Back in the day, when smart phones and iPads were things only dreamt of by techie wunderkinds, gay men interested in meeting each other for sex, dating, or some multitasking combination of the two, would be relegated to telephone chat lines, gay bars, the streets, or "the bushes." For many, outdoor sex in parks married the taboo of illegality with the thrill of anonymity. These outdoor amusement parks dotted cities across the globe and were teeming with men who didn’t mind a mosquito bite or two along with their blowjobs. Not rain nor shine, nor sleet, hail, thunderstorm, nor even a mid-February Boston blizzard (I can attest to this one!) would keep these horny nature-lovers from wandering the overgrown pathways of cruising areas, searching, leering, and groping in the darkness for that rarest of flowers: the good lay.
Attesting to the fact that this source of erotic satisfaction has not ceased with the passage of time is Philadelphia photographer and artist Chad States. States’ coffee-table book Cruising is dedicated to the stealth gamesmanship of the outdoor cruise, a distraction that has indeed withstood time and tide. Gay author Edmund White describes this type of "quick sex" as something he considers "romantic," but States’ photographs seem only to depict a not-quite-extinct tribe of camouflaged sexual outlaws. On many pages, the dark green hues of the woods create a lush tangle of branches and underbrush, swathed by shards of sunlight. But the artist wants readers to look more carefully, focusing on the center of many of his photographs where a male body - or a close grouping thereof - takes curious form, almost emerging as an extension of the foliage they’re so well-concealed by.
A man in motion moves from a glade into a cluster of shrubbery; men stand with hands in pockets, waiting for something or someone just out of the camera’s reach. In other pictures, an optical illusion of sorts emerges: green flora meets blindingly bright yellow sunlight meets the pink, fleshy tones of seemingly superimposed erections, asses, and thighs. The power of States’ art lies in the ability of each photo to draw the observer in and partake of the mossy aroma of naughty nature, the delicious voyeurism enjoyed from just around the corner. One can almost hear the urgent grunts or the clearing of throats from just beyond the branches.
Elsewhere, a wedding ring appears on the hand of a shirtless man tweaking his nipples in a shady clearing; worn pathways create a heart shape beneath a weeping willow tree; unbuttoned jeans are attached to smirking men eating with their eyes. Swatches of color stand out against the greenery: a bright-red thong strains against a bent-over ass, plaid shorts are pushed down to the forest floor, the pop of navy blue dungarees just standing there, waiting and watching against a summer palette of deep evergreen leaves and bright crimson berries.
Following States’ striking photos is a rambling yet introspective essay by scholar and environmental planner Gordon Brent Ingram, Ph.D., exploring theories of sexual expression, cultural stigmatization, and the redefining of boundaries, public and private. Perhaps most compelling, however, is photographer Alec Soth’s one-on-one interview with States as he reveals how the project began, how the scenes are "not staged," and how his opinions on cruising outdoors changed as the project progressed. Soth’s interest in the project as a heterosexual male is also discussed.
Sure to incite discussion, this work of artistic expression is indeed a unique, unorthodox collection of voyeuristic photographs that "make it difficult to see the men for the trees."
Cruising by Chad States; powerHouse Books, $40