With Anthony Boccaccio

Young Blue Eyes by Anthony Boccaccio

FA4M Mag interviews Anthony Boccaccio.

FA4M: Why are you a photographer/painter/artist?

AB: I’m all of those things, and a sculptor. I began my artistic career drawing on the walls of my bedroom; by the time I was 16 I was oil painting on commission, making more per painting than the mortgage on our house. I had 2 years of prepaid commissions, and winter was coming. A client wanted his barn painted (on a canvas!) and I didn’t think I could get to it before it snowed. My art teacher, Mr. Turner, took me out with his camera and made a photo of the barn so I could paint from the photo over the winter. He dragged me into the school darkroom and made me watch him develop, and then print the photo. When I saw the image appear on the photo paper, it was like a light suddenly went on inside my head. It was an epiphany!  I went home that night and, at the dinner table, declared I was going to be a photographer, not a painter. My father, being an Old Italian, reached over the dining room table, grabbed me by the throat and began choking me and screaming “You will stop painting when I tell you to stop painting!” Being an Italian boy, I gave half of everything I made to my mother and my father didn’t want to lose that income. So I ran. Later my mother told me I could be anything I wanted, and that she’d take care of my father. The rest is history.

FA4M: How long have you been producing your work?

AB: I began serious photography when I lived in Brazil in 1966 as a teenager. When I returned to go to college at the University of Rochester, I met Mr. Peter Braal, the director of photography at Eastman Kodak Company. He became my mentor and gave me all the film and development I wanted for four years, and open access to the photo illustration studio and his photographers. Just before I graduated, he asked me what I wanted to do when I got out of school.  I told him I wanted to be a professional photographer and work for the best company on the planet.  He beamed and asked “And who would that be?”  I smiled and said “National Geographic Magazine, of course!”  He frowned; I gulped, and realized I had just bitten the hand that fed me for four years. I must have turned bright red. Then he laughed and told me that I was right, and he loved my honesty.  “And how do you propose to work for National Geographic?” he asked.  I told him I’d just go to Washington and ask them to look at my portfolio.  “They don’t look at portfolios,” he said.  “They call you, you don’t call on them.”  I was 20 and stubborn and told him I was going to sit on the front steps of the Geographic forever until they let me in.  He picked up the phone, called Bob Gilka, the director of photography for the magazine, and called in a favor – “Look at the boy’s portfolio and then send him home,” he said.

Gilka looked at the portfolio, seemed unimpressed, asked me if that was all I had, and then sent me home. I felt dejected. Two weeks later he sent me a one line letter inviting me to photograph for the magazine. I photographed on and off for them over a period of 20 years. My last assignment was Mount St. Helen’s volcano.

I began shooting nudes seriously in 1978-79. My first male nude was a young man whose body was completely covered with blond peach-fuzz. I was fascinated by how the light shone off his torso, like he was covered with a soft layer of gold. The photograph remains even today as one of my finest. This success led to other friends asking to have their portraits done; most of my nudes are simply friends or acquaintances. I’ve never used a professional model for nude work.

FA4M: How do you select the subjects of your work?

AB: By feeling and instinct.  If I can watch a man walk 10 steps, and hear 20 words come from him, I generally have a good idea if he would be a good subject.  And his eyes.  I look closely at his eyes; they tell you a lot about the soul.  And that’s the point of a great image:  you have to photograph what can’t be seen, and let the body express the invisible power and grace of the person’s soul.  My very first photograph was of a man:  the constellation Orion – little dots of light in the night sky.  (I still have the negative.)  Looking into the abyss, the infinite night sky, at something that was virtually invisible to the naked eye, and pointing my little box camera upward to “capture what couldn’t be seen” was a first impulse, an open path, that led me to look always for what “couldn’t easily be seen” and try to capture that on film.

FA4M: Who are your favorite artists?  And why?

AB: My favorite artists are the Renaissance artists – because they combined spirit and flesh in ways that are iconic, everlasting, and yet very human.  I guess I’m a romantic.  In the world of photography, my favorites are W. Eugene Smith, Arthur Tress, and Duane Michals.  I like Smith because he took risks and didn’t give a damn about his editors.  He shot according to his own vision.  I like Tress because he brought the homoerotic to the forefront with disturbing yet extraordinary imagery that gave me courage to do the same. I like Duane Michals because he understood the mystery of flesh and spirit, and understood how to destroy the illusion of time and space while using a photographic medium that freezes time, and flattens space. Extraordinary!

FA4M: How do you describe your work?

AB: If you mean my nudes, then it’s Classical, and perhaps with an erotic twist.  I like to use the word sensual. I prefer black and white; it’s more emotional.  I love photographing the male body because it is active, full of motion, energy, possibility, and grace. It’s masculine, and that means penetration – into the abyss, into the light, into the world. Sometimes the combination of pure masculine strength with a hidden feminine grace beneath the skin is breath-taking and overwhelming. I like those moments; when my eyes stop seeing the outer and something deeper appears, something too beautiful and mysterious to call simply erotic or sensual. It’s more like the spirit takes on flesh. It’s an incarnation. I believe that all my nudes are simply an attempt to capture the Incarnation on film.

FA4M: What is the most satisfying moment of your production process?

AB: When I have the “Aha” experience – usually behind the camera. I don’t like post-production. It’s like trying to make what’s perfect more perfect and it only makes it worse. That’s why I like film. You shoot 12 negatives, you print one, and with very little fussing around, you get the best image. I call the digital world photographic masturbation – just keep snapping away hoping that eventually something will come out, as it were. The computer and the manipulation of the digital image are dangerous. It’s like a denial of one’s initial instincts behind the camera. I trust my instincts.

FA4M: What are some of the challenges of your process?

AB: My greatest challenge is to capture what can’t easily be seen – something that’s not “skin deep” as it were. I want to photograph the soul, the light, the mystery of the person before me. The body is only a vehicle, the outward expression of what is deeper, more intimate, more beautiful and graceful …more Imago Dei!  To accomplish this, I must create the environment where the subject will feel safe enough, and comfortable enough to “be himself honestly and completely” allowing his emotions and feelings to express themselves fully while I’m photographing.  Many of my most successful and perhaps provocative images of male nudes are of subjects who, during the shoot, became physically aroused, but were not embarrassed by it.  This happens perhaps 80% of the time.  I know that this is the moment where the unfettered, unembarrassed, nature of this unique person will begin to appear.

I’m a painter. My artistic life began as a painter and drawer. But you can’t paint on a canvas like you photograph on a film plane. So, I try to combine both approaches, which complement each other. Over the years, many have said my photography looks “painterly”.

FA4M: What is beauty?

AB: Whatever you want it to be.

FA4M: What is erotic?

AB: Like beauty, anything you make it. But if you ask what is “The Erotic”, or Eros, I would say that, like the word love, it’s generally misunderstood. The Erotic should not be consigned simply to the question of sex or sexuality – to the body in particular. The erotic is a moment in which our deeper, more basic and animal instincts flow into consciousness, and connect us or ground us more completely to the mystery and fullness of ourselves. Eros is more than an emotion, or a biological response to a sexual stimulus. It is the awakening of the deepest of all human imperatives – to leave ourselves and move toward another – in a word, to merge, to be in union or communion, to disappear into the “other”.  I believe that our puritanical society is fearful of the erotic, not because it is wrapped up in human sexuality and the body, but because it is a threat to the egocentric notion of our “individuality” and the “idealized” notion that to BE you have to maintain your “individuality” at all costs.  As a society, we tend to identify with the “me” of our ego, and wrongly believe that we are autonomous beings, empowered by our egos (which is the hallmark of separation), and that this separation must be protected at all costs.  This is in contradistinction of the idea of the erotic, which is the loss of ego, and the merging, or losing oneself into the “other”.

I believe that this explains why artists, and particularly those who express the erotic/sexual nature of humanity, are always attacked first by the despots who want to control society.  We artists are the ones who express the idea of authentic human freedom, (nudity is only one symbol of such freedom) and therefore the first to be burned to the stake, as it were.

FA4M: Is there such a thing as gay art, a gay aesthetic?

AB: Of course.  Who better can express the mystery of one’s sexuality and humanity than the artist himself?  If he is gay, he creates a gay aesthetic.  Masters and Johnson say as much when they suggest in the opening paragraphs of their book “Homosexuality in Perspective.” (1979) that the heterosexual world could learn much from the gay world regarding the question of relationships, love-making, and human sexuality. They got tarred and feathered for that one! I believe their research speaks eloquently to the question of a gay aesthetic, a gay culture, a gay-being-in-the-world.

What is sad is that this aesthetic has been labeled Gay. I think that it should be understood in a deeper, more inclusive manner. The labels Gay and Straight only work to divide people and promote the erroneous idea that human sexuality is only two things: straight or gay. There are as many sexualities as there are people on the planet; and while we can identify ourselves as primarily heterosexual or homosexual, human sexuality is at the very least, a continuum, and I think that the gay aesthetic must be careful not to fall into the same trap as the straight aesthetic, by identifying with a position which is seen as “opposite” or “antagonistic” to the other side.

Personally, when someone asks me if I’m gay or straight, I always respond by asking “Are those my only two choices?”

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Fine Art for Men is an international online gallery showcasing the male nude in fine art as well as gay art and homoerotic art while including contemporary artists and collectible vintage works.