An Essay on the photo series;
Of Strength and Vulnerability: First Aid by photographer Zoë Zimmerman
Written by Dawn Marlan.
In a series of elegant black and white portraits, Zoe Zimmerman constructs images of men in close contact, cradling and carrying each other in ways that might suggest intimacy. Yet their bodies strain in opposite directions, repelling each other like magnets. Their gaze is averted, off-center, as if avoiding direct confrontation. In the first grouping the men appear emblematic and timeless in crisply pleated slacks and mildly wrinkled shirtsleeves, all details heightened. Men dressed as men lend the image a theatricality, further emphasized by the black backdrop. By replicating a 1930s Red Cross First Aid manual instructing men on the proper forms of rescue operations, their poses suggest myths of heroic masculinity capable of neutralizing anxieties about male touch. Or not. In the very way they curl their fingers, avoiding full contact with another man’s leg, the palpable tension points both to the limits of containing such anxieties and the extent to which heroics are always sexualized. If it were possible to touch without touching, these portraits would show us how. The men are there and not quite there. A stoic emptiness in their expressions imbues the images with a haunting, ghostly quality, inadvertently marking a site of disturbance, like a sense memory from which one recoils.
The second grouping of portraits explores male-to-male contact absent models for appropriate touch. Instructed simply to hold hands, they appear at a loss; their hunched shoulders and visible awkwardness register distress. Emerging from the “safe distance” of a mythic past, the men have shed their uniforms. They are clad instead in the discomfort of their own identities, in the jeans and tee shirts, hats and tattooed arms in which they are unmistakably themselves, in which their touch risks breaching a limit, violating a taboo. As if in response to compromised dignity, their bodies are positioned within the frame to dramatize a subtle struggle for power, relying on cultural stereotypes about domination and submission. They hint at narratives of predators and victims and at the residue such stories leave on the body. However, the portraits suggest potential reversals, complicating and disrupting such stereotypes even while insisting on the reach of their power. Bearing witness to men’s anxiety that traces of homoeroticism might be legible in their expressions, they look past and through each other. The delicate line separating the gray backdrop and the ground itself emphasizes the disorienting groundlessness of figures in isolation.
Zimmerman returns to vintage medical texts in the third grouping of portraits to provide models for how men might touch one another in a way that is not haunted by the specter of the sexual. They are sepia-toned, softer, as if nostalgic for something yet to be. The format is square, condensing the visual field and drawing the figures into closer proximity. Unlike the other groupings, where the figures float in isolation, here the contact itself is front and center. The camera is closer to them, as if holding the men in a moment of tenderness. The images seem luminous, alive with possibility. The figures have loosened their grip. The camera lingers on their bodies, on their tactile, textured beauty, on the veins in their arms and the stubble on their faces. And yet, it’s a gaze more empathic than voyeuristic. Although the portraits allude to stories about men in need, excusing touch by necessity, they do so to mark the dignity of human tenderness. These images mediate between the romantic and the real, depicting a world awash in a warm glow, but a world in which tension is still in evidence. Here, Zimmerman indulges the fantasy that there might be a way to overcome our awkwardness without denying our corporality, including its erotic potential; there might be a way to acknowledge our embodied-ness without being enslaved to it.
Between a documentary gaze and one that is elegiac and mournful, Zimmerman’s portraits inquire into the spaces where men may touch. They acknowledge and resist the way in which masculinity is constructed on the intractable myths of distance, autonomy, hardness, and omnipresent sexual readiness, requiring that all intimacy be formalized, all touch be justified. Between the maternal embrace and the sexualized touch of a lover, whether male or female, men are neglected in their bodies, belittled for human needs. The wrenching discomfort in the series of portraits describes the “touch isolation” organizing the American experience of maleness. This, then, is Zimmerman’s project: a study of the contortions wrought by homophobia and a lament about the dearth of touch in the lives of boys and men.