Saturday, September 19, 2020

Raishean, My Teacher and Muse

I met Raishean Garret in late 1987 or early 1988 via my then boyfriend friend Aaron.  We first met at the glasshouse a resturant/bar where we would go usually for a meal before heading to the clubs most friday and saturday nights.  We became fast friends and we became a regular trio at the clubs.  Raishean who was around 18 or 19 was a highly sought after fellow... A mix of good looks and a larger than life character.  While some were very lucky to have a date It's safe to say he broke a ton of hearts and had a reputation that telling a lot of people "No" would  engender.  Going to the club with him opened my world to the gay scene and even though he was 8 years younger he took me under his wing...  Coming out at 27 was both wonderful and confusing and he taught me a lot about how to navigate the scene.  Being popular he introduced me to so many people and that gave me a sort of credibility that fast tracked me to having many friends in the club and in the Detroit scene.  He also was my original muse when it came to my photography having bought me a book that opened both of our eyes to images of men and specifically black men photographed by Mapplethorpe and others.  The images we took came out great and as he shared with friends I got many requests for my photography. To be honest I haven't stopped photographing men for 30+ years!  In someway the longest thread of word of mouth ever experienced.  In 2014 I published Blackbook30 which is my critical response to Mapplethorpe's original Blackbook.  

After Aaron and I separated my relationship with Raishean moved to more than best friends and while it didn't last very long we remained friends to the end....  While I do not know that he ever held more than a handful of fashion retail jobs around Detroit I know that he had family who provided him the shelter and care when he needed it most.... He was a smart, caring and immensely loyal person who was loved by many.  He ushered me through a major transition in my life and always kept me safe along the way.  His impact on me in incalculable.  The final testament is the friends and those relationships I still carry from my first years in the life and the hundreds more I have made through my photography that started with him.

I wrote the following forward/dedication for my book that his initial images inspired...

Searching for Dennis Speight

My interest in photography goes back to when I was 8 and I inherited my mother's old Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera. The body, made of smooth dark brown Bakelite was my first and last, large format camera, and while the camera is lost to time I still have a photo of it hanging from a strap in my mother's hand as she stood in the driveway of the Whitehouse on her senior trip. It was a simple camera for simpler times. I was further nurtured by my uncle Peter who had a darkroom in his basement ... as a naturalist he would often take me for hikes in the woods, allowing me to use his heavy 35mm Canon camera and later enjoy the mystery of film development and the printing process. I was hooked. I logged hundreds of school yearbook darkroom hours as I became quite adept at printing. 

When I went to University, photography mysteriously took a back seat to my illustration and painting classes where I preferred to create images with my hand and imagination. Six years after graduation I was still more into painting images. I was fascinated by vivid layered translucent lunatic dyes and I would often reproduce Interview Magazine images shot in Black and White by Richard Avedon or Herb Ritz and re-envision them in color as practice. I was at the same time flirting with the idea of painting nudes. My boyfriend at the time, Raishean Garrett, bought me my first photo book, The Naked and the Nude, which chronicled the nude in photography from 1939 to present. I was using a simple camera at the time to take reference photos for my paintings, but as we flipped through the images in the book we both stopped cold on page 210. A full- page image of Dennis Speight, holding a bunch of calla lilies in black and white and photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe. I knew I had my next project, but Raishean was thinking something completely different. 

As I worked on the re-imagined painting, he suggested that he would like me to take a photo of him for my next painting to which I agreed. I borrowed a friend's Canon AE1 as I wanted a higher quality image.  The photos were taken but the painting never happened. We were both caught up in the images we had taken together. I was caught by the immediacy of the images and needless to say I soon invested in my first Pentax 35mm camera. Rachine who was well connected in the black gay community in Detroit began to share his photos with friends who soon asked to be photographed as well.  Painting fell away to photography completely and 30+ years later I have yet to advertise my services as word of mouth continues to keep me creating. That in itself seems quite extraordinary to me!  As I am often compared to Mapplethorpe, I have read many books and dissertations surrounding his work over the years and he remains a complex individual to me. In preparing this book, I felt it important to try and dig even deeper into the whole story by trying to look at the various models Robert employed, more importantly the model Dennis Speight who for me was there at the beginning of my journey.  Unlike Milton Moore, Ken Moody or Jack Walls, Dennis seemed to be more enigmatic. 

I was able to find out that he was born in February 1958 and died in July of 1987 just on year after his iconic images appeared in the original Black Book and two years before Robert died from complications from AIDS. Sometime in the early 80's Dennis entered into a sexual relationship with as well as model for Robert. The iconic images Terrae Motus 1 and Terrae Motus V book end a 5 panel pentaptych created in 1983 for the Neapolitan art dealer Lucio Amelio as a reaction to a series of devastating earthquakes in southern Italy in 1980. The first image shows Dennis holding a grouping of large thorns wearing a short cropped fade hair style and the later image the bunch of Calla Lilies now with short twisted dreads indicating a significant time frame between the two images. They continued to work together for a short time and made many other images but the relationship was ended by Jack Walls who was jealous of Roberts new muse. 

In the early 1990's I remember seeing gaunt images of Dennis in an old dogeared adult magazine ... the images were clearly not artistic and together with his appearance saddened me. I sought out more from various people who knew Robert including Jack Fritscher and Patricia Morrisroe, neither of whom had any idea save that he probably disappeared into time like many gay men of that time.  While I could not fully find Dennis Speight, I still had Raishean who I last saw in 1996 when he moved to North Carolina to live with his sister. Sadly he too passed away in 1997 from complications from AIDS. There is a combined influence and intersectionality of these two men in the direction of my art, in the direction that my life has taken these last 30 years that cannot be underscored or over estimated. In 2005, I started a blog as a channel to share my life and work with the world. I employed a tag line, exploring my life and others through photography and in the process I have come to feel that my work comes from a wholly different place than Robert's and is based in the numerous relationships that have informed and influenced my life. It began as an epiphany and has become a fulfilling phenomenal journey. 

- Christopher Cushman, Toronto, Canada 2013 

To Buy a copy of the book clickon Blackbook30

Note: All images and text (not specified) is copyrighted by Christopher Cushman. This site does not specify or denote the sexual orientation of any model and as such please post your comments accordingly.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A New Book For A World 30 Years Later!

The original Black Book was first published late in 1986 by Robert Mapplethorpe just two and a half years before his death from Aids.  The book of all black male nudes almost immediately came under criticism both positive and more prevalently negative.  The controversy began with 1986 solo exhibition “Black Males” and the subsequent book The Black Book sparked controversy for their depiction of black men. The images, erotic depictions of black men, were widely criticized for being exploitative. The work was largely phallocentric and sculptural, focusing on segments of the subject’s bodies. His purported intention with these photographs and the use of black men as models was the pursuit of the Platonic ideal. Mapplethorpe’s initial interest in black males began when he first started cruising clubs like Kellers across from the Christopher Street Piers.

There were many who heaped opprobrium on Mapplethorpe’s work, from morally outraged, respectable types, through to those who charged Mapplethorpe with playing fast and loose with potent and enduring stereotypes about the Black (male) body and indulging in racial fetishism. Contemporary photographers like Dave Lewis and black artists like Glen Ligon have provided criticism via their art while Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer
took more academic runs at Mapplethorpes work during the early 90’s   Essex Hemphill also expressed criticism in his anthology Brother to Brother (1991). Although he believed that Mapplethorpe’s work reflected exceptional talent, Hemphill also believed that it displayed a lack of concern for black individuals in the gay community, “except as sexual subjects”.

A lot has changed since 1986 The initial shock and awe of Mapplethorpe’s work has fallen off significantly because society has been changed and anesthetized to the work on some level on the other hand the once thought dream of a post black world has been shattered for the foreseeable time if not forever. Cushman’s work started in 1987 almost literally after Mapplethorp’s was ending and his intellectual leanings listened to the criticism of the former.  His formative years growing up in Detroit also gave him a special understanding employed in his work.

As he phrased this issue in an interview:  "My photography serves to document what the model and other viewers already know.  Models who approach me to take their images simply want me to find that inside them selves on some level.  I don't direct the sessions like other photographer might. I spend a fair amount of time getting to know my models on a personal level. I am more interested in how they see themselves and try to arrange moments where they participate by showing me. I have directed a few shoots where there has been a lot of set up for the image idea they have asked for, but even then it’s still rooted in their desires.”

Andrew Howdle  writes:  “Christopher Cushman shoots the “manifestation”, the image that his models desire to reveal: the light within. This aesthetic and ethical principle sets him aside from the work of Mapplethorpe. The work of Christopher Cushman is framed by a more human and humane understanding of people. For him, the Black male is a person, a mind, a body, a spirit. He sees a kind of idealism in the person he views, but his photograph is not a “capture”, an enslavement, a person “aestheticized”, even anaesthetized to a point where they appear without feeling. 

In his selection of work for this book, Christopher Cushman has been judicious. His work is a quest for a space beyond Mapplethorpe. He has clearly thought about his own work and how it echoes and departs from Mapplethorpe and which Mapplethorpe idioms are truly dead ends. If there is often a dead silence around Mapplethorpe’s models in the Black Book, in the Black Book 30  there is a wish to surround the models with a life and a voice. The result is a photographic art that looks in to see the model looking out— such that engagement replaces voyeurism. These photographs are shot with a sense of friendship, closeness, humility and dialogue.”

30 years on Cushman and Black Book 30 gives the viewer something else they should consider.
BLACKBOOK30 Is Available on Amazon Click Here

Note: All images and text (not specified) is copyrighted by Christopher Cushman. This site does not specify or denote the sexual orientation of any model and as such please post your comments accordingly.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Detroit 1967... 50 Years Ago Today

The world health organization recognizes that the formative years for a child spans up to 8 years and is a big determining factor for cognitive, social, emotional and physical development.  Where I to rate those years for myself I would have to say they were pretty good overall… I had a solid loving family with a mother who perhaps may have been a bit to protective… I grew up to be self sustaining albeit a bit over sensitive.  In today's media I am bombarded by images of children as victims of violence, war, often fleeing as a refugee and I recognize I have no idea what the impact that is having on their lives.  Little kids should never live in war zones… Todays anniversary of the Detroit Riots has dredged up old memories of events from the mid to late 60’s that have stayed with me to this day and even the relative safety of a domestic war zone has left lasting impressions on a little boy on the cusp of being 7.   Fifty years ago today I was that little boy.

My memory of those years are very rich and complete… I once described to my mother my trip home from the hospital after my birth in some detail which amazed her and it was no different for days like the JFK assassination, MLK, RFK they are also so clear to me…perhaps as they effected my mother so intensely.  The TV was a literal title wave of scary events happening and the first hit close to home was having my uncle and godfather/name sake Paul Christopher Cushman injured in the Vietnam war in 1966.  I watched as many did the nightly coverage of the battles on CBS and wondered what he had been through.  In January 1967 America had lost the Apollo 1 crew in a fire and college campuses were beginning to erupt everywhere protesting the war, I literally quaked every night watching the live news feeds from that days fighting and the numbers of men who would not be coming home and I wondered would they send me when I reached draft age or earlier?

I didn’t have long to wait, on the morning of July 23rd at 3:45 am the war came right to this six year olds front door.  Detroit like many other urban centers that year was a powder keg of racial tension at the apex of the modern civil rights movement in America.  A blind pig (after hours drinking and gambling) at 12th street (now Rosa Parks Boulevard) was raided by the police… the owner Bill Scott riled up by the already building crowd outside picked up a bottle from the alley and lobed it at the head of the residing sergeant standing in the front door of his establishment… the bottle missed but shattered near the officers and that began one of the worst riots in US History.  We lived within the 250 block zone placed under marshal law by the military and were included in the curfew.   The effects of the riot radiated across the whole city and within the next 5 days 43 people had been killed, 342 injuries and almost fifteen hundred buildings, homes and businesses had been burned to the ground. By the end of the first day the national guard had locked the city down for a battle that really no other city has experienced since. While there are those who would debate the difference between riot and rebellion this was a rebellion ignited by a riot.

Scott's Blind Pig (illegal afterhour bar)


Bill Scott

For me the little boy it was alarming to see the national guard, hear the gun battles and see the city a glow from fires that burned huge swaths of my city to the ground. From 1964 to 1969 there had been 15 race related urban riots but Detroits eclipsed them all in size and destruction.  Today some think of the scenes in Ferguson and think that was a riot but indeed that was more akin to civil unrest and could have escalated into so much more. The LA riots of 92 had more deaths and injured, over 1 billion dollars in property losses… the national guard was not even engaged until late in the third day… since that event in 1992 LA has rebuilt and has little to show for anything ever happening. 

That was not Detroit fait in 1967.  By July 28th the riots had ended but in all reality Detroit was on life support and really never fully recuperated.  To be honest Detroits decline began at the end of World War 2 when GI’s returned and flush with benefits choose to build homes in what would become the suburbs, but the riots and destruction became a turning point for the city.  I remember my birthday 2 days later being a sullen event and this frightened now seven year old boy became even more sensitive to the darker issues of life.  In mid August there was a full on revolt at my school as a new African American Teacher Mrs. Wilma Floyd was starting and was set to be my second grade teacher. My mother was called into an emergency PTA meeting (which I attended)…The simple fact was there was a boat load of parents aching to have her removed before she started… My ever vocal mother was there to call out the bullshit and after a prolonged week of debate I started second grade with Mrs. Floyd at the head of my class… I loved her but my first go at second grade was a disaster.  I had receded into myself and felt little or no need to even try school… I passed with nearly all D’s and again the ensuing fight from my mother to not just be passed on for future failure, I repeated grade 2 the next year.

1968 was no better of a year, Vietnam raged on, thousands of Americans were dieing , MLK was killed, The disastrous Democratic convention happened ending with Bobby Kennedy killed, there was not much for anyone to pin their hopes on until Christmas 1968 when Apollo 8 showed the earth from the moon for the very first time and the world stopped and collectively began the arduous process of pulling up its collective socks in a moment of reflection.  Mrs Floyd took a different tact with me during round two by making me a grade 2 subject matter expert and I spent more time helping kids in my class than doing my own work… I wasn’t dumb the year before I was disengaged and like the summer of 1967 she changed my life for ever this time for the better.

By 1969 we had landed on the moon and it seemed like there really wasn’t anything we couldn’t do.  When I go through my life I realize we are all the sum of our life experiences and while the world has seen many conflicts and corruption since that summer most kids in North America have never really faced troops and tanks rolling past their homes, never experienced the red and orange glow of their city as it was burned to the ground.  I would not wish that on any seven year old or child for that matter but the experience has left me with a deeper perspective that has reflected through my life.

I think you have good intentions and I agree with you with the ongoing struggles with black racism in this country and the world but I wish you could see that you are no better by blaming all white people and creating hatred in people's hearts. “Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn't matter which color does the hating. It's just plain wrong.” 

― Muhammad Ali

Note: All images and text (not specified) is copyrighted by Christopher Cushman. This site does not specify or denote the sexual orientation of any model and as such please post your comments accordingly.