Category Archives: Growing Up

issues surrounding issues growing up and coming of age

Gilbert M: A Lust For Life

Today I wanted to write about a man to which I owe much of my creative life. His name was Gilbert Millikan, probably one of the greatest champions for arts in the state of Montana. Gilbert passed away in 2003 from brain tumor and I cannot let this year’s project pass without paying a tribute to him.

Gilbert was born, raised and spent the greatest portion of his life in Missoula. His father was a smart businessman who invested in properties and owned the original Bitterroot Market, which is now where the Bitterroot Flower Shop is located. Gilbert’s mother was involved in many social organizations throughout the valley so Gilbert inherited the best of both those worlds. He is probably the kindest, most generous man I have ever known. He was somewhat of a philanthropist toward the creative process, the creation of art, and artists of all sorts. There were two sides to Gilbert, one his outgoing social butterfly, and the very reclusive man who often chose to remain hidden. He lived in an old Victorian Mansion, with his two little yappy dogs Sunny and Happy. He was passionate about gardening and developed the grounds of his Victorian Estate into the most extraordinary gardens. This is how I sort of got to know Gilbert. I was a student in college and rented an old carriage house on the property that had been converted into a self-contained guesthouse. I would occasionally help him with the upkeep and planting of those gardens. Movies were another passion we both shared and every Saturday afternoon we would go off to see whatever was new. His passion for movies so astonishing that he bought a video rental business that he grew to become one of the biggest and best in town outlasting any franchise that would dare enter our small community.

Probably the deepest level Gilbert and I bonded was that we were both gay. Though he was much older then I was, he was fascinated by how open I was and how the culture around us was becoming more open and the world seemingly more tolerant. The reclusive side of Gilbert’s stemmed from a certain amount of shame he felt from being gay and the difficulty he was having with his own acceptance of his sexuality. He had a long time partner, but they had become estranged and lived in separate houses in the same block. Anyone who would meet Gilbert would instantly recognize he was gay, as much as he tired to conceal it. I worked off and on for Gilbert for many years whenever I was in town, eventually becoming his personal assistant until his untimely death. I nursed him through his final months as he struggled with the tumor taking command of his life. Upon his passing, he endowed everything he had owned, properties, massive art collections, and estate to four arts charities in the state of Montana, which were considerably under funded at the time.

All those years with Gilbert I learned to face a lot of my own fears and anxieties. Gilbert had instilled in me a passion for what was beautiful and that all creation comes from the soul weather you are photographing, gardening, or cooking. He was a man of amazing means that lead a humble life. Everything was done and approached with as much enthusiasm one could muster with no expectation of an end result. Though he was not an artist himself, he was fearless in his approach for cultivating other artists and brought humanity to the creative process and instilled a passion for others to create. He became a great patron for many artists in the region, filling his house with the works of others. He believed in me when I couldn’t see it within myself. He believed that we had to earn everything, and didn’t hand it to me, but always created an exchange. The honor of artistry was something that had to be earned, like any other business and that anything was possible with a lot of hard work. This instilled an ethic in me for my own creation that seems to drive my passion deeper.

My dear friend, though it has been many years since your passing I wish you could see the seeds you have laid in my heart for what I have become this year. You would ever be so proud of what I have been able to accomplish. The best of everything you ever were I now carry forward. I have now become that artist you had always believed in as a young man. My compassion, honestly, lust for life, and ability to see into the humanity of others I owe to you. Thank you for the gift of such a precious life.

We Are Not Made of Stone

Why is that so many of us don’t feel that we can live up to our potential or achieve what we often feel in our hearts?  Though I feel appreciative that I have lived a fairly creative life and had the opportunity to follow my desire, I still feel I have lived in the shadows of self-doubt for large portion of it.  I always think so much of it had to do with my sexuality and going against the norm.  But the more I talk to others, the more I begin to see it’s really a universal issue that everyone seems to struggle through.  The older I get the more I regret how much of my youth was fraught with angst and lack of self-esteem.  While I was cocky and defiant, it always felt that something held me back.  I always thought it was a lack of hustle and not being self-motivated, but when I look back, my achievements were vast and I have experienced a life time of wondrous experiences.

As this project begins to wind down, I am looking back at the journey of what I have felt through its course.  I guess trying to find perspective and get to the core of what brought me here in the first place.  But in a sense, everything I have learned was something I already knew it has always been here.  I liken it to Dorothy’s proverbial return to home after visiting the wondrous Land of Oz only to discover, with the click of her heels, she was always where she wanted to be.  As a kid, her journey always had a profound impact on me emotionally.  I would cry so hard every year that my mother would threaten to not let me watch it and I would beg and plead with her until she consented and once again I would be utterly moved to the point of tears.  I now recognize Dorothy’s desperate plight to find herself is universal and see it in everyone else around me.  What a strange world we enter, with sometimes even stranger friends.  In their mythic land they accept their differences, a man of straw who is easily destroyed by fire, a hollow man who can’t move without the help of others, and the embodiment of ferociousness, intimidated by others.   Their real journey is that of self-acceptance and in the end finding their sense of security.  Being a gay man growing up in a strange land like Montana, I have always been keenly aware of the differences of others, feeling myself never really quite understood.  But have been greatly appreciative of “men who can dress in women’s cloths and mouth the words to other people’s songs”, others infected with a deadly virus that still creates fear and anxiety and is still greatly misunderstood, the straight acting and not so straight acting personalities, whatever that meant, and the imperfections in others.  It has always been my desire to be a part of a community of understanding and acceptance and of course appreciation.  Yet it feels like as similar as we all are, we push each other away, with these labels and still ostracize others for their differences.

Yesterday I wrote about a young boy who killed himself because he could not find acceptance and my heart aches deeply as I morn not only the loss of a kid not able to live a miraculous existence, but the ignorance with others that fed his doubt.  I still see the internalized homophobia within our own communities that becomes judgmental, condescending, and harmful.  I think THIS IS perhaps is the real limitation from us feeling what’s in our hearts and recognizing our potential.  Perhaps this is my gift as a photographer because I am willing to look beyond the difference with compassion and empathy and search for that truth within myself and my subjects and the culture that surrounds me.  After all, we are not made of stone.

A Flicker Of My Past Desire Realized

Last night I watched an old western called Red River directed by Howard Hawk originally released in 1948. It was a John Wayne classic featuring one of the most beautiful men to ever be photographed, Montgomery Cliff. This was his first major feature film and made him an overnight sensation. He was 26 years old at the time of shooting and is just stunning to watch in this old black and white epic. Part of what makes the film so brilliant is the lighting is fantastic though out the film and though I have seen this film a dozen times it still mesmerizes me. After watching it last night I began to see how much of an influence it has had on my style of photography and the development of my approach to lighting. Of course growing up in the west, I identify with the sexual allure of the cowboy, particularly Montgomery Cliff. In this film he embodies it all, handsome, strong yet sensitive, compassionate, and secure in his masculinity. He was my role model and became the one icon I could always look up to because he stirred such strong feelings of desire within me for this sort of male figure and I began to recognize my sexual attraction was definably toward men. There is a very wonderful scene in the film in which he and another wrangler named Cherry admire each other’s guns in a very homoerotic flirtatious manner that is quite suggestive of something other than shooting. He was one of the first movie stars that I found out was gay which deepened my desire. Though he often play emotionally tortured men, his characters seemed to become a mirror of his personal life and struggles which seem to somehow personify everything I felt. Every time I saw him on the screen I become absorbed by the depth and pain he brought to each character. He was a man who was able to tap into this own pain and reveal his very soul for others to see. Few movie stars have brought this much honesty to the screen, except maybe James Dean. This is a quality I strive for in my own imagery, a moment of bearing the humanity of ourselves and exposing who we are in our existence. Cliff is one of the few actors to consistently maintain this intensity making almost every film an instant classic: A Place in the Sun, From Here to Eternity, The Heiress, Raintree Country, Suddenly Last Summer and even the Alfred Hitchcock classic I Confess.

I have often pondered how a young ranch kid like myself was so drawn to work in arts and entertainment. Last night that connection became clear watching Red River, the magic, the beauty, the sexual allure of the American west, my west, stirred my emotions , presented in the flicker of a film and watching Montgomery Cliff enter my universe. I identified with a feeling where anything was possible and knew it was a place I could coexist and where I would be understood and accepted for my difference. Where the tormented soul can reveal itself and become the basis of artistic expression. Monty though you died when I was just a kid, you still live in my heart decades later and stir a desire and passion within me that will never dissipate. You only seem to grow stronger with time as the truth of your worlds real and make believe still haunt me.

Capturing an Essence of Who We Really Are?

A question has recently arisen about getting to the essence of who we are as artists.  I have recently been reading a book about a man, in love with photography from age 10, who went to a photography workshop with the photographer Minor White in the 60’s.  He was posed with the question of photographing his essence, not to photograph his personality, but to go deeper into the core of his being, to “Photograph who you really are.”  He couldn’t grasp the concept of finding himself or even recognizing himself but then has an epiphany that clearly defines his vision and changes the course of his life.  The book is called “The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life” written by John Daido Loori and it is a completely different approach to discovering who we are as creative souls.

In a sense this year of exploration has become my own epiphany and I feel more in touch with myself then ever.  I began to think about myself and examine my own creative process.  Do I really photograph who I am?  I think so.  Though I use others as my subjects the true essence of what I feel is expressed through the overall feel of my images.  Mr. Loori, a skeptic at the time, talks about going into the forest, questioning the nonsensical meaning of White’s idealism, and discovers a place where he releases that doubt and comes into touch, through a trance like state, with the subject.  The subject then  does not become the object of the image, but his feeling to the connection to the subject, becoming the vision of the image.  I began to realize this is the state I often enter when I begin to work with my naked male subjects.  All inhibitions evaporate, I have set the stage and defined the parameters, communicated to get to core of my subjects perceptions of themselves so that the moment is ripe to just touch the essence of what I feel in that moment.  The shoot then becomes a history of every experience I have ever had and how it relates to this person in this moment, to really explore who we are in this moment.  So many people comment on my images as having a quality they cannot describe or put their finger on to define.  It’s not really something that can be copied or emulated, but organically comes out of what unfolds before me.  I do not have a formula for lighting and it is not consistently the same from shoot to shoot.  It is tailored to the specific subject and the vision of how I see them when we first meet.  Yet everyone says my style is highly recognizable so there must be some consistency to it.  Even when some models posted images we had shot, to their social networking profiles without my name associated with the images, others began to recognize the images as ones I had taken.  I do remember when I first began photography questioning what makes an image recognizable to a certain artist and how I could for would define my own unique style.  I realize now after years of photographing and looking back that it just naturally evolved without me really having to work at or affect the outcome.  It is the essence of who I have become.

Most of my life has been defined by my sensual/sexual nature, seduction, being seduced and of course my love and fascination of the male figure, both clothed and exposed.  Much of my life was very sexual, but as I have grown older, the sexual allure that once motivated me seems to have vanished.  I am no longer concerned with the physical side of my sexuality but am most intrigued with the spiritual essence of what remains.  I don’t see my images as sexual at all.  I had a young photographer just out of journalism school approach me the other day wanting to intern with a studio photographer.  I sent him a link the new site and told him what I was doing.  His response was a scoff at the idea of working with nude people as means to learning studio technique as he rejected what I take for granted as natural.

Into the Wild

I am writing this morning from a remote cabin at 57,000 on top of a mountain in Northern Idaho.  Glenn had been planning this weekend for months and I said once I got the website up I would go.  We took the weekend off and come over to visit our friends Forrest and Beth and their black lab Sprocket in a small mining town called Mullan, just over the mountains and the Montana-Idaho border.  We then proceeded to a cabin in the mountains miles above Wallace.  Their place is very rustic and I was not sure that we would even make it to the destination.  The higher we went the deeper the snow got until we reached the cabin and the snow level was about a foot deep.  The cabin, more a pole lodge, so far is only covered by exterior sheeting and was very raw within.  It has a little wood stove in the center of the room that we instantly fired up and within a half hour could no longer see our breaths.  I put a pot on the stove and made a hearty chicken stew with carrots, potatoes, and mushrooms flavored with tarragon, a pinch of basil, and rosemary.  It turned out fantastic for my first time of cooking an old fashioned wood stove.

We ate, drank, and chatted and watched the world around us envelop into a secluded darkness and the one gas lantern they had seem to fail us.  Then we all climbed to a loft to sleep.  There was a draft of snow and ice particles blowing through the cracks, which Forrest tired to seal before we went to bed.  I drifted in and out of consciousness as Forrest got up throughout the night to feed the fire.  At one point that fire had gone out and I hunkered deeper into my bed, snuggling closer to Glenn for warmth as a draft that felt good when I first went to bed now chilled the core of my body.  In the wilderness the night seems eternal as I kept waking up looking for some signs of daylight.  The morning came early gradually illuminating the outline of the open rafters barley above my head.

I was the first one up because I wanted to watch how the light began to fill the valleys far below us.  As rustic as it all seemed it really awoke a side of myself I have completely forgotten.  It reminded me of my youth and growing up on the ranch.  It feels like the ongoing theme of this week has been a return to simplicity and a greater connection to my natural heritage.  Although the website is a culmination of my existence, it is my connection to the future as I move into the future.  Today I am stripped on all the essentials of a modern life, no running water, no electricity, dependent on the life my computer laptop battery, now running in the red.  Here we are against our own elements.  There is something poetic about the sound of the snow smattering against the side of the building, of not working from the moment I rise to well after midnight each night.  We must exist only within the expanse of the natural day.