“You know when you’re giving a presentation and people tell you to imagine everyone naked,” Matthew Morrocco asks. “It was like that where once I saw people naked of a certain age and generation that I had built up in my head, I was no longer afraid of anyone.”
The artist is driving through the humid streets of Miami as we talk on the phone about his first photo book, Complicit, published by MATTE editions. Within the glossy pages, a medley of queer elders pose and look into Morrocco’s lens or, sometimes, lay with Morrocco himself in a series of generation-spanning self-portraits. The book is a chronical of five years spent photographing himself with older, gay men in New York City from 2010 to 2015.
In that time, as he rocketed through his early 20s, Morrocco’s photography project served as an education on the gay history that a younger generation of kids has seemingly put behind them — HIV and AIDS has moved from a plague to a placemark in history.
But back in 2010, as Morrocco turned his lens towards elder gay men, his focus wasn’t to catalog the elders who survived. It began instead with a photo project taking portraits of his grandparents. As he studied at the photography department of New York University’s Tisch School Of The Arts, he noticed a lack of photographic representation for the elder generation. “I was noticing that there were lots of photographs of younger gay boys and none of older men. I thought photographing older people was interesting.”
In the three years since he set down his camera and walked away from the project, the lessons he learned from the men he met stuck with him and, this year, he revisited the project and published the series as his first photography book, Complicit.
We caught up with Matthew Morrocco as he was reflecting on the photo book to talk about the intergenerational relationships that helped him create his book, sugar daddies, and why "queer history isn’t just for queer people."
Self Portrait with Kevin and Bill, 2014.
OUT: Walk me through the beginning of Complicit. How did it start?
Mathew Morrocco: It started when I was an undergraduate. I was working with Deborah Willis and Erika deVries at Tisch [School Of The Arts at New York University]. I was noticing that there were lots of photographs of younger gay boys and none of older men. I had photographed my grandparents the semester before for a project and I thought photographing older people was interesting.
Before the project, had you been with older guys before?
This was my introduction to it.
How did it change your perception of the sexuality of older men?
I’m not sure it changed a lot of my perspective. What it did change my perspective on was the vulnerability of older people. I always had a general respect, or rather fear, of adults. When I was put in these really intimate situations with older men, they very much made themselves vulnerable to me in a way that I hadn’t experienced. You know when you’re giving a presentation and people tell you to imagine everyone naked? It was like that where once I saw people naked of a certain age and generation that I had built up in my head, I was no longer afraid of anyone really.
Portrait of Dennis, 2013.
Yeah, and it’s so vulnerable to be naked in front of anyone just generally. You finished the project three years ago. What other lessons have stuck with you since then?
I feel like the majority of men just need emotional training in general. Most people I dealt with were great and wonderful to work with and most of those people made it into the book, but there were some people who were just impossible. Even from my own perspective, I for sure witnessed and recognized some bad behavior. Expectations that things were going to happen that didn’t on both sides.
Did you meet everyone through Grindr or did you use different apps?
I met people casually wherever I was out. There’s a bar called Townhouse that I used to go to with a friend that I had met and was photographing in Manhattan.
It’s so difficult to go up to people and talk to them directly nowadays because of these apps.
I always just went for it so I never had that issue. (Laughs)
I do think that’s true, though. Apps didn’t really exist when I first came out when I was 17. I do remember at that time I was much more afraid that if I hit on someone they might not be gay. That’s terrifying.
The Village People, 2012.
Also, with the older generation, they don’t use those apps as much. Then even if they do, so many younger guys will get so turned off or be rude to older men.
A few of them I knew were dating younger men and having an okay time, but some of them had the experience of being baited. The younger guy was clearly looking for a sugar daddy and they didn’t get that. It was awful to witness them being disappointed.
I wanted to talk about sugar daddies, actually. So many younger guys I know only talk about getting with older guys if they’ll be their sugar daddy.
Yeah and not all older men have money. Just because you’re older doesn’t mean you have money. To be truthful, I think sugar daddies are much more of a mythic thing than an actual thing. There are so many people who talk about it and think about it but really what they’re looking for is a specific kind of connection with an adult that they maybe feel excluded from. I find its more of a general emotional need than a financial need that does get fulfilled.
I think they just need more of an older mentor.
That’s kind of why I wanted to do this whole project. There are so few depictions of adult gay men and because marriage is such a rite of passage to adulthood, without that and without these pictures of older gay people, it’s almost as if being an adult as a gay person is inaccessible. I think for a lot of younger gay people angling towards adulthood, it’s important to have those depictions and representations all around.
There’s also a huge generational gap between older and younger gay people.
Yeah because there were a lot of deaths.
Rod on the Yellow Couch, 2015.
I wanted to talk about that. Tucker Shaw had a Twitter thread about the AIDS epidemic go viral a few months ago and talked about that generational gap in the gay community. Based on what you’ve done on this project, what do you think young people can do to connect more with our history?
Don’t shy away from it. It’s hard for a lot of people because when you’re gay in a family setting, generally you’re the only one. I would also say that besides not shying away from it, you should share this history with your families. The onus, if you’re younger, has to be on your parents to look at that history and learn it as well. For us, we need to share it. I remember talking to a friend who said her sister had just come out and she didn’t know what to do. I remember saying that one of the best things you can do besides being present and available is to be really interested in queer history. As the straight sister, you have to go to the movies and read the books and go to the parades.
Queer history isn’t just for queer people — it’s for everyone. We all have to take that responsibility. Queerness is less about sexuality and more about a general identity that opens people up to new possibilities. That could mean a whole number of things to a whole number of different people.
Complicit is available now for purchase.
Self Portrait with Hooper, 2014.
Portrait of David, 2013.
Kissing Rolf, 2013.