Excerpted from the review titled “Loving Portraits Of Gay Black Men Cruising In Prospect Park” by Pete Brook — Vantage
The books’ essay of introduction, by G. Winston James, is a joy. I aborted my ﬁrst reading to return to the beginning so that I could read it aloud to my partner. It’s too good not to share.
At one point, reading James’ words there in the kitchen, my partner interrupted, “What’s the point in writing a review when this essay says it all so well?” I nodded. She had a fair point. Still, I’ll try for the sake of honoring a wonderful portrait project.
Text is critical to a photobook. A photobook’s essay says much more than the author’s argument. The choice of author says a lot about the photographer’s relationship to her or his work and the ways in which she or he thinks about it. Roma clearly wants to position his work in solidarity and in deep understanding of these gay men and their purposefully shared environment.
James, an author of ﬁction, essays and poetry about sexual identity, LGBT and African American experiences among many other topics, delivers a masterful and readable history of gay cruising and gay life in New York. He explains how the emotions, the risks and the consequences of inhabiting the Vale have changed over the decades. He is an expert on the behaviours, policing and attitudes associated with the social spaces of gay male sex. James has also sought out sexual and sensual encounters in the Vale of Cashmere. Authoritatively, James delivers both an emotional and an intellectual reading of the issues at stake in Roma’s work.
The best photobook essays, in my opinion, are those written by nonphotography people; people who may have an extremely keen eye and sophisticated reading of photography, but who are not blindly devoted to the medium. The best essays are those which talk about the issue that the photographs point to, as opposed to direct commentary on—or worse still, description of—the photographs themselves.
G. Winston James comments upon Roma’s technique only to back up his own arguments, and in so doing he provides a fuller and intimately-informed context for Roma’s portraits. For example, James tells us that Roma focused on African American and Caribbean men, the demographic that dominates the Vale due to patterns of immigration, but not the only group.
“Those who frequent the Vale of Cashmere in search of community and sexual gratiﬁcation have been as diverse and demographically mutable as the communities (near and far) that surround the park,” writes James.
Standing on the shoulders of thinker Morgan Shaw, James reminds us that sex is an activity designated for private spaces, namely the domestic space of the home. But for gay men living in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, homosexual sex could not be expressed at home so it became a public act in public space. Crucially though, gay cruising and meeting spots only function as such at designated times.
“The most deﬁning characteristic of queer space is its temporality. Queer space is not a permanent ﬁxture of the urban landscape, but a sudden transformation that brieﬂy renders traditional public spaces as something more dynamic,” Shaw once wrote.
James adds, “It is precisely this process of transformation (witnessed by a relative few), this dynamism, this history, that Thomas Roma has photographed.”