How does one photograph faith? Faith represented in human physical form and substance? Looking Past the Penis proved to be my answer to that question.
In July of 2009 I had reached my lowest creative point. My photography was going nowhere. I felt the images I was creating were cliché and complete shit. I decided to sell my photographic equipment. I was done. It was time I faced reality. I was not meant to be a creative being. Stick with the paycheck. Put in my 30 years. Retire. Done. Creatively, everything had stalled. I had lost the desire to express myself to society.
Then, in 2005, after seeing a performance of The Vagina Monologues, I felt compelled to respond, to answer this monologue with my own. I needed to do something similar, but different: something from the male point of view. I had this nascent idea of photographing men’s genitalia and telling their stories: an answer to the feminine essence as expressed through the very biology that defines the feminine by expressing what it is to be male, fully male, with the biology that defines us as men as the focal point.
In July 2009, I was working in a friend’s gallery in Paducah, Kentucky while he was on vacation. I had done my Orgasm Face series and shot slides of it in the gallery after hours. No one seemed to “get it.” I was angry. I loved and hated art and life at the same time. By August, I had returned home and started back at my “real job.” October came and I decided it was time to make some decisions. Do I let my creative life and become another working-class drone, or keep chasing the artistic chimera?
The answer came shortly after my return. I had purchased a new camera and had crossed paths with an ex-boyfriend’s old roommate. I told him I was looking to create a body of work that consisted of photographing men’s genitalia. He was an easy sell and Looking Past the Penis took its first step.
This re-ignited the spark inside me that would help define my creative path and keep my artistic fires burning. Great, I thought. Now how do I find the rest of the men to participate? The goal was 40 men. One done, 39 to go. Why 40? The number 40 is Biblical. There are roughly 13 different references to the use of 40 days in the Bible. 40 days seemed to be God’s testing period and after all, I felt as if God placed this task in my heart. I was on a mission. Looking Past the Penis became my trial.
By the end of July 2010 I had photographed 24 different men. It wasn’t 40, but I couldn’t take it anymore. By the time I walked out my last model’s door I knew that part of Looking Past the Penis was complete. I had literally lost every desire to photograph another set of cock and balls. God had kept this crazy notion in my heart. He brought me the men and even let me know when we had enough. I would end up using the images from the 24 men to compile the 40 images that are now my most recent and important body of work: Looking Past the Penis.
Now back to the original question. How do you photograph faith? Looking Past the Penis is a complete immersion in faith. It started with listening to the nearly still, insistent but small, voice in my heart to take the chance on creating this body of work. It took not selling my photo equipment and then listening to God when he provided me all the seemingly unconnected clues, financial and other resources, and signs I had been following. I would pray in the car on my way to each shoot. I prayed for the light, for safety, for the eye and skill to capture the images God wanted me to have.
As an artist, it is my belief that I am God’s conduit. Everything I create is because of him and for him. Many people have a difficult time believing that I created these images with the belief that God wanted me to. Every day I ask God to direct my steps, to speak to my heart and to give me the courage to live the life he has planned for me.
The quote below by Patti Smith, taken from her book, Just Kids says it all:
“In the end, truth will be found in his work, the corporeal body of the artist. It will not fall away. Man cannot judge it. For art sings of God, and ultimately belongs to him.”
Looking Past the Penis: A Personal Reflection. It is my hope, that when the viewer spends time with these images, they are indeed able to “look past the penis.” It is my hope that the viewer will see them for more than just images of men’s genitalia and see them as a self-portrait of me as an artist. I can look at these images and see so much of myself in them.
I see my love for light, form, and composition as exampled in the beauty of the spark of creation and love expressed in the physical form of man that has captured artists since time immemorial. God’s light; God’s form expressed in man. I see my love for creating something beautiful out of subject matter that is typically seen as “dirty.” I see my love for all types of men and my absolute desire for the male form. I see my fetishes playing out. I see God directing me even deeper into personal acceptance for who I am as a gay man, a human being and most importantly: his creation.
Written for EA Conner by Clinton S. Burhans III