Kings in Their Castles
Foreword by Charles Kaiser
What gay men do best is to create beauty. We know that from the melodies of Leonard Bernstein’s songs, the shape of Michael Cunningham’s sentences, the movements of Jerome Robbins’ ballets, the cadences of John Ashbery’s poetry, and the courage of Paul Cadmus’ paintings.
The eagerness of our embrace of the beautiful is one of the splendid things that sets us apart. To be gay is to be different; the enlightened among us recognize from an early age that this is an advantage, rather than a jinx.
Tom Atwood’s odyssey toward artistry (and difference) started when he was five years old, when he began visiting his relatives in Manhattan. It was love at first sight. Atwood’s infatuation with the greatest of all gay metropolises has only deepened with age. When he moved here in his twenties, he “instantly felt at home. It’s a part of me, and it always will be.”
This superb collection of photographs is the fruit of that life-long love affair, a vivid exploration of the gay heart of New York. One of the things that makes Atwood’s approach to his subject so unusual is his conviction that gay men are actually more interesting with their clothes on, ensconced in their own carefully constructed spaces. His journey toward photography developed out of a confluence of other interests, including painting, architecture, musical theater and psychology. The result is the most-rounded photographic record we have ever had of the gay urban experience.
This book should find a special place on the list of all the inventions that have long drawn gay men from the heartland into New York – everything from the rhythms of West Side Story to the short stories of the New Yorker, the epiphanies of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the plots of Edmund White. These pictures encapsulate all the possibilities of Manhattan living. They suggest, correctly, that gay men with ambition are more likely than the average New Yorker to have apartments with high ceilings, curving balconies and spectacular views. Their restless search for beauty has been incorporated into their daily lives. Implicit here are all the gifts that big city living can bestow, including privacy, eccentric company, and, most importantly, the freedom to create.
Atwood’s open personality and his almost courtly approach to his subjects invariably sets them at ease; then he puts them to work. That can be especially difficult when he encounters someone like Pascal Arnaud on September 11th, gazing at the incinerated towers of the World Trade Center, but even that catastrophe is easily incorporated into the artist’s vision of the invincible city.
He is a full-service impresario, offering his subjects make-up and styling – and doing all of it himself. Atwood sometimes assembles his shots: he believes he has just as much right to arrange his subjects as a painter or a sculptor. The point of his work is not to imitate life, but to clarify it, by making it more vivid. With very little distance between his own life and his photography, his ideas bubble up from the subconscious, offering him directions but no conclusions.
His pictures are a balance of formal grace and spontaneity. Look at the gaze of Michael Cunningham’s psychiatrist boyfriend, suggesting an Indian scout still deciphering the personality of his longtime companion, or Chris Beane reveling in a little role-reversal, striking a pose for a fellow photographer. Tim Bellavia offers an improbably seductive embrace of a Singer sewing machine, while Hush McDowell playfully mimics the posture of his dog.
Atwood crops his shots as little as possible. He likes strong lighting that produces a heightened, Technicolor effect, striking but never cold. Each picture includes as much of the subject’s environment as possible, yet nothing feels crowded or forced. Floors and ceilings (especially the decorated ones) sometimes reveal as much about his subjects as their expressions. Manhattan’s azure sky peaks in over many of his subjects, making the city a character in these photographs, and bathing its citizens in its most cheerful light.
While some of these apartments have a spare elegance, most are crammed with objects, like Chuck Hettinger’s porcelain poodles (to keep the real one company), Simon Doonan’s busts, John Waters’ snapshots, Mark Vitulano’s crosses, or Tom O’Horgan’s musical instruments. Jonathan Katz gazes at reams of gay history, all distilled on thousands of index cards, while Hedda Lettuce holds court beneath a multitude of wigs. In front of someone else’s lens, objects like Austin Chin’s pink flamingoes might have suggested clichés, but this photographer’s approach makes the final work feel more complex than its parts.
Like many of the artists in this volume, Atwood strives for something polished, graceful and beautiful, always looking for patterns within the chaos of Manhattan. Combining elements of reality and fantasy, he “bears witness to splendor” whenever he can.
Edmund White and his apple are perfectly balanced by book cases crammed with manuscripts, with coarse white light streaming in behind him from a Chelsea street. Tommy Tune presides over the Manhattan skyline, a sprawling dandy in white. Artists, architects, art dealers, archivists, dance essayists, bankers and writers; White House staffers, store owners, window dressers, movie directors, personal trainers and interior decorators; documentarians, painters, pianists, professors – Atwood has found a way to celebrate them all.
For gay kids everywhere, still longing to learn how to transform their difference into a blessing, the answers are all in these pages.