A new book compounds erotic images by 60 queer photographers from over 30 different countries. “It’s about trying to promote queer and gay photography in the art world,” says its editor Ghislain Pascal
While the female form is one of art’s most recurrent motifs – be it rendered in stone, blotted in ink, or lensed by the camera to tell varied stories of lust, desire and innocence – the male body has historically received much less consideration. Now, with the release of Ghislain Pascal’s self-edited third volume of the Boys! Boys! Boys! book, the curator and gallerist is levelling the playing field – but “it’s not all about dick pics,” he insists over a Zoom call from his home in rural France. “It’s about trying to promote queer and gay photography in the art world.”
And doing so is no small feat. Today his home office is decked with photography books, his walls are saturated with prints and artworks, and an external barn has been converted into a private gallery, but Pascal only entered the decadent world of fine art photography apparently “by default” after a chance encounter in 1996. Having previously worked as a publicist representing London’s “models and it-girls”, Pascal was on set for a rooftop photoshoot with socialite Tamara Beckwith for a magazine when he met seminal British photographer Bob Carlos Clarke. “I loved Bob from the first time I met him because he was just mental, and he became my preferred photographer to shoot my clients,” Pascal says. The photographer had been heralded as Britain’s answer to Helmut Newton, and his magnetic, confronting images live on as some of the most iconic works of fetish photography of all time. “He would always moan about how shit his agent was, or how life’s so dreadful. In the end I just said to him, ‘Shut up, I'll be your fucking agent.’”
Bob Carlos Clarke ended his life in 2006 after struggles with his mental health, and two years later, Pascal and Tamara Beckwith co-founded The Little Black Gallery in his memory, showcasing the photographer’s slick archive of photography prints. “When we started the gallery, it was and still is not very focused on Boys! Boys! Boys! – it’s actually very much focused on ‘Girls Girls Girls’.” At first only showing woman-focused works by photographers like Bob Carlos Clarke, Patrick Lichfield, Marco Glaviano and Mike Figgis, Pascal’s own interests in photography eventually started to come through, first with the representation of queer photographer Tyler Udall. At the time we speak, the gallery represents 65 queer artists from 30 countries around the world – including Iran and Russia, where rights are repressed and their lives are under constant threat. With each edition sold, Pascal donates $1 to charities such as the National AIDS Trust, Wear It Purple and the Peter Tatchell Foundation – essential organisations fighting for change in the LGBTQ+ community.
Pascal’s books, magazines and online gallery act as a vehicle to market the work of his clients, but the sexual nature of their content and their affinity with queer culture makes it a difficult sell. “The irony is, even in 2023 it is almost impossible to get anything about Boys! Boys! Boys! in the mainstream press. I can’t think of one article we’ve ever had in a national newspaper. But there’s no point sitting around being grumpy about it, we have to do it ourselves.” Despite the mainstream media’s apathy in the project, “sex sells” isn’t only an age-old idiom, with the market proving enterprising – each book and magazine so far has sold out, with their print run increasing with each edition.
It’s the bravery of the photographers featured that makes each edition remarkable, too. Iranian photographer Babak Haghi’s subversive images focus on the bare skin of his subjects; contorting their bodies, clutching their heads, or draped in blue cloth, they express their hidden sexual identities, imbued with a covert femininity. In Iran, sexual activity between people of the same sex can result in the death penalty. Elsewhere in the book, Moscow-based photographer Vlad Zorin’s series With Love From Russia captures intimate portraits of queer men, opening a fresh dialect of gay eroticism in the stormy socio-political climate of Russia. “As soon as you’ve scratched the surface, you just realise how institutionally homophobic society is,” Pascal says. “I sell pictures of naked girls all day long. [With male nudes] everybody just immediately goes: ‘it’s male nudity to titillate’. Whether people are taking pictures in dark rooms in Berlin, it’s relevant. It’s relevant to a lot of people’s lives. You simply can’t exclude it.”
Volume III of Boys! Boys! Boys! is published by Kehrer Verlag and is out now.