By Allen Frame
I first became aware of photographer Benjamin Fredrickson through the artist Juan Betancurth, who proposed to Benjamin that he travel to Colombia with sculptures Juan had made, and spend a week in a small village photographing Juan’s mother wearing these sculptures— household objects transformed into slightly sinister fetish-type adornments. Juan, youngest in a family of 8 children, said, “My mother was brilliant at devising punishments for us.” Thus, in some way, she was the creative inspiration behind these wearable sculptures, and it made sense to go to the source for a model. Benjamin was game, lugging his large format camera and not even speaking the language, and Juan’s mother didn’t speak English, yet they got along well and the project was a success.
After hearing this story, I was interested to meet the photographer who was so open to a proposition. Juan put us in touch and I visited Benjamin at home on a quiet afternoon in his 3rd story apt near Pratt. We sat at his big kitchen table, and he pulled out his extensive polaroid collection to show me, an archive going back to 2005 in Minneapolis and including more recent, diaristic erotic work in San Francisco and New York.
In this cavalcade of nude male portraits and fetish figure studies made in a spirit of openness and community, there is an endearing nostalgia for erotic antecedents—for the bygone format of Polaroid itself and for the folkloric, vernacular-style nudes of men at home, in their beds, on their couches, against a living room wall, that gay men everywhere made and collected in pre-Stonewall collusion. Benjamin’s nudes evoke the trophy collections of men who privately catalogued their conquests and escapades at a time when these liaisons were illegal and scandalous.
Now of course, in a post-Mapplethorpe era, when Tom of Finland is practically a household name, and another generation has reinvented Adonis as an androgynous hipster/nerd, Benjamin’s depiction of a pro-sex queer community is notable for its inclusiveness. Instead of the pumped up physique protagonists of yore, his men come in an array of types and ages: bears, twinks, S/M, fetish, and businessmen, the whole nine yards.
Ryan McGinley sent his models romping through fields and climbing up trees to say that the HIV straightjacket on sexuality was over and libidinous frolic was back in style. Roberto DeLuna, Paul Sepuya, and Jessica Yatrofsky created new versions of the classic studio portrait, but in context, featuring sultry, beautiful waifs in low-budget Brooklyn apartments. Benjamin Fredrickson has contributed to this resurgence in queer photography with a democratic survey of his own, eclectic scene.
And he includes himself in it: another skinny, nerdy, implicated, incriminated, sly player popping up among his subjects, interacting with them or posing alone, sometimes nonchalant and often stylized just enough to nod towards his surrealist influences and the product glamour of Paul Outerbridge’s work of the 1930’s. He combines an awareness of photo history with the unself-conscious spontaneity of the home snapshot.
Size matters? Apparently not to Benjamin. One surprise in the work is its small scale: polaroid-size, even though he uses a cumbersome large format camera to make the images. With that camera, film is expensive and decisions are careful. And in this satisfying balance of a tribal content and a slow, deliberate capture, he achieves an original position, constructing a hybrid of genres within a framework of community and identity.