Saints and Sinners
Photographer George Dinhaupt Explores the Beauty and Importance of Human Diversity
by Brent Calderwood
Born in Los Angeles, George Dinhaupt has been exhibiting his portrait photography since the early 1990s. Formerly a truck driver by profession, Dinhaupt dusted off his old camera in 1991 after he was sidelined by a car accident; a year later, his work was part of a show in Southern California.
Dinhaupt refers to much of his work as “honorific portraiture,” which originally referred to the large-scale iconography of pharaohs and Caesars; Dinhaupt repurposes the ancient tradition to depict people with HIV, men of color, and a wide array of bodies and body types.
In the second century, muscular busts of the aging Hadrian sent one kind of political message; in the second millennium, a very different political message is conveyed by Dinhaupt’s honorific portrait of a subject he refers to as “Saint Felippe,” which hangs in the permanent collection at the Leslie-Lohman Gallery in New York City. Nude and attached to an IV, the subject’s unmistakable ease and mirth subvert ideas about illness and honorability. In Dinhaupt’s deft hands, seeming opposites like ease and disease, levity and gravitas, feel integrated and natural.
Dinhaupt’s influences are as diverse as his subjects and styles. His black-and-white studio portraits, as in his “With Us” series, are redolent of Robert Mapplethorpe, while much of his more recent work, utilizing natural light and candid settings like roadside diners, point to the snapshot and documentary aesthetics of Nan Goldin and Catherine Opie.
I recently spoke with Dinhaupt about his career, his influences, and “Saint Felippe.”
Brent Calderwood: How did you begin your career as a photographer?
George Dinhaupt: I fell into photography, so to speak, after an accident in 1991. I had been interested in photography before then, but after 1991 I really began focusing full-time, teaching myself technique as well as developing a portfolio.
Prior to getting your MFA in photography in 2001 and teaching, you had studied political science as an undergraduate. Do you see any connection between those studies and the work that you do now?
I studied political science in the seventies—a great time to be doing so….I studied comparative political systems in Denmark…and brought home new ideas about tolerance. I had some great teachers whose mentoring probably influenced me to pursue teaching. I would think of it as a banking of knowledge….In the broadest sense, I view all art as having some form of political intent….And whether it be in promoting style or content, my view is that art should remain an active voice. As I say when I’m introducing my work and practice to my students, “I am constantly exploring the possibility for a visual language to disrupt cultural norms.”
Which cultural norms specifically do you aim to disrupt with your work?
Early on I realized that generalizations and stereotyping were tools used to defame or dismiss individuals belonging to marginalized groups, sometimes marginalized within their own culture—black/gay, HIV-positive/gay, and lately size/gay. So, I began to work with those close to me to produce documents—photographic prints—that rendered the subject as we saw it: honorific in form, face-on, both challenging and inviting.
What can you tell me about the honorific form and how you use it?
Challenging notions, and using self-portraiture in later work, I have used honorific portraiture and print size to make a point. In the nineties, I noticed photographers using scale as a tool to create large, beautiful, confrontational prints of their subjects. [Lyle] Ashton-Harris was very impressive to me, and his prints created an overwhelming presence. Working from the honorific model…scale suggests value and importance. An ideology geared toward a democracy of aesthetic begs the question, “Why aren’t my concepts of beauty valid?”
And what are your concepts of beauty?
There is so much in this world, not just in photography, that I find “beautiful.” In my work, though, it is what’s around me. I don’t seek out beauty. Rather, I like to work with what is at hand, what I know.
You’ve described your untitled portrait of “Saint Felippe” as “an important document of survival in the nineties.” Is the subject’s relaxed attitude something he wanted to convey, or was it your concept going into the shoot?
This particular image started out as a mutual desire to “document” in “honorific” style, and ultimately became a great deal more. Once the process began, what you see came quite naturally, and we both agreed that it was something that needed to be done….The image illustrates the attempt at treatment of individuals with AIDS at that time [in 1994]—large quantities of AZT were shunted directly into a major artery….The work continues to be recognized and is in the permanent collection of the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation in New York City.
It looks like, just as you’ve explored diversity in your subjects and styles, your printing and presentation methods have evolved, too.
Well, working over a period approaching twenty years now, one would expect changes that parallel technical opportunities of the time. I began with and continue to explore film and chemical printing. I have always loved paper generally, and often worked with large-format xerography, both as a way to produce images cheaply and [as a way to produce images that are] large. As digital entered the picture, I used a lot of hybrid approaches—film and digital printing—and now I use digital almost exclusively in my process. Though I must say, I have always loved Polaroid, and while I can continue to get large-format stock I’ll keep going with it.
What are you working on right now?
The Future Is Now! [Laughs] Is that it? …I continue to work on my visual studies project, “Fat Studies: Spaces.” This material was the theme of my solo show last year, and I have been lecturing on the subject and sharing my work at conferences for the last two years….Studio arts remain my passion, and I’m constantly exploring new teaching opportunities. While programs in California are being cut to the bone or completely eliminated, there seem to be more opportunities in other states. Most important, though, I continue to photograph, creating documents of community.
To learn more about George Dinhaupt’s work, please visit www.georgedinhaupt.com.
Brent Calderwood is a San Francisco-based writer and activist. His essays, reviews, and poetry have appeared widely, including in A&U. His Web site is www.brentcalderwood.com.