For his second solo exhibition, Benjamin Fredrickson looked back. From his process of creating imagery to his inspirations, he looked backwards, to a legion of gay image makers that came before him. "Photographs," which is now on view at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York City, "walk[s] the line between raunch and exquisite beauty," according to a release. In it, Fredrickson "expresses desire with finely tuned explicit imagery and he explores vanity, fetish, exhibitionism, and photographing as an erotic act." It comes at a busy time for the photographer who also has work in the Corcoran School of Arts & Design's "From the Margins" exhibition which closes November 15.
Here, we talk to Fredrickson about "Photographs," how it contends with his previous work, and how Instagram, in ways, shaped it.
My work is really an exploration of myself and documenting my life experiences and my interactions with people that I come in contact with in the queer community. I began photographing in Minneapolis, where I'm from, many years ago, and I documented, at that time, friends and people that I hooked up with. As it evolved, the work has changed quite a bit in the approach. Before I was meeting people to photograph on apps, like Manhunt and all of those apps early on. As things evolved and my process changed to this more recent project, I've sourced models and subjects from Instagram and the sexual encounters don't occur in the way that they did with previous work.
As a result, I kind of really explored my interactions with my subjects. My process also went from, in Minneapolis shooting on Polaroid, these instant one of a kind pieces, to now working with the large format 8x10 camera, and working with paper negatives. So I'm exposing photographic paper as the negative and then contact printing back to get the final print. It's an old process that's referencing the early photographic processes developed by Henry Fox Talbot.
I'm fascinated by people in general and making portraits, and, for me, there's this level of trust that can be created between the artist and subject. I think being comfortable with another person and trusting that vision, that's really important for me in the processes — a person being comfortable working with me. With the nudity, it's still important to me because I feel like I'm working towards a celebration of the male form. For someone to be open to the care that I take when photographing them, that means a lot. That trust is so important. I'm attracted to so many different types of people and I think when you're attracted to someone that you're photographing, you take that care and it shows. That's a goal of mine, to do that with everyone that I photograph.
When you grow up somewhere there's a comfortability and then when you come to a new place you're seeing things for the first time and there's that discovery, you know? I think that's pretty incredible here. I feel like in New York, since I came here in 2010, my work's evolved in so many ways, and myself. I think a big part for this recent project for me is I'm coming up on five years of sobriety and I think the way that I interact with people and how I see people and how I create work has really influenced my photographic process. It's been really incredible to see the work grow even more and to be able to make a portraiture and work that's new to me.
I think choosing a challenging process has also been really great for me because I'm learning from my mistakes. I used to be such a perfectionist and want to not have those mistakes happen but honestly as an artist and as a creative, that's how we learn and grow, to just embrace it. The project's been really fun to work with and it's gotten me back in the dark room making work that way, and just a whole new level of creation that I really love.
I think before, I put my work first in front of everything — in front of my interpersonal relationships, and in front of everything. Now, I'm making space for not only being an artist but also for self care and to build relationships with people. Having a balance, having a healthy balance of everything. Not putting in all the energy into one thing and neglecting the rest. I guess that's the biggest thing. So it's been interesting in that way.
I think we live in a really interesting time. When I tested positive in 2006, it was so different than it is today. The stigmas attached to it were so much greater. There still are stigmas that need to be broken down but I think, personally, with PrEP being introduced, people are less scared, and are more aware of what undetectable means. It's really important to my work as an artist and as a person. But I think it's interesting in the interactions that I have today and seeing people's reactions to what it means to be HIV positive today, it's different than 10 years ago.
I think it's just interesting just in the interactions. Just in New York city alone with all the sex parties that happen now, there's obviously a comfortability that people have with being more open sexually and there's like a broader sex-positive outlook on things. It's an exciting time to be living in. But with that being said, there's still a lot of work to be done and the conversation still needs to be had about HIV and AIDS because it's not over. It's still present
That's the funny thing: I feel like my work is erotic and explicitly erotic, but it's not pornographic. I had the earlier work that was more explicit sexually but now, the work is less explicit in that way, but it's still highly erotic. People are more open sexually but at the same time there's a restraint in my work and I think exploring that has been really great for me in developing my work and understanding the intimacy that people share. Before, for me, sex and intimacy meant the same thing, but today I have a better understanding of my creative process. Spending three hours photographing a person, that's like an intimate experience for me. Without sex. It's like just exploring a person's body with my camera and spending that time showing them. That's more intimate than just a hookup. And documenting it. It's cool to have that uploaded and shared.
It's definitely a game changer. It's really exciting to me. There are so many personalities now and people that are sort of muses. I feel like we have so much more access to people that want to be in front of the camera. We live in a time where everyone's branding themselves in one way or another and there's lots of Instagram models and muses, people that collect different artists and photographers. They'll reach out to specific people to work with to build their portfolio and vice versa. It's really, really interesting and I find it really incredible actually. It's been really fun to be able to work with different people and find people that way and work together and collaborate in a way to create this image.
I reach out to people that I find interesting but have a look that I find interesting. I also photograph friends that I've known for years, like in this recent exhibition, Billy Vega. I first photographed him for Butt Magazine back in 2012. It was really cool to reconnect and rephotograph Billy again in a new way, in a new format, in a new place.
It's interesting: part of my process is sketching. It's not a specific person, I’ll just sketch a figure study that I want to see to put down the idea. Then if I see somebody online, I’ll show it to them and see if they like it. But, at the same time, a lot of the Instagram models are collecting artists and photographers. So I try to seperate it: I’ll shoot something for me and then I’ll shoot something on my phone for their Instagram, but I keep that clear definition of what it is.
Well I think like I mentioned before, it was sparked by looking at early, early salted paper photographs by Henry Fox Talbot. Also, with it being a slowed-down process and having these long exposures and people to hold these poses, just kind of looking at these classic physique poses. I've always been inspired since a teenager first seeing physique pictorial magazines from like Bob Miser, but also Dave Martin — a big studio physique photographer in the fifties in San Francisco who I admire. Looking at those tropes in that physique photography, I love the look of an oiled body and knowing the results of shooting on this specific type of film, how the skin will look. Those aesthetic things are all considered really carefully and that's really important to me. I think George Flatline, his work is beautiful with the balance of lighting, composition, the use of props, and, of course, the figure studies and the people that he chose to photograph. I love that aesthetic.
I have a broad interest in the history of photography that I think sometimes subconsciously things come up, things that I've seen through the years and don't even realize that they're still acting. Sometimes it's pointed out to me like, this is similar or this invokes this reference to another style. I think that's a big compliment because I don't study other photographers' work religiously. I went to art school and saw things and I think when you see those things for the first time, it's so exciting that it must just be recorded in your brain and just come up in random ways. But that's what I love about it.