Need to Know: Austin Young

1.3.2011

By Amos Mac

To see a slide show of Young's photographs, click here.

Austin Young has the gift of being able to make all of his subjects look like glowing angels with perfect pores, no matter how filthy they may be in real life. Gay icons, transsexuals, drag queens, general misfits, as well as some high-caliber celebs are all included in his photos and films. Before one trip to L.A., I contacted Young to see if he would want to photograph me. Being a shy (yet totally vain) photographer, I feel incredibly uncomfortable in front of the camera lens and don't tend to trust other photographers to make me look as adorable as I feel. But there is something about Austin's work that made me reach out to him to have him document me before I turned 30, to airbrush me forever young. After my photo shoot we kept in touch and when I returned to L.A. he allowed me to turn the camera on him and talk to him about the root of his art, homemade porn, and turning the camera on himself.

Out: Let's start here: Why do you photograph the people you photograph?
Austin Young: When I was a kid I used to listen to records for hours. I loved pop culture -- it was my savior from a dull life. Or Satan tempting me to worship the golden calf.'Glossy shrink-wrapped magazines, Interview magazine -- I wanted to be a part of creating it!'When I photographed my idols it'was like making my dreams come true.'I had an early love affair with drag queens and transgender people.'I loved Divine and was fascinated by gender-bending in films like Liquid Sky.'I'm gay from a [then] small, repressed community in Reno and figured my salvation was New Wave and moving to a big city.'Divine and Leigh Bowery had reinvented themselves into glamorous freaks. I appreciate the idea of reinvention. ''

How "gay" are your photographs?
I have gay eyes but my'work is more iconic and meditative -- not masturbatory.

Are you saying for art to be "gay" it needs to be sexualized or masturbatory? I guess I'm asking because you shoot so many gay icons.
Maybe I associate "gay" with photographers like Herb Ritts, who idealized the nude male, or BUTT magazine's more realistic style of gay erotica. I think camp is the other side of that "gay"'coin. I don't think I fit in either place, but maybe more on the side of camp? The Worm series is somewhere between camp and surrealism. I've done six videos with Jackie Beat and they could be seen as pretty fucking gay! To me they are a homage to the relationship between Divine and John Waters. My work has played a lot at gay film festivals.'I'm not producing work'for a gay community. I'm not responsible to any community. I'm an artist. '

Do your models choose you more often than you choose them?
Some of my favorite models have found me over the Internet. You e-mailed me. If someone e-mails me and I think they go along with my current work I'll set up a shoot.'I don't use modeling agencies. I like real people -- even in my glossy beauty photos. There is something about'using real people that makes an image more exciting. I guess models are real people. I just don't like agents.

Has a photo shoot ever turned sexual?
I like to keep it professional.'My work is more about making someone feel really comfortable. I want to capture a portrait that is completely in the moment and that feels true. People have tried to seduce me, but I'm like, "No." On the other hand, I usually have a boyfriend.'I've recently started doing a lot of nudes. I like the sexual tension of doing a nude portrait.'There have been people I've photographed who I'd like to have sex with, but I would feel predatory if someone thought I'd invited'them over to take advantage of them -- even if it were partially true. Chris Crocker really tried when he came over to my studio. He'was very aggressive and says he's a top. I'said no, but maybe I should have -- that would be a good story!

What is your favorite type of subject to shoot?
I love D-list celebrities, drag queens, and I'm obsessed with transmen.'They are just so hot. They are like unicorns! Or Reese's Peanut Butter Cups'[laughs].

What kind of photos were on your wall as a kid? Mine were covered with teen magazine centerfolds.
Austin: Mine too! Boy George, the Culture Club, Marilyn Monroe, Soft Cell, Siouxsie Sioux, the Cure.

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