Peter Berlin is the image of sex for the generation of gay men who came of age in the 70s. He cut an iconoclastic figure in his skintight pants and blond pageboy atop a sleek torso, pectorals as hard as his cock and as high as his cheekbones. He was a gay cult figure, a fetish object in multiple senses: both an icon for worship and sexual fixation. And the highest Peter Berlin devotee was Peter Berlin himself. The photographer, filmmaker, mixed-media artist and designer used himself as his own model and muse, elevating self-portraiture and naked, unashamed gay eroticism to new levels of artistic legitimacy. Now, some of his most evocative photographs are on sale, offered by the Leslie Lohman Museum in New York City.
Born Armin Hagen von Hoyningen-Huene during the war in Germany, the boy who became Peter Berlin infamously fell in love with a man he caught sight of in a window as he was cruising on the street in Berlin, only to realize that it was his own reflection. Like a latter-day Narcissus, Berlin threw himself after his own image. To get closer to it, he allowed a second love to come into his life: the camera. Taking pictures of himself used his second love to flatter his first. Erotic strength radiated from each provocative pose and helped define the visual contours of gay male sexual fantasy, and his uninhibited self-love heralded 70s-era sexual freedom. Though undeniably autoerotic, Berlin’s photography invited other gay men to enter into his fantasy world. His narcissism beckons. Mesmerized by his own beauty, he willingly exposes it, bringing the viewer in to join him in his aura. Our response becomes part of the photograph.
There is also something morbid in these images. The sight of the beautiful boy intoxicated by this own face (and his own cock) hints at a dark fate – Narcissus drowns, after all. The obsessive, fetishistic veins that animate Berlin’s work also give it its dangerous tension. This sort of dance with death is a classic part of gay male fantasy. Our strongest erotic objects are the masculine archetypes who represent a sort of thrilling danger: the sailor, the warrior hero, the street tough. Berlin – no surprise- dresses as all of them in his photographs. He also often appears twice in each, both as the virile man and the naked ephebe, simultaneously mastering and submitting to the desire for and the desire to be these kinds of men. In one photo, he leers at his own ass while readying a coiled whip. In another, he is kneeling before his own erection, aching to touch it. The photos are joltingly sexy, but considering how multilayered and complicated the configurations of desire are, it’s surprising how directly he cuts through to it.
Also surprising are the mixed media pieces where Berlin has adorned his photographs with pencil, pain or ink, giving the pieces a more playful air. He renders himself with a stable hand, in Edenic vales or cosmic vacuums. Yet one photo stands out: 1961’s “Peter at Nineteen.” One is in the presence of a confident young man, fully and uncomplicatedly aware of his erotic power. The photograph is a window on the beginning of what will become a life of self-examination. Here, he succeeds in making the act of photography itself erotic: the pose, the focus, and the eventual shutter release. His eyes fix the lens with resolve, not challenging it but questioning where it will take him. He knows he’s being gazed at.
Viewed in the context of his other work, it’s a poignant photograph. He’s captured, captivated, but he doesn’t seem to be trapped. Though Berlin’s perceived sexuality is resolutely gay and male, these early photos demonstrate a genuine curiosity that could otherwise read as queer more broadly. Berlin’s erotic self-portraiture has a distinct, though oblique, political value, too. It gives a special power to the gay men who look at it: we share in the fantasy that he evokes for us. No longer excluded representation in the libidinal structures of straight desire, nor victims of our fantasies being preyed upon by porn producers, we are granted access through Berlin’s photographs to an extraordinarily robust fantasy life.
It can seem, these days, that now our fantasy life is restricted to an announcement in the Weddings and Celebrations section of the Times. Berlin would never be invited to one of these weddings. He maintains a facet of gay male identity missing today: the desire not to conform. Berlin unabashedly maintains his hard-on from the 70s, his body of work like an old stash of Blueboys in our archives and museums. An opportunity to purchase his work, from the Leslie Lohman Museum is a chance to keep this strain of our identity alive.
Peter Berlin was the subject of works by Mapplethorpe, Tom Of Finland, Andy Warhol and others, but it was in his own self-portraiture that the truly arresting power of his eroticism was on full display. By revealing himself, he helped us reveal our true selves. And by loving himself so fully, he showed that it was possible for us to love ourselves.