Gay in America portraits by Scott Pasfield, Welcome Books, 224 pages, hardcover, $45.
Fifty states, three years, 52,000 miles, 140 gay menand some camera equipment. That's what it took New York-based photographer Scott Pasfield to complete his epic Gay in America book, with both images and text representing a wide range of men across the country, from Alaska to New York, Hawaii to Florida.
The book includes an introduction by playwright Terrence McNally and his husband, activist Tom Kirdahy. The cover image is quite timely: Gay military activist Dan Choi. Having a uniformed subject on the cover would not have been likely had the book come out soonerthe book's release is perfectly timed to coincide with the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the entire military gay ban.
However, Pasfield's goal was to show the gay "everyman," and in that he does succeed quite admirably. This is not some celebrity photo book, despite Choi's face on the cover. In fact, Pasfield does not even use the last names of the rest of his subjects. I found this disturbing in a book that is about being out in America, but Pasfield emailed a statement about why he chose this path.
"At first I had considered using full names to identify the men in the book, as they were all out, and it seemed the obvious choice," Pasfield said. "But after a few of the men expressed concern over their safety, it caused me to reconsider. I also realized that by using first names only, their stories were that much more relatable. As Stephen Foster put in [ an ] Outsmart cover story, 'The men are presented with deceptive simplicity, identified by first names only, and their city and state of residence. This seemingly rudimentary cataloging of subjects takes on a startling profundity: they are every man. And they are everywhere.' That sums it up pretty well."
I would have preferred last names ( and if these guys do have fear, well, anyone could scan their photo and share it on the Internet and in their home towns ) . I think without the last names it calls to mind vestiges of our closeted pastand surely there were enough fully out men in each of the 50 states who would have been more than happy to pose.
I also found the text accompanying the subjects, written in the first person, often lacking in the kind of basic details and interesting stories that would help readers relate to the men. It would have been much better if the men had been interviewed by a professional writer, so that for each we had some of the same info ( age, job, etc. ) and then the most interesting stories they had to tellsomeone writing about themselves does not always know how to do this.
Since the words were limited and lacking some context, I focused mainly on the photosbecause this is a gorgeous book full of photos of gay men of almost every type and category ( though no transgender men are included ) . We have bears and leathermen, young and older, Latino, African American, Asian and white, big and small, coupled, tripled and single, fathers and pet lovers. You name it, Pasfield has probably found it. The photos are beautifully staged, and they are penetrating portraits of a multi-generational movement. The photos tell far more than the words.
"I wanted to create a book that would change opinions and educate; to produce a profound collection of ordinary, proud, out gay men who defy clichés and stereotypes," Pasfield said. "I was surprised to find these tough, rugged men, who had never been into a gay bar in their lives, or were just living happily, in a monogamous relationship and doing their thing."
The book reveals the struggles of some men who face ostracism at home, but who choose to stay and face it rather than abandon their roots. Others have moved as far away from "home" as possible to create a new life. These are our gay pioneers, and some are still on the frontlines of our movement, risking their lives to simply live as gay men.
To get his subjects, Pasfield placed ads and took small trips, no more than two weeks at a time. The journey helped Pasfield shake off the final strands of his own lack of self-acceptance. The one person from Illinois included is "Kevin," from Chicago, who says he is "an entire season of Oprah on my own." He had a difficult upbringing and is searching for Mr. Right.
Pasfield's specialty is portraits, and that is clearly reflected in this book. This is an amazing project, and worth your investment, even given the minor issues I have with the text itself. Place it on the coffee table to make sure your gay and straight family and friends all have a peek into the "normalcy" of what it means to be a gay man in America in 2011.
Pasfield will be in Chicago for a booksigning 7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 11, which is National Coming Out Day, at Barnes & Noble, 1441 W. Webster in Chicago.
Video trailer: youtu.be/5S1emYtI8_E