Gay semiotics

I found an article that partially answered my question in the last post about photos obviously speaking about  gay experience but less so in regard of how a photographer can evoke gay connotations without reference to the body?

I typed in Gay semiotics into Google and an article by Hal Fischer in 1977 came up here. These are my summary notes of that article:

Gay culture visibility has exposed its own stereotypes and sign language (semiotic) and the author explore two aspects of gay culture 1) the male fantasy; archetypal gay images that appear in gay media; 2) the invention of a semiotic mode within the gay community. (My emphasis)

Archetypal Images – gay culture has evolved a set of sexual prototypes, a ‘gay look’. Five archetypal images can be identified: classical, natural, western, urbane, and leather.

  • Classical: the male subject is usually presented in a highly dramatic or socially recognized artistic pose, roughly comparable to the classical. Classical culture is a mainstay myth in gay consciousness where both narcissism and homosexuality were accepted.
  • Natural: the model is photographed outdoors (where it’s a man’s world with no rules) doing things with other men.

The classical and natural archetypes operate primarily on a subliminal level, with little application to contemporary dress or appearance. The three remaining prototypes co-exist equally on a mythic level in gay magazines and on a real level in gay culture.

  • Western: The western or cowboy archetype can be seen as derivative of the natural myth.
  • Urbane: Magazines are now appearing which include male centrefolds and essays. This look emphasizes the gay male who is open and positive about his image and capable of functioning within the culture at large. It represents a new level of consciousness, a positive attitude towards gay culture by elements both within and outside the culture.
  • Leather: based on non acceptance or rebellion.

Gay Signifiers: handkerchiefs, keys and earrings.

This article made me think much more about subcultural fashion and youth than disability. The signifiers reminded me of the rules and codes of dress in south London in the 1960s and ‘70s where the fashion crossed between Mod and skinhead codes. Thus there were smooth skinheads who wore Royals, Prince of Wales Check, Dog tooth or tonic and Ben Sherman shirts, sporty skins who wore trainers, Levis and Fred Perry’s, heavy skins who wore boots, levis and Fred Perry’s and a whole raft of varieties that are beyond the point I am making here. (There were also lots of people who wore all of those forms of dress depending on circumstance).

Gay semiotics appear very different in comparison to disabled people. In the former the individual in that community decides to present him or herself using key signifiers and so takes on a particular identity whereas disabled people often can’t make such a choice. For example, I have little choice over my body image and so my level of control over presentation is much reduced in comparison.

Thus far I have come to conclude that queer photography consists of two types of imagery: the first is to do with signifiers, self identification and expression (aka display) and so is mainly focussed on portraiture and the second is to do with appropriation and much more closely linked to documentary photography where the image is only seen as relating to sexuality by the context it is shown in.

I am still yet to find any imagery that has been labelled queer without it referencing the body though.


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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