Switch off the rom-com and pick up a photo book that depicts how love is more likely to look – from transgender love to reckless love, long-distance love, and love in your twilight years
If you came-of-age in the 90s and 00s then you would have spent an incredibly unsafe amount of time watching rom-coms. Typically Hollywood’s taint on love, likely fronted by Jennifer Aniston, Katherine Heigl, Cameron Diaz, or Jennifer Garner, “taught us” what love “looks like”. Spoiler: at the end, you get Matthew McConaughey, Adrian Grenier or, if you were really lucky (and British) Hugh Grant. But then came the reality of the teen heartbreak that carried through to your 20s... even until today. Even tomorrow (heads up).
Thankfully the still image has always felt a little more grounded. Negating fantasy and bursting your warm and fuzzy bubble, photography asks the tough questions. What happens when your lover is undergoing gender re-assignment surgery? What about when they are a drug addict? Or if they’re someone whose name you’re yet to know? By utilising an amalgamation of friends, lovers, and strangers as their main medium, these photographers set love and heartbreak, memory and rumination, pleasure and pain up as binaries in an attempt to highlight the multi-faceted nature of our relationships – offering us diverse definitions of that frightening four letter word. Below we celebrate some of our favourites.
Over the six years they were together, Zackary Drucker (a trans woman) and Rhys Ernst (a trans man), documented the intimacy of their personal relationship and their mutual transitions to the opposite sex. With no initial intention of sharing the images, theirs is a series of honest, intimate and culturally influential images that would go on to be shown at the 2014 Whitney Biennial and later develop into a book. Relationship eschews all sensationalism in favour of a day-to-day private conversation between two people who co-exist and continue to practice love in all its simplicity irrespective of gender.
“I think digital intimacy, “flirxting” and nudes, hold a major place in communication these days. It often turns us on even more than actual flirting and dates,” says New York-based artist and photographer Nadia Bedzhanova. Fuelled by loneliness, longing and Google translate, Bedzhanova’s latest project Hotel Love, is not merely an exploration of the way we fall in and out of love with another person via laptop or phone screen. Rather, it tells a private love story of her long-distance relationship with a boy whom she doesn’t share a native tongue, finding a common – if not universal – language in awkwardly translated messages, sexually suggestive emojis and nude photos of one-another.
Two years ago, Matt Lambert served up the ultimate Valentine’s Day gift with an exclusive preview of his first-ever book, Keim (meaning ‘seed’ or ‘germ’ in German). Shot between 2011-2014, Keim is a blizzard of orgies, addiction adolescent sexual behaviour – or as Dazed founder Jefferson Hack explains it in the book’s foreword: “It’s sex as a way to kill the boredom, the pain, the angst, the good times and the bad. It’s the normalisation of sex; normcore as opposed to hardcore.” And yet, underpinning the series is the feeling that this is not merely a story of sex, but one of love.
Only a handful of lucky collectors got their hands on Japanese photographer Momo Okabe’s first official monograph, Dildo, when it was published three years ago in the U.S. The handmade photobook tells in excruciating detail the story of Obake’s romantic journey with lovers Kaori and Yoko, as they struggle with gender identity disorder. To the otherwise uninitiated, the photobook is nothing short of a frenzied mess featuring genitals, sex and surgery. However, the shock value fast becomes secondary as Okabe’s explicit images quickly take on a new dimension. What at first feels provocative soon becomes part of the photographer’s ‘psychological landscape’, building up a heart-wrenching picture of societal alienation felt by ‘Japan’s outsiders’.
JACK WEBB, SUSPECTS HIS PARENTS
Suspects His Parents, shot in 1999, is Jack Webb’s no-holds-barred series of 21st-century sex. Using the British media as a form of direct outreach, the photographer placed advertisements for ‘genuine couples’ who would allow him to take pictures of them whilst having sex. Usually shooting solo in the homes of his subjects, Webb assumed the role of both photographer and voyeur. “The paradox of these photographs,” as psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose’s highlights, “is that they try to document something private, something that is not meant to be seen.” It is this, the voyeuristic quality of Webb’s work that makes his look at love as unsettling as it is captivating.
NAN GOLDIN, HEARTBEAT
Goldin’s Heartbeat is a multimedia installation of 245 portraits of “couples and lovers” that formed part of a wider exhibition titled Seduction. Featuring four European couples indulging in intimate moments and engaging in sexual activity, the images or “treasured moments” play out as a series of composite short stories that deal with recurring themes such as passion, love and longing. It is an intimate look at a series of relationships and remains stoic over a decade on. Like all of Goldin’s work, Heartbeat is a necessary reminder that not one mold-fits-all ever.
Amongst a sea of glossy images advocating burgeoning young love and even younger bodies, Rodriguez redefines the ubiquitous youthful ‘look of love’. Turning his lens on a real-life elderly couple’s enduring romance, Rodriguez’s message here is one dimensional: that love is timeless. “I wanted to tell the story about an older couple who are still very much in love, and act on that passion,” Rodriguez explains. “I met them by chance on the street. After a few months of convincing them and explaining my intentions, they agreed to do the photos with me.”
LARRY CLARK, TEENAGE LUST
Few photographers can boast a body of work as deep and uncompromisingly honest as that of Larry Clark. Shooting his friends and lovers during candid moments that range from teenagers having sex, playing with guns, or shooting up heroin, his seminal book Teenage Lust documents the lives of a group of rebellious teens navigating a libido-laden minefield of awkward kisses and first times. Like Goldin, Clark too lived and experienced the exact same life as his subjects – the lawlessness, the struggles, the heartbreak and the kind of love that is born out of addiction and pain.
Signing herself up to various dating websites, photographic artist Natasha Caruana met with married men on over eighty occasions at different London locations, all of them unaware that she was recording or documenting her time with them. The experimental documentary tells a series of interweaving stories that redefine the traditional notions of love – or, more specifically, what happens when marriage results in betrayal, pain and potentially re-marriage – as fidelity falls apart. On reflection, Caruana encapsulates: “I found the men were mostly using me as a quasi-marriage counsellor – a contrast to the glitz and glamour of how we imagine an affair to be.” This conclusive point highlights that love in the digital age is much more about loneliness than it is sex.
MASAHISA FUKASE, YŪGI
Masahisa Fukase’s fixation on the linear space between love and loss has permeated amongst all of his photo collections. A master of the i-novel, the photographer’s biography was in constant crossover with his work, tracing a visual narrative that reveals his most private memories, moments and relationships. Fukase’s first photobook, Yūgi, set a precedent for future projects. The series – which came into fruition in 1971 – was a collection of largely black and white images with one acute focus: his wife. Like all of his work, it’s a stark book that reflects a deep – albeit obsessive – kind love for Yoko, leaving him with a compulsion to take photos of her ritualistically every morning before she left for work. The photographer’s love was enduring and remained steadfast from the day they met until the day she left.