Thursday, November 11, 2010




How do you define erotic?

When I first came across Joe Lazara’s work that was the first questioned that formed in my head. And until that point, I had a rather standard answer, and I was careful to impart that my response was solely from my own perspective and not meant as the definitive definition. I recognize, as many people do, that what I viewed as being merely an erotic representation of sexuality could easily be dismissed as pornography by someone else and I’m also careful not to pass judgment on those who have a less broad aesthetic.

Visually speaking, we are still somewhat behind as a culture in our response to the male nude. Playboy is an accepted part of our nation’s consciousness, yet no magazine that celebrates the nude male body has ever reached the same level of acceptance. We photographers that do shoot male nudes often have to look to our peers for praise in spite of the increasing number of images that are appearing, as well as the growing number of photographers, both male and female, who are responsible for them. It may still not have the recognition that it deserves, but at least the public isn’t as shocked as they used to be when they come across an image with an actual penis visible.

Anyone can take a nude photograph. It may not be one that is great in terms of composition, but it may still contain erotic elements. Raising the bar on erotica and making it artistic involves creativity, vision and talent. There have been a few photographers in the past who managed to build a name, as well as brand recognition for their work, such as Old Reliable, George Plyatt-Lynnes, James Bidgood and most famously, Robert Mapplethorpe, who not only blurred the lines between art and erotica, but also crossed racial barriers with his collection of images in Black Book. Present day artists such as Tom Bianchi, Mark Henderson, and the incomparable Justin Monroe have presented us with their own brand of sensuality, and each of them does it uniquely different than the other. And we have emerging artists like Comrade X and Joe Lazara.

Joe stands apart from his peers in a few aspects, such as his reinterpretation of the classics in modern day erotic imagery. He redefines the genre, like a visual remix or redeux, to achieve what he calls hyper-realism in his images. The standard expectations are there, such as models with gym physiques, but his subjects retain a sense of familiarity in the respect of not always being the typical "model gorgeous" standard. Viewing his work is like taking a trip into the past in regards to literature, performance art and film, and then having those elements placed into a creative mixing bowl, with an added dash of modern sensibility. He is an another artist who blurs the lines of how we view art and pornography, and in some instances we are treated to photos that are confrontational in their tone which forces us to reexamine our own views of erotica.

I have had the chance to get to know Joe a bit through our interactions on Facebook, but it was not until this interview that his character and motivations were truly fleshed out for me. A few of his pieces are included in this feature, and he is going to debut his more explicit work later in this issue.

©2010 Sean Dibble


BLISS: When did you first get interested in photography?
JOE LAZARA: I didn’t become interested in photography until my late twenties. My first passion was theater. I moved from Seattle to New York City just out of high school, and lived in there for about 10 years, acting and writing several plays. Finally, I decided I should go to college, so I returned to Seattle to do so. It was then that I began to think about photography as a career option because I had always been interested in visual arts, but had no confidence in my ability to draw or paint.  However, I was talked out of going into photography in favor becoming a journalist.
B: Do you remember when you got your first camera?
JL: My brother gave me his old manual SLR that he no longer wanted. I had returned from New York to Seattle, and was just entertaining the idea of going into photography.  It’s funny, but at first I liked the “idea” of being a photographer in an abstract way, but had never actually taken any photographs. If my brother hadn’t given me his old camera to fool around with, possibly I might never have started actually to make pictures, reconciling myself to it as something that just wasn’t going to happen.
B:  How did you start out and what type of images were you creating?
JL: With my brother’s old camera in-hand, I took a couple of courses in photo-journalism in college, but with no serious intent to become a photo-journalist. I bugged family members to let me take their portraits, but soon they began to run when they saw me coming. So I began to shoot still lifes with found objects, such as an old beat-up pair of shoes with rose petals, or an egg and a chain on a piece of black velvet. My family thought I was crazy. I began to study photography at a professional school in Seattle, but didn’t go for a degree. I studied as I went along.
B: When did you start photographing men?
JL: I first started photographing men when a friend asked me if I’d make some photos of him to give to his boyfriend.  We did some portraits, and “pseudo” fashion shots, and then he asked me if I would make some nudes of him.  Since he was a friend I had seen naked in the gym locker room many times, it kept the experience from being awkward.

B: What is your definition of beauty? Is it purely physical, in terms of looks, or does attitude, carriage and personality play a role?
JL: Definitely, it is a combination of looks and attitude-carriage-personality. Until fairly recently, it’s been only a handful of models that I’ve worked who’ve had both in equal measure. For much of my early work, my models were inexperienced and were very concerned about being recognized in their nude photos. Out of necessity, I did many torso shots, back shots, and shots with faces obscured. The challenge for me was to use posing, lighting and setting to convey a feeling or mood without being able to show faces, facial expressions.

B: Your models have incredible bodies. How important is the physique in your images?
JL: When I first started to photograph nude men, I was at the same time very dedicated to working out. Soon guys from the gym became a source for models. Some were friends or acquaintances, some I did not know beforehand. But it was a rather small gym, and many people knew that I made photographs, and some had seen my work. What they all had in common was that they were into bodybuilding, to a greater or lesser degree. So I became spoiled early on by having men with outstanding bodies to pose for me. I have to say, yes, the physique is important to me for nude male images. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a bodybuilder physique, but at least lean and defined. The pictures I make are not male glamour images, so I don’t require model “perfection.” But they are a celebration of the nude male physique in an abstract way.  I deliberately try to make photographs that are “hyper-real”, both by way of the models who are in them and by the way that they are shot and edited.
B: You've shot beautiful artistic nudes. What is your general feeling about nudity in photos?
JL: Thank you for your very generous comment about my work.  Nude photos are everywhere, and nude photos of men, which used to be more underground, are very much in the mainstream now. I’m no prude, so I make no judgment about pornographic nudes vs. artistic nudes. (My most recent photographs, which will be seen later in this issue of BLISS, will represent a kind of blurring of the line between the two.) But since the nude physique can be seen just about anywhere, for me the challenge is to create a subtext to the nudity. I guess that comes from my training in the theater. When you’re acting on stage, what’s important is not so much what you’re saying, but what you aren’t saying. And a lot of that has to be instinctual. The subtext cannot be “thought-to-death.” You come up with a basic concept, stay spontaneous while shooting, and trust that in the end that the photograph will be evocative. What I always find gratifying, and surprising, is when people tell me about some feeling or idea they got from one of my images, that I never in a million years would have thought of!

B: That is one of the interesting aspects about creating art. When I was heavily into songwriting, my mother once gave a full synopsis of a song called “Wicked” and all the hidden meaning behind it. Her breakdown was quite plausible, but the truth is that I just liked the title and worked my way from there. There weren’t any hidden messages.
 What are your views on erotic art?
JL: I think erotic art is the most basic and natural form of art there is. It celebrates sexuality, and what is more basic or natural than that?  It’s a question of whether art, or photography, is meant to document,   or to reveal. I think its purpose is to do both. But I prefer photographs that reveal. And revealing a person naked, and perhaps at the point of arousal, is about as basic as it comes. The trick, though, is to find and celebrate the beauty in that.
B: I really like that statement regarding documentation vs. revealation and think that is one of the best quotes I’ve heard in terms of defining erotic art.  In your opinion, what is the difference between erotic art and pornography?
JL: Let’s face it; pornography is for getting your rocks off.  It makes no pretense to do anything else. But erotic art usually stimulates the imagination first. That stimulation may or may not eventually transfer to the libido, but the first thing it does is touch the mind and the emotions.

B: Do you view porn as a good thing, a bad thing or are you indifferent?
JL: I think porn is fine. It serves a purpose. And as I said earlier, I think that so-called “porn” (such as very graphic displays of erogenous zones, ejaculation, etc.) can be art. It’s all in how the shot is conceived, the “subtext”, and the way the photo is eventually presented.
B: I totally agree with that and find some of the most explicit photographs have a undeniable artistic edge. The challenge is to bring other people around to that way of thinking, rather than marginalizing erotic imagery into a single category.
Speaking of challenges, what was the biggest challenge you've had, in terms of a shoot?
JL: I guess the biggest challenge I’ve had so far is a shoot I did that was inspired by “film noir” detective movies of the 50s. I created a plot of sorts, and shot it like a story-board, scene by scene. I was lucky that I had an experienced, good-natured model to work with, who made the shoot go a lot smoother and quicker than it might have. Now that it’s shot, the next big challenge is editing all of the photos. It’s still a work in progress.
B: What was your most memorable photo shoot?
JL: That’s hard to say. They’re all memorable for one reason or another.  I have worked with some models many times, and I guess it’s the culmination of all the shoots that are memorable.  Something from this one, something from that one, etc.

B: Do you have any favorites amongst your models? If so, who? Why?
JL: I do have favorites.  But almost all of my models so far have been nonprofessional or semiprofessional, so their names would not be recognizable. Also, some have concerns about being known to have posed nude, so I wouldn’t want to give their names for that reason. I can say, however, that my favorite models have always been good-natured, it’s just that simple.
B: Where does the inspiration for you images come from?
JL: I get inspiration from all different sources. It may come from a setting or location, from the look of the model, or from a feeling or concept that I want to convey.
B: How do you set up a shoot?
JL: I brainstorm about concepts, and then choose where I want to shoot, whether on location, or in a studio. Sometimes my shoots are elaborately set up before hand; and sometimes, I’ll shoot with little equipment or none at all, using existing light and perhaps a fill-flash.
B: You explained where you find most of your models, but how do you get them to pose for you?
JL: As I said before, early on many of my models were friends from the gym.  More recently I have been lucky to find good models on modeling sites, and on social networking sites. I am also bold enough simply to approach someone that I see on the street.  Sometimes he’s dubious, or just not interested, but often he’s flattered, will take a look at my work on-line, and will agree to do a shoot.
A good physique is always a requirement.

B: There are certain models whose only desirable attribute is their body, yet they refuse to reveal it in their photos. What is your viewpoint on models that refuse to incorporate nudity in the work? 
JL: Because I shoot nudes, if a model refuses to reveal his body in a photo, we simply don’t work together. If a model has hired me to shoot him clothed, then that’s that. But generally I shoot for myself with the goal of exhibiting and being published, and almost exclusively my subject is male nudes. However, if a model does not want to show his face, or if he’ll show his face and body, but doesn’t want to expose his penis, I am agreeable to that. I have to deal with that less and less, though, as I begin to work with models with more experience posing nude.
B: What other photographers do you admire and why? Can you describe their style?
JL: I guess I like very best the photos of the late Robert Mapplethorpe. When I first became interested in shooting male nudes, I used to pour over his images.  I love the way his photos go from ethereal to sexually explicit, but yet are always dedicated to the beautiful depiction of the body. He really was the groundbreaker for all photographers of the male nude. He brought the male nude image into the arena of legitimate art.

B: What advice would you give a new model just starting out?
JL: I would say, take advantage of every opportunity to get in front of a camera. Get experience and build a portfolio. And be open to different ideas. A “professional” picture doesn’t always have to be taken on seamless paper.
B: What advice would you give a new photographer?
JL: If the advice is for a photographer of nudes, I would say start with people you know, if possible.  It makes it much easier, and generally the trust level is high. A model doesn’t have to have a lot of experience for you to make a good photo, and you’re likely to feel inadequate if you go out and hire a professional model with tons of experience. Also, the model doesn’t have to be the most “beautiful.” As the beginning model must get in front of a camera, the beginning photographer has to get behind the camera as often as possible. And don’t fall into the trap that you can’t make a good photo unless you have the latest and most expensive equipment. I have talked with many would-be photographers who have spent a fortune on cameras and all the gadgets, and have no good photographs.
B: Is there any idea that you have wanted to try but have yet to incorporate into your portfolio?
JL: I have shot some, and want to do more photos, that are more intensely erotic.  My photographic career to date has been rather short, about 10 years, and most of my work so far has been rather tame. New work that I’ve recently created, and that I want to create in the future, I hope will evoke a more visceral reaction.

B: Do have a particular favorite of all the photos you've shot? If so, why?
JL: I have several favorites. But one I like in particular is called “Male Nude Reaching”.  It’s a picture of a nude man lying on his side, with one arm extended high, reaching into empty white space. Ironically, it never receives many comments, and doesn’t seem to be very popular with viewers of my work. To me, the picture has a very existential feeling. The focus is more on the man’s arm reaching, than on his body. Only about half of his buttocks are revealed. His face is turned away from the viewer, and the color tone of the skin is not lifelike. But hell, I like it, even if others shrug their shoulders.
B: How would you describe your own style?
JL: I hate to pin it down, because it’s still evolving. But I guess, so far it’s been influenced by classicism combined with expressionism, which is kind of a contradiction. But, in other word, my models generally have had classic physiques, but the pictures themselves tend to be expressionist, a bit hyper-real.
B: How do you keep your models motivated during a shoot?
JL: I try to be as prepared as possible, and I myself stay energetic and work hard. Many models have told me that when they were starting to flag a little, they were able to feed off of my energy and commitment. I also compliment the models while shooting.  There is always a reason to do so, even if the pose is awkward or when the model doesn’t understand my directions.  If nothing else, I tell them how beautiful their bodies are, because it’s true.  I remember to ask how they are feeling, if they need to rest, have something to drink, etc. And I will often ask the model if he has ideas he would like to try. Some like to be mannequins, but others have ideas that can be very interesting and make for a good photo. Most of my models have shot with me TFP, so I really go out of my way to be very considerate of them, and to keep the shoot fun.

B: Have you ever worked with a model who was exceptionally difficult, could not follow directions and made the shoot unpleasant? If so, how do you handle this type of situation?
JL: I was once hired to shoot a group of male strippers who performed at a local club.  I shot one after the other for about ten hours.  You’d never meet a bunch of guys more egotistical and homophobic. Most brought their girlfriends, for “protection.”  And the girlfriends kept telling them how to pose, where to look, when to smile, when not to, etc.  It was like I wasn’t there. With one particular model, the situation was exceptionally bad, and I put my foot down, and said I wouldn’t shoot him. I thought he might punch me, but instead his girlfriend backed off and the guy began to take my directions. After that, someone must have said something to the manager of the troupe, because the behavior got much better. And in the end, a couple of the guys modeled for me again, on their own time.  But at the time, I never wanted a shoot to be over as much in my life!
B: How do you direct a new model who is uncomfortable in front of the lens but has tremendous potential?
JL: I ask him if he has any ideas for a pose.  Many times he’ll want to try something.  If not, I’ll say, just move, do whatever you like, and that will loosen him up. If he’s uncomfortable being nude, I’ll distract him between shots by making conversation about his life, or by asking him his opinion about something, so that he forgets he’s naked.  That way it isn’t such a big deal when it’s time to shoot again; he doesn’t have to go through the discomfort of pulling off his shorts or taking off a robe every time after each brief pause between shots. Also, I don’t stare at the model’s cock! Music helps, and I always ask if the model wants it, although personally I don’t like music while I’m shooting. I find it distracting.

B: 5 fun facts about Joe?
JL: I’m really into crime dramas and reality mystery shows. I study French. As a teenager, I danced on stage with Diana Ross. I write music (which is like photography, in that it’s a blend of artistry and mathematics.) People say I make them laugh, although I never try to.
B: What is the one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?
JL: My first recognition as a photographer came not from a photograph of a male nude, but from a picture of a mother and her baby sitting on a log beside a lake. It was for the Department of Ecology, and I won second prize.

B: Any last words?
JL: This is advice more for me than for anyone else:
Be confident in your work, and whatever is making you lack confidence, fix it.
Learn to value and appreciate criticism. It helps you grow.
Strive for perfection, but know you’ll never completely reach it, and it may not even exist.  Uncontrolled perfectionism doesn’t make you perfect; it just stops you from completing anything.
©2010 - Sean Dibble

David Costa