The Model and the Photographer
Artist Robert Siegelman Explores the Personal and the Political
by Chael Needle
As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, artist Robert Siegelman has shifted from photography of models to drawing, among other media that does not require in-person collaboration. And when you view Siegelman’s photographs, you understand why this work during lockdown is not possible. Much of his photography represents the opposite of social distancing. He brings the viewer up close to his often nude gay male subjects (and sometimes even himself as a subject) and achieves an intimacy that allows their whole personhood to come to the fore. Mind, heart and body perform their intricate dance in the stillness of the frame. This empowerment in part creates a counternarrative that rejects gay male bodies as untouchable vectors of disease, or emotionless sex machines, or static objects to be commodified and consumed by a youth-driven culture. We are able to “meet” these men on different terms. These photographs also provide a chance for the artist to reflect on his own self and the process of art-making.
As an artist, Siegelman has been exhibited widely, both in the U.S. and abroad, including group shows at the Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and “untitled male id” at the Angus-Hughes Gallery in London, as well as solo exhibitions. His work has been collected by the Boston Public Library, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), The Harvard University Art Museums, The deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, The Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City, The Leather Achives in Chicago, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. His work is featured in two books: 100 Boston Artists by Chawky Frenn, and Self Portraits by Others, organized by Hunter O’Hanian.
A&U had an opportunity to correspond with Robert Siegelman via email.
Chael Needle: I know you teach at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University and lead workshops. How has the practice of teaching influenced your art-making?
Robert Siegelman: This is an interesting question to me. It is my fortieth year of teaching, and I have never completely thought this out before. It is something I think about, though. When I introduce myself to my students during a first class meeting and tell them about the mediums I work in, I say that I think of teaching as one of the mediums I explore. Both my teaching and my studio work are very process-based. I focus on ideas, making and doing, rather than on the outcome of a specific piece. The process rather than the product is what is important and interesting to me. Learning is a process. Learning happens in my studio and in classes that I teach. My classes are all very experiential and as much as possible replicate the experience of being in the studio. Interestingly enough, I am finding that I am able to do this even when teaching via Zoom this year.
I also bring to my classes a sense of the importance of taking risks, to make personal work and to explore that which may be political or taboo. This year, with teaching online, I have put my figure drawing class on hold and substituted a class called Hot Topics: Exploring the Personal and Political. I was asked by one of the students how I came up with the class, and I said that it seemed to be a natural outgrowth of other classes that I have taught. Even in my figure drawing class, which is not taught in any conventionally academic way, I encourage students to think about content and process, what the figure represents or communicates and the notions and conventions of nudity concerning having a naked model to work from.
I wonder if I am actually answering the question though. How has teaching influenced my art-making? I see art-making as being about communication, and teaching is as well. Any influences are probably very subtle, and there is a back and forth quality of what happens in my studio and in the teaching studio. I’m thinking that my teaching is more influenced by my art-making than the other way around. I know that I talk about ideas in classes that I think about in the studio. I also believe that there is a porousness in my life rather than a compartmentalization so ideas travel in odd routes in my teaching and also in my studio life. In my work as an artist, and in my classes I encourage a looking within and a witnessing of the world around us.
“Looking within and a witnessing of the world around us” sounds like that time in your life in the 1990s when you first more directly addressed HIV/AIDS in your work, as I learned from a published interview with you. Could you bring us back to that moment and how you were prompted to explore these ideas? How would you describe the personal and political entwined in this art-making?
“Witnessing” is of the utmost importance to me. I’m teaching a class [Hot Topics: Exploring the Personal and the Political] that could be called that. In the early nineties I was working on a series of large (20 by 24 inches) Polaroid photographs that were autobiographical. They were about my personal and family history. They were somewhat still-life oriented and sort of like photographed collages, as well. I was using a lot of family pictures in the work, and they were also about the nature of photography: the formal and the candid, photography as an art form, and photography as personal documentary as well as a casual activity.
During this time many galleries in Boston were holding AIDS benefits and selling what were called “Paper Prayers.” These were anonymous pieces of art work all in the same size: 12 by 4 inches. Some were by well-known artists and they were mixed in with pieces by emerging artists, students and hobbyists. I participated in many of these benefits.
One year, a gallery was hosting a Paper Prayers benefit and a companion show of pieces that dealt with the AIDS pandemic. The curator of this exhibit asked me if I would be willing to make work specifically for the show. He wanted me to use some of the Paper Prayer pieces that he had collected as part of the still life/collage work I was making/photographing. It seemed a perfect fit for me, a natural next step to the work I was already doing. Boston may not have been hit as hard as some of the larger cities, but people in my circle were disappearing. It was a scary and sad time, and the pieces I made were kind of memorials. I also started collecting obituaries. Then, like now (with COVID), a health crisis was politicized, and largely ignored by the government. While earlier my involvement in gay (now lgbtq) activism was largely around “gay liberation,” the AIDS crisis underlined the rights that we needed, and so much shifted. It was a pivotable moment in so many ways. It was a shift in so many people lives. So many were affected and so many still are. Of course the word “affected” is an understatement. We were shaken to the core. This is when my work started shifting, in a major way, towards having a both a personal and a political orientation, that has only grown larger in the years hence.
As an art student through the early years of my career as an imagemaker, I was making mostly abstract work and my interest in photography was largely expressed in side projects. This was the beginning of the shift to photography taking center stage in my work.
I wanted to touch on the processual practice you mentioned in your first answer before we move on. As a writer, I value the focus on process. I can do so more easily with fiction. With my journalism, however, the magazine deadlines always remind me that we need to produce an issue! How do you protect and nurture your valuing of process in a world that arguably more highly values product?
This is a particularly interesting question and well suited to my work. I am a very process-oriented artist. I’m much more process than product-driven. It is the work itself that is the most meaningful to me. I’m probably lucky that I don’t have many deadlines for my work, as they tend to stress me out. Yet I tend to make them when they do come up. My teaching is also very process-based. For many years I taught a course called Art as Process.
While the world values product, I tend to let the product come out of the process. Luckily I am very prolific, and have a lot of work. One of the shifts I have made during the pandemic, is that I have not worked with models since early March. However, this has given me time to look at my work carefully and to take in what I have been doing and my involvements. I wonder what working with models will be like when I do open that door again. Many models have expressed an interest in working with me, but for me this would be careless as I try to protect myself (and two others) from “The Virus.”
Protection and care-fulness do come to mind when I view your photography of male models. I am only one viewer who comes with their own set of expectations, experiences and histories in relation to gay men and how their bodies are represented; however, I can say that overall when I view these photographs I keep coming back to thoughts about the body as a site of critical engagement rather than as an aestheticized object to be looked at, a site of pleasure, a site of healing, a site of discovery and contemplation, a site of liberation. How has your approach to photographing gay male nudes evolved over time?
When I first started photographing men (“nude models”) I did not really know what I was heading into. I knew that I didn’t want to take just pretty pictures of pretty men. However as I was taking my first steps, I give myself that permission and set that possibility as my lowest goal.
If all I could manage was an aesthetic image of a nude male, so be it. But I wanted to express much more, I just wasn’t quite sure what originally that might be. As I was looking for a first model to work with, I also knew that I didn’t want “just a pretty face.” I ended up choosing an art student, that I knew, whose own work was provocative. While he was very handsome and well built, his presentation often put people off (tattoos/multiple piercings /wild dyed hair.) He could be very confrontational, yet he was also very gentle and vulnerable. He was open to doing anything in front of the camera. He was the perfect choice for me. The initial images were narrative and explicit while also being sad and personal. I more than met my goals in working with him and these initial shoots were all breakthrough experiences.
These were Polaroid 20×24 shoots and I was working with a camera operator and lighting expert who deserves much credit here. His name is Tracy Storer and he is a photographer working in Oakland, California, now. His willingness to test boundaries and his support of the work I was making was extraordinary, and he is still very important in my life. The model, Keith Tabellione, who was a close friend and has now passed, was an artist and something of a troubled soul.
Tracy and Keith and I worked on many projects together and slowly I started to work with other models.
Eventually the 20×24 work became too difficult logistically and too expensive for me. I went thought a period of experimentation taking small format Polaroids and 35mm slides. Gradually I was learning to use digital cameras, and they were becoming better and better for making high quality images. Eventually my work became completely digital.
Twelve or so years ago I moved into a new studio and put my photography front and center. I was no longer working project to project, but shooting regularly with all kinds of men. Having a regular shooting practice let me experiment in a variety of possibilities. Shoots tended to last about three or so hours and covered a lot of ground. As I worked with men who were more and more open to shooting explicit images, the work grew bolder again. It was important to me that I shoot with more than just “model types.” Being conventionally handsome was not a criteria for me in choosing models. I have worked with models in their late eighties as well as young guys. I have also occasionally worked with women and transpeople, as well as non-gay men.
I kept asking myself what I was looking for and realized that, beyond nice sometimes arousing pictures of naked guys, I could simultaneously explore grief, melancholy, vulnerability, desire and loneliness. While I was looking at and photographing men of all ages, races, and body types, I was also realizing that I was shooting self-portraits. While I was not in front of the camera, I was constantly seeing aspects of myself in my models and images. I was looking at models for how they were like me or very different. I was also certainly aware of my attractions to them as we spent time together in my studio. This led to my wanting to implicate myself in the work and talk about the relationship between the models and my self. Some models I work with once, and some I have worked with regularly. A few I have worked with on and off for over ten years. Derrick, who is pictured here from a 2019 shoot, has worked with me since he was about nineteen. I have a lot of gratitude for these men who have been vulnerable with me in my studio.
Some of your photographs feature yourself, not only holding the camera but touching the individual you are photographing. Why do you feel it is important to remind the viewers of the relationship between artist and model?
Many years ago I took a picture of a model where my hand was touching the side of his face. This was so intriguing for me. It was not obviously the photographer’s own hand, but certainly likely. In doing this I felt that I was implicating myself and my own desires and breaking the invisible wall that is inherently set up in photography. I was also questioning this wall and separation. I realized that I was implicating the viewer as well. The hand in the photograph could be the viewer’s own. It invited the audience to reach into the photograph.
I also started to take pictures of my hand touching or resting on other parts of the model’s body. I was moving into the picture more and more. On occasion I put the camera on a tripod and worked with the model, in such a way that we were both in the image, often intimately involved.
One of my references here is Picasso’s work. In his work the (female) model is muse and inspiration, but also a kind of cipher for the creative process and practice. He was revealing the female model, exposing her, but also himself as he connotes desire with the passionate act of painting. This work of his is very much a case where there is “more than meets the eye.” I want my work to have layers of meaning, too. I use mirrors extensively to reflect the model and the studio, and to capture myself in the act of creating and photographing. These works extend into self-portrait more and more. I may be both in front of and behind the camera. I can be seen holding the camera and taking the pictures. I am not just behind the scenes but fully engaged with the model and my own inner process. In some works I am fully nude, too. (Deep breath as I write this.)
Most of the models I work with are younger than I am, sometimes substantially so. I like the contrast that is set up when a younger and an older person relate. I like the visual contrasts and the sense of time passing. Aging. All of a sudden I am sixty-six. I like to think that I still look sixty-four. The images that I appear in clearly show an older man, certainly an older man than me! But no. It is me in there, rounder and gray and hairier than ever before. When did this happen? The work chronicles my aging, and by including myself—I am literally putting myself in the picture—I see who I am very clearly. It is a process of facing myself, and looking at and for body positivity. [As I mentioned before] since early March I have stopped working with models, because of the pandemic. I have embarked on series of self-portraits in this time. I think of them, in some ways, as a continuation of the series: “The Model and the Photographer.” Only in these the model has left the room, left me behind. I am reflected in the mirrors with just my camera and my mask.
Are your models comfortable with being touched?
Being touched by me or me being in the picture with a model is never a requirement for working with me. Some are very open to this and some are not. Trust and respect are very important in these sessions. I never touch a model without consent and an understanding of the purpose of my doing so. Touch and touching, and the nature of (male) intimacy is part of what the work is about.
A model being comfortable to be themselves and to enjoy the experience is very important.
What do the flags represent?
Sometimes American flags appear in the work, often in the background or just barely visible. This component had been increasingly important to me. The government and the Trump regime, as well as other political concerns have, for me, been like a radio static (is this metaphor even relatable these days?) that can’t quite be dispensed with. Sometimes it is loud, sometimes not, but the disturbance is always there. The flag is always present. It has become a scary and disturbing symbol for me. In recent days, with riots in D.C., I have seen the American flag and the Confederate flag brought together. I am wondering if they are the same flag now. It is a worry that has a place in my work.
Artist’s note: I would like to thank all the models that I have worked with for helping me to produce this work. I appreciate their openness to my process and ideas. Their support is integral to this project.
I want to dedicate this interview to Maureen Siegelman, my sister-in-law who passed on this week. I have known her since I was a teenager. Her loss joins many other losses that find their way into my work.
Robert Siegelman is represented by Gallery NAGA in Boston: https://www.gallerynaga.com/artists-list/robert-siegelman. Follow him on Instagram @robertsiegelman and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/robert.siegelman.
Chael Needle interviewed artist Eric Rhein for the December 2020 cover story. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.