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Calling the Kettle “White”: My Interview with JD Dragan October 8, 2011

Posted by homolog88 in Travel Dispatches.

Photographer JD Dragan

JD Dragan is a gay white photographer who has made a career of photographing Black male nudes—a perfect subject for my current film project on gay interracial desire. JD lives in Philadelphia, a town he doesn’t particularly care for, and had a one-man show early in the summer entitled, “The Modern Slave.” As opposed to pictures he had taken where lighting, symmetry, and the body beautiful were paramount (he is technically superb), the pictures in this show featured specifically political content: these same models with symbols associated with slavery and oppression such as a noose, cuffs, an American flag.

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All of JD’s models are physically stunning, many of them body builders, so the presentation of Black gays in such a context by a white photographer generated the expected controversy. In fact, when I first read an extended review of the show in The Philadelphia Weekly , I myself was sure that here was another chocolate queen blowing his obsession up into Art. (A slight case of projection, perhaps?)

Then I interviewed the guy, and I had to change my mind.

Certainly JD is a chocolate queen. And, like most gay men, he is obsessed with physical beauty. Yet his idealized portrayal of Black men springs from a genuine love of the species, a profound belief that reducing them to walking genitalia is profoundly racist. Of course their bodies are beautiful, but so are their faces, their spirit, and their intelligence. There are white men who desire Black men to reinforce their superiority in the Western racial hierarchy, but there are also those who desire Black men out of Afrophilia, if I may coin that term. (A slight case of projection, perhaps?)

So I ended up liking JD quite a lot. Of course I find his images beautiful and erotic. Amusingly, he says the top three categories of his collectors are 1) white gay men, 2) Black gay men, and 3) straight Jewish couples. Now I doubt that the gay white men buying JD’s pictures do so out of desire to restore full humanity to portrayals of Black men. (I can’t tell you how many reproductions of Michaelangelo’s David I’ve seen in queer living rooms.) I get JD’s point, and I find it admirable. However, the eroticism of the image trumps any liberating agenda—at least for me.

Man in Polyester Suit

In response to the criticism JD frequently encounters that he is a Mapplethorpe knock-off, JD responds that, unlike Mapplethorpe, he loves and respects his models. JD feels that Mapplethorpe, though rigorously aesthetic, reduces his Black men to sculptural objects, that as a photographer he is cold and classist. JD is appalled at the famous Mapplethorpe image, “Man in a Polyester Suit;” would NEVER reduce a Black man to a penis. I’m not sure, however, that I can tell the difference between a Dragan image of a perfect Black nude and one by Mapplethorpe.

And other questions come up for me: what about Black women? Are their images not also reduced by racial stereotyping? What about Black men who don’t have perfect bodies? JD might justly respond that he works his corner of the field and that others are free to work theirs. But then one is drawn to the question, how effectively can a white man liberate the image of a Black man? (A slight case of projection, perhaps?)



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