutter speed to get some blurring and camera shake. I love the painterly quality it creates.
bb: How do you feel about digital photography?
GM: I have nothing against digital photography but for my temperament it doesn't work well. Having to wait to see my images allows me to stay focused on the shoot at hand. I also like the archival properties of film. It is still a great way to store images. I don't find digital photography romantic like film.
bb: Do you think digital photography is transforming the photography world in a positive or negative way?
GM: I still remember when I couldn't afford much film and it taught me to be very critical of the image I was about to take. I think people shoot far too many images with digital. You really have an almost unlimited capacity to hold images and I don't think this allows photographers the same level of focus.
bb: Now for some fun but very important questions. What is your favorite color?
GM: Cobalt blue.
bb: What is your favorite movie?
bb: What is your favorite book?
bb: Who's your sexiest man?
GM: The dorky guy with glasses reading on the subway this morning.
bb: Your favorite New York City moment?
GM: In the days before cell phones I was waiting in line to use a pay phone. The guy in front of was using a jimmy to rob it. After a minute I asked him if he could rob the phone after I made my call. He said sure and stepped aside while I made my call and then went back to robbing the phone.
bb: Anything else you'd like to say?
GM: Thanks for the interview!
To see more of Mocarsky's work, visit his website at http://www.geraldmocarsky.com/.