EAST MEETS WEST
The Art of Jay Plogman
Women have been objectified as objects of beauty for years, much to the delight of men the world over, but each passing year brings about a subtle change, which has now resulted in a complete turning of the tables. Men are now pin ups in all the same ways that women were, right down to the poses and locations, and a generation of women and gay men all breathed a collective sigh of appreciation. You can see the standard Hollywood headshot, the swimsuit model, the bare buns calendars, the provocative poses in the barn (a true roll in the hay), the himbos, the strippers and even the full frontal shots. As viewpoints evolved, men became more comfortable shedding their clothing. They also got their eyebrows shaped, their legs and chests waxed, bought face products, hair gels, fashion briefs by Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss and Ginch Gonch (the male versions of lingerie), joined the gym, and freely spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the mirror primping. Vanity received a healthy dose of testosterone.
There have always been photographers who wanted to shoot the male form, but finding the models was not as easy as it is today. Sites such as Model Mayhem are filled with male models, and the ports that garner the most attention are the ones that feature various states of undress or complete nudity. Regardless of preference, a photographer could find the model to fit his mood, or simply admire the vast amount of male flesh on display. But even in this newfound era of plenty, there are still items missing from the menu.
Asian males, in general, do not always conform to the typical standard of masculine beauty. The majority were smaller in height, with smooth bodies and features that were almost feminine and delicate. I say “in general” because this is not the rule, regardless of how often it is seen. It would be ignorant to assume that all Asian men fit this role, especially considering the visual evidence that is out there that proves the opposite. What some lack in height, they make up for in proportion, and a sculpted Asian physique is an incredible sight to behold. And yet, all these physical advantages did not create a demand within the photo market, and those that chose to photograph them even considered it exotic. The Asian male, like the black male before him, had yet to go mainstream, and could possibly have a harder time appealing to a broad audience.
Photographer Jay Plogman is not limited by this mindset. He has built up a portfolio with a vast collection of Asian males, and he is a master at bringing out the beauty in each of his subjects. His photos are far more varied than just these, but he could still carry the title of a niche artist just because of his accomplishments with the Asian male. He expertly showcases the soft side as well as the hyper masculine, and knows just how to pose and light his subjects to create the best images.
Jay and I are mutual admirers of each others’ work, and I was pleased that he was willing to do an interview feature for BLISS. In addition to his work featured here, you can view other images on his website http://www.jayplogman.com/ , and get to know him better through his new blog:
BLISS: Jay, let me first start off by saying thank you for the focus you put on the seriously under appreciated and represented beauty of the Asian male. Is this a conscious decision on your part, or is it based on your own personal preference?
JAY PLOGMAN: It is based on both location and my desire to support the underdogs of the world. Shortly after "going digital" in 2006 I decided to concentrate on photographing Asian subjects, as I already knew I'd be moving to the Philippines in 2007. So the work I brought with me from the US contained over 70% Asian models. Doing this gave me some portfolio material to which Filipinos could more easily relate. A portfolio consisting of nothing but black and white faces and bodies hardly speaks to people in that part of the world the way one which also includes a variety of Asian persons can.
Also, as you stated: Asian men are seriously under-represented. I like to try to do things or represent something others are not. Photographers line up by the hundreds to shoot women walking the catwalk at fashion shows. Why? Everyone gets the same shot. Where's the challenge in that?
B: I know you lived in the Philippines for 3 years, which may also account for some of your models. Tell me about your time there and how you liked it.
JP: What you see in my portfolio now is almost exclusively work done in the Philippines. Three things really allowed my photography to grow there:
1. I got back into studio photography after being away from it since 1995,
2. I learned a lot about Photoshop, and
3. Manila has an abundance of models eager and ready to shoot.
The Philippines is an amazing country. They have some of the best beaches in the world, and I love the beach. Too bad I only had 3 beach shoots while there. The people are, for the most part, very friendly. Photographers don't need to own their own studio, as there are many fully equipped studios available to rent - and for as little as $7 per hour!
B: You are now based in Cincinnati, Ohio, but you've traveled all over Asia and Latin America, as well as parts of the US. Is this why so many of your models are not from the United States?
JP: Exactly! It was especially difficult in Cincinnati back in the early 90's. If you remember, it was Cincinnati where the county vice squad closed down the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and caused a huge controversy. Photographers who approached subjects for modeling were always being compared to Mapplethorpe, no matter what kind of photographs were intended!
Also, throughout the early 90s I worked on a series of photos which were collected into an exhibit entitled "Being American". It was all about portraying Americans of all shapes, sizes, colors, etc. to show how we don't all look the same. Those Asians you see in my portfolio in Model Mayhem could be Americans, because a few actually are! And one is actually Swiss!
Since I'm back in Cincinnati now, expect to see less Asian faces!
JP: The foreign models I've worked with have all been much more open and seemed to have no guard to let down when compared to Americans. Americans are quite prudish and much more guarded than people from other parts of the world. This translates even to some who actually are models in a pro or semi-pro sense. Of course, a true exhibitionist is the one who, no matter what their nationality, will always be the least inhibited and most open to new ideas.
B: There is a special beauty that only Asian men have. It is, at once, both very masculine and yet soft. The smoothness of their bodies lends to the allure. You know just how to capture both qualities in your photos. How do you go about creating these images?
JP: This is a difficult question to answer! I've been blessed to work with models that have real presence and character. I think that has a lot to do with it. There's something inside. They aren't hollow shells or mannequins. And I don't go about Photoshopping the life out of them like many photographers and Photoshop wizards in Asia do. I am old-school in that I try to avoid the post-editing process as much as possible, but I do what it takes to make my images look the way I envisioned.
B: How do you set up your shoots? Do you plan in advance or let things take shape in a more organic way during the sessions?
JP: That depends on the shoot and the model. Some shoots happen pretty spur of the moment and it is just me and the model with my camera and maybe a flash. Others have a clear idea, several poses and settings in mind, perhaps even a storyline.
B: Do the models offer ideas or just allow themselves to be directed?
JP: Both. I have been blessed with some amazing models who knew what poses to take, locations to use, and it is all I can do to keep up with them. In other cases I've had to literally position them like a mannequin; adjusting their arms, hands, legs and feet those people were so clueless. You won't find those images in my portfolio anytime soon, though! They paid for their sessions and seemed happy, but if they'd had any clue as to how to relax, sit, or stand it would have been a great help.
I have even been a model for a couple of fellow photographers as well as one of my models so that I can retain a sense of what it is like to be the subject! It is important to be able to put yourself in the position of your subject so you know what they are going through. It has been a great help in working with my models.
JP: Digital has brought together the best of 35mm film camera and Polaroid instant technologies. Until 2004-05, when DSLR cameras finally became user-friendly thanks in large part to Nikon and Pentax simplifying the menus and buttons and bringing back some of the common sense control to cameras, I had stayed away from them. Although there are still some ways in which digital exposes differently from film, really I find both mediums to be very similar. Digital's major benefit is in being able to adjust to new lighting situations more easily both in ISO and color balancing.
B: Do you feel that photography still retains the essence of the art form now that is has gone digital, or is something missing?
JP: The art is still there, but the mess isn't. As an apartment dweller, setting up and tearing down a darkroom was just way too much work. Now set-up consists of lifting the top of the laptop and tear down is shutting the laptop. Set-up and tear-down used to take 45 minutes each.
Now there is almost nothing you can't do in the computer. I do miss Polaroid transfers, though! Why did digital have to kill that?
JP: I started with a Fujica as my first SLR. Then I upgraded to a Ricoh system before going to a Contax G1 system. Then when I went digital, it was with Pentax. I use a Pentax K10D for the most part, but still use my first, an *istDS, as a back up.
B: These days, a Photoshop wizard can turn a crappy photo into a work of art. Some feel that this cheapens the art, and that there should be a separation between true photography and computer wizardry. I have even thought, at times, that photos with so much manipulation should be classified as graphic photo illustrations, rather than true photos. What are your views on this?
JP: I don't have a problem classifying the images. I do have a problem though, with people saying they are a photographer when they obviously can't take a decent photograph. If they are that good at Photoshop, they should refer to themselves as graphic artists or graphic photo illustrators, if any lay person could figure out what that meant. I do know people who shoot 1200-1500 photos at a wedding to get 200 decent images and consider themselves to be professional photographers. I would shoot 8-10 rolls of film and find a total of 10-15 pictures unworthy during my wedding photography days. In short: if you need your skills in Photoshop to salvage all the pictures you take, you're really not a photographer.
B: I love the 4-Play series that you did. How did this come about, and when will we see more images from it?
JP: Thanks much! 4-Play came about as a result of another set I did entitled Lucky 7. Both were featured in the Philippine online gayzine, Outrage. Lucky 7 was a very fun, lively shoot due to the complete chaos seven very playful, naked men can create. I wanted something a bit more controlled and featuring models that were more muscled or toned than those who were featured in Lucky 7. During post-processing of 4-Play I attempted to craft the bodies of the guys to appear as if they were made of pewter, so their bodies took on a dark, metal-like gray tone. It seemed to add to the appearance of strength inherent in their musculature.
Are there more images to come? Perhaps!
B: The photos in that series, as well as many of your other images, are very sensual, even though the model is not fully nude. Is this something that you have to communicate with the model, or is it a way in which you set the mood and pick the angles and the time to capture moment?
JP: The sensuality just kind of happens. I suppose it is a combination of the models, my lighting, and how I arrange each shot, but it isn't something I actually think that much about. I spend most of my time looking at the pose and how the light is working.
In some of your underwear photos, the models have erections beneath the fabric. Is this just a natural response during the shoot, or was that the initial intention? If it was, how do you convey this to the model, and what is the usual response?
JP: Erections often happen naturally. Some models have been embarrassed when they happen; others are quite nonchalant about it. There have only been a couple times where an erection was planned/intended for specific shots. In those instances, it is either an agent or the model specifying those shots, so when I say that we're coming to those shots during the photo session, it isn't a surprise.
B: The simple fact of a photo containing an erection is viewed by some as pornographic, and I touch upon this in an article I did, Art vs. Porn, which actually featured one of your photos. How do you define erotic art?
JP: I read it and it was a wonderful article! I look at erotic art as being something which is not so explicit; something where the imagination still has to do some work. For me, erotic art goes beyond the surface and makes the viewer want to know what happened before and what will happen after.
B: I am a very vocal supporter of both pornography, the porn industry and the actors/models that work within it. What are your personal feelings on pornography?
JP: I have no problem with pornography. I have a problem with those who abuse it. Just like alcohol isn't a problem until someone uses it improperly or to harm themselves or someone else, pornography itself is not a problem. Pornography, like alcohol, is there to be enjoyed. To paraphrase the beer and liquor ads: Porn responsibly.
B: I LOVE that! Erotic art often crosses over into explicit territory. What is the distinction between erotic art and porn in your opinion?
JP: Former porn actress Gloria Leonard said that the difference between art and pornography is lighting. I've always loved that line! I actually find a measure of truth to that in the way in which I approach my erotic shoots. Because I want there to be something below the surface of the image -a story- lighting is a crucial element in expressing that. The color and quantity of the light speaks greatly to the viewer. The more well-lit, the more focused, detailed, and obvious, the less there can be for the viewer to imagine. For me, erotic art keeps my attention far longer and keeps me looking at all the elements of the work. If it is photography, I will be scanning all the elements of the image: What's on the table in the background? On the mantle? The print of the sheets, a lamp, a book...it all interests me. I learn something about the person/people depicted in the image.
To me, erotic art leaves me wanting more. In the case of pornography: once I've seen it, I'm done with it. I don't need to see it again. I think that explains the great popularity of sites like Sean Cody. Most people never view a video more than once or twice before they are bored with it. His site allows them to do just that and not have to deal with all the video tapes and DVDs they used to have to contend with before the internet made sites like his possible.
B: Have you ever, or would you ever photograph an image that is clearly pornographic? If yes, why? If no, why not?
JP: Yes, I have. In fact, my first digital shoot was pornographic. Back in 2000 or 2001, a neighbor heard I had bought a compact digital camera and knocked on my door one day. It took him a few minutes to muster the courage to come out and ask me to shoot him and his partner in a series of images.
When someone asks me to shoot them in a pornographic way, it is fine with me. For whatever reason, they feel comfortable with me to ask for such. There's a lot of trust necessary there, and I respect that. I do it for them, not for me; and it is not what I would want to have notoriety for, because it would undermine my erotic and other works.
B: I know we are not supposed to admit it, but photographers always have favorites that they've worked with. Is there a muse for you amongst your models?
JP: Oh yes. Any model that has such presence and attitude where I hardly need to direct them to do anything is sure to be among one of my muses at some point or other. I've been through 4 in the past 3 years.
JP: Oh sure; but these were all paying clients, not people I sought out or were sent to me by agents. I've had those who were so clueless I could never get a good image. I've had those who only wanted one thing during a shoot; it wasn't the photos - it was the photographer.
B: You photograph both sexes, but male images far outnumber female ones in your port. Do you have a preference in terms of shooting?
JP: I don't really prefer one or the other, but I found that for my own personal artistic vision, in the Philippines it is men. Women are sought after by everyone and attention is flourished upon them. Men are marginalized. Asian men even more so, especially in western culture.
Being a foreigner in the Philippines for the first time, trying to compete to get the opportunity to shoot with female models could be daunting. In the Philippines, Filipino men are brushed aside in favor of Brazilian and Caucasian models despite an abundance of very attractive Filipino men. I've always been one to root for the underdog, so I guess it seemed natural to want to highlight the men of the Philippines.
I get 2 kinds of fringe reactions to my work with Filipino men. One applauds me for the "exotic" while the other derides me for choosing to work with Asian men whose skin is not milky white.
B: I find that amusing on a few levels, and I can explain this from a personal and professional standpoint. I’ve met many guys through the years who emphatically stated that they were not attracted to black men, and yet they loved Puerto Rican and Dominican guys. Being the rather blunt person that I used to be back in the day, I would question this and tell them that many of the men they were attracted to look like black men, so why make such a distinction. They never had answers for this, which just confirmed my thoughts that the only difference was that regardless of what how they looked, they weren’t black. It was a question of prejudice rather than attraction.
I see the same problem with Asian guys. I’ll hear people say that they are not attracted to Asians, for a variety of reasons (including the stereotypical idea of a small penis), and yet they are obsessed with Latinos. I have quite a few Filipino friends and quite a few of them could easily pass for Latino. I just photographed a guy from Bolivia and people assume he is Asian. Again, it is the distinction of actually being Asian that is the issue, not the physicality. But I digress, so back to you. LOL
I draw a great deal of inspiration from the work of other photographers, including you. Do you have any photographers that you admire or that have inspired you?
JP: Wow, thanks. There's really so many! There are also painters, sculptors, authors....all of whom influence my photography in various ways. But a couple of prominent contemporary photographers that come to mind include Tom Bianchi and Richard de Chazal.
B: In terms of concepts, has there ever been an idea or image that you wanted to create but never got to realize?
JP: Yes. I've wanted to work on a rooftop that isn't flat and in a forest/wooded setting. Now that I'm in the US, where we have an abundance of pitched roofs and forests are easier to access I hope to see these concepts realized.
B: Of the photos you have done, could you pick a favorite? If so, what is it about this image that makes it so?
JP: Actually, it is one of the images form the 4-Play series. A horizontal image where you can see the 4 guys and the backdrop, including the pull chains. Great posing by the guys and the memories of the day make it special to me.
JP: Funny that you ask, as I'm working on a few book concepts already. There are 2 that I'm actively pursuing (something to look out for next year, I hope), and one which is still in the "need to refine the direction of" stage.
B: Can you tell me 5 fun facts about yourself that people would be surprised to discover?
JP: Hmmm, this is where I always messed up on job interviews! I am pretty much an open book to my friends, so I forget that there's anything about me to be discovered.
1. Given my digital portfolio, I suppose I'd have to say that people are surprised to discover I don't like just Asian men, but have been open to all races.
2. Although I lived in Japan for 2 years, I never once ate sushi. Neither I, nor many of my Japanese friends like it.
3. I look 10 years younger than most of my old schoolmates.
4. I'm rarely ever serious, but when I am I'm passionate about whatever the issue is at hand.
5. I'm actually very shy.
JP: To everyone needing a photographer: Call me! I gotta pay the bills! Hahaha! No, really... I want to thank you for this interview. It came as quite a surprise to me. I always enjoy reading your blog and the eloquence with which you write. After living in lands where English is a second language, it is very refreshing - indeed, it is a refresher course! - to read.
©2009 Sean Dibble
To view more work by Jay Plogman Photography
Please visit his website and blog.