A very strange series of images were published by the British fashion site PonyStep last week featuring young male models in their underwear, with words like "Fuck Me" scribbled on their exposed flesh (NSFW).
The images, shot by Brett Lloyd and styled by Nicola Formichetti, feature only underwear by one particular clothing brand, which apparently led Blackbook to refer to the shots as an "ad campaign." (It's not clear what involvement with or oversight of the pictures that the brand had. PonyStep is run by Richard Mortimer, a British hairdresser-turned-party promoter and club owner.)
Whether editorial, campaign or something in between, what is clear is that this is some hardcore imagery. Called "CK Teen Screengrabs," viewing Lloyd and Formichetti's shoot gives the impression of looking over the photographer's shoulder as he edits his day's take. Only this photographer has titled his JPGs things like "XXXWHEN_DO_I_GET_PAIDXXX" and "XXXTOO_HOTXXX" and "CKS_GOING_DOWN."
The models, Luke Stevens, Josh Blount, James Cooper, Pete Bolton, and Michael Walsh, are all over 18. (Though Blount is only barely so.) Still, seeing men who look to be barely more than boys in subjugated, vulnerable poses, with titles that comment on their sexual availability, is a little disturbing.
Homoeroticism in fashion photography is nothing new. And nor is sexist imagery. It's impossible to look at a shoot like this without wondering if the intent is to prompt the viewer into reconsidering sex stereotypes, or to parody the shock-and-titillate M.O. of so many brands, or to bring the homoeroticism that simmers behind iconic pictures of men into sharper relief.
But I have to wonder, if a woman were shown in her underwear, huddled in a corner with her arms behind her back, her crotch thrust towards the camera lens, and the words "Fuck Me" written on her thighs, would there not be something of an outcry, at least from certain observers? (I don't think many people would call it "fun.") How do we feel about it when it's a young man?
I wonder what went on at this shoot. The credited makeup artist is a woman, so she probably wrote the various phrases (and the occasional phone number) on these guys' bodies. One of Formichetti's two assistants was also a woman; everyone else on set was male. I'm hesitant to speculate as to these models' sexual orientations, or the work atmosphere on the set — sometimes the filthiest, most charged imagery can arise from totally antiseptic professional situations. And there is room for ambiguity in these images. But I've known male models who've complained about stylists who wouldn't give me a second look finding excuses to perv at them while they change, or touchy-feely makeup artists; the fact that male models are, at every level of the industry, less well-paid and more exchangeably anonymous than their female counterparts, mustn't leave one feeling empowered to speak up about any sexual harassment one might encounter.
I'm reminded of a scene in a 1980 Frederick Wiseman documentary about the industry, called Model, where a gay photographer interacts with a male model. You can't quite tell if the photographer is actually hitting on the model, or just being friendly, and you also can't tell if the model's slightly cagey responses are the result of the fact that he's working, and therefore can't converse freely even as the photographer peppers him with banter, or whether it's because he's straight and trying to avoid being seen as somehow leading the photographer on. Nobody's rude, exactly, but the gender politics of it all is very complex in ways that make you occasionally suck in your breath — the photographer leans in at one point to push the model's hair out of his face, and the model stiffens at this near-caress — and it's suffused with this incredible discomfort.
And regardless of the power dynamics on the set, which are only speculation, anyway, the power dynamics as they are shown in the pictures are troubling. What does it mean to be objectified, anyway? Is this equality? Is this sexy? Tongue-in-cheek? Offensive? All I know is the whole thing makes me very uncomfortable. But then, I do believe fashion photography can be an art form, and I would never argue that the purpose of art is to make anyone comfortable.