Two and a half years ago, I began acquiring vernacular photographic slide archives that document the personal lives of gay men who have passed away. Spanning the years 1958 to 1981, the images present a complicated story of visible and closeted queer male relationships. They depict stiffly posed men in military uniforms, naked men on private beaches, travel images made at iconic sites around the world, photographs taken over the shoulder of a door gunner in a helicopter over Vietnam, and candid snapshots of a partner enjoying brunch from a New York City balcony. Quiet, banal, complex moments lived by these men. The meaning of the images is further complicated by other images that reveal greater context—closeted lives, a yearning for intimacy, and queer desire in an otherwise heteronormative life. The true nature of the men’s relationships is opaque, as unreachable as the self-knowledge of the men depicted. Sugar Play is my interpretation of these archives in an attempt to penetrate and decode them on the basis of my own desires and self-knowledge.
In the process of engaging these photographs, I started to relate more and more with the complexity of the “out” and closeted queer desires depicted in the archives. I began to examine my relationships with men and question the visible and hidden queerness that exists underneath the surface of those friendships. I recalled specific moments of desire, intimacy, and connection with men who I no longer know. My desires were unspoken, unformed, and lost in time. Working within these personal archives became a vehicle to identify the connections I can’t or don’t find in my present life.
Through my work, I enter the archive, inserting myself into the projected images as I reexamine key moments from my past through reenacting desires in relation to the men depicted. The images reflect back a new entanglement of my queer desire and heteronormative self-expression with the those of the men from the archive. Histories of visibility and erasure converge and diverge as images become fractured and fragmented. Mirrors displace and complicate what’s internal and external while slide carousel boxes contain and obscure the images themselves. Sugar Play shifts the function and meaning of these appropriated personal archives that are reframed and recoded based on my relationship to them. My experiences and desires interpenetrate the archives, dissolving the lines between them and my own past. A more complicated and larger archive emerges, one that through desire bridges the gap between fantasy and reality.