For most of Middle America, black men are little more than the images projected from popular media outlets—a tattooed, incarcerated (and unintelligible) Lil Wayne, irresponsible fathers on Maury, and faceless men that fill prison beds at an alarmingly high rate. But for one gay white man, the black man is a source of elegance and beauty and a reminder of our larger cultural history.
Inside JD Dragan’s lofty, light-filled Center City apartment, the framed black-and-white photograph of a nude black man in the foreground, hunched over in a start position as if he’s preparing to begin a quick sprint, looms over a well-worn leather couch. The model, his dark skin evenly studded with beads of water the size of nail heads, graphically poses against the side of a white staircase that’s lined with writhing white bodies, male and female, caught in the throes of hedonistic pleasure right out of an Aldous Huxley novel.
The salacious photographs that line the walls of the award-winning photographer’s apartment offer only a glimpse into his world of erotically and politically charged images. Dragan’s made his mark on contemporary photography by focusing exclusively on the nude bodies of black men, an aesthetic choice made over three decades ago that’s made an important political intervention in the history of art. The naked body of black men, usually a signal of violence and fear, becomes a sight of visual, sensual pleasure. Frame by frame, Dragan’s images of muscled, well-endowed men showing off for the camera are made to confront, provoke and entice.
“When I started looking at male nudes I would see all of these beautiful forms, and diversity within those forms,” explains Dragan, who has been living in Philadelphia since 2001 after leaving Sarasota, Fla. “White men were photographed in so many different ways, but when I saw images of black men, which were incredibly rare, they were always photographed from the navel down, which immediately turned them into objects.” The 54-year-old New Jersey native says he found the objectification of black men insulting. “I’ve known black guys all of my life … and they completely missed the point of trying to capture a whole man.
“I told myself that that was not what I was going to do,” says the photographer, his face tightening with every word. “From that point, I abandoned photographing white guys and focused on black guys exclusively.”
Sitting comfortably in the time-worn, natural groove of his couch, Dragan’s face lights up as he discusses his subject matter. “The black men I knew growing up were more than just objects. They were full people with faces, with expressions. [They were] funny, intelligent, good looking … not some huge amorphous blob that moves and thinks together,” he says.
This dedication to diverse representation is the starting point for his current exhibition, Modern Slave , at AxD Gallery on 10th Street in Center City. The show features 26 works from the photographer—both old and new—that display the core aesthetics and political motives that drive Dragan’s works. One powerful work from the exhibit features a black man with his back to the camera, with the fraction “3/5” written in white paint on his left shoulder. The striking photograph is called “Article 1,” referring to the late 18th century clause that counted slaves as 3/5 of a person. Another photograph, titled “Hanged Weapon,” shows another model with a noose draped around his neck while clutching a handgun right above his flaccid penis, confronting multiple stereotypes of black men at once.
Dragan has a technical brilliance when it comes to capturing the human body on film. He is a master of lighting and has a level of control reminiscent of some of the best portrait photographers in the early 20th century—think Cecil Beaton or Edward Steichen, lighting that makes any subject, no matter how trivial or meek, look important, or in the case of the human body, statuesque and regal. But tackling racism or any other “ism” in art can be a road fraught with misunderstanding. After all, Dragan is a gay, white man photographing naked black men. “When some people walk in here and see an old white man, they can get a little upset,” says Ryan McMenamin, managing director of AxD Gallery. “Philly, you know, is a conservative town, and some people see the work as fetishistic and sometimes racist.”
Dragan’s photographs immediately conjure up comparisons to Robert Mapplethorpe, the iconic gay photographer that unsettled many with his photographs of gay subcultures in the ’80s and ’90s. Mapplethorpe was also noted for photographing black men, sometimes in a romantic way, reminiscent of an artist capturing his lover and muse, and sometimes like a piece of meat on a counter, as evidenced by one of his most famous photographs “Man in Polyester Suit,” which depicts a black uncircumcised penis billowing out from the fly of a pair of trousers, sitting heavily in the frame like an elephant’s trunk. Those who know Dragan say the comparison to Mapplethorpe infuriates him. “He would never say that Mapplethorpe is an influence,” says McMenamin. “I believe that he would see himself in contrast to Mapplethorpe. Where [Mapplethorpe] had a very graphic way of dealing with race, JD’s work is much more subtle and soft.”
Where Mapplethorpe arguably used race as a way to be socially and artistically provocative, creating fetishized objects out of the various parts of the black male form, especially the penis, Dragan’s focus on black men comes from a deeply held dedication to fighting against the racism he witnessed as a child during the height of the Civil Rights era.
Growing up near Trenton, N.J., during the late ’50s and early ’60s, Dragan always loved photography, “From the time I was a child I would always like to take pictures. When I was about 7 years old, my father bought me a little instamatic camera and I used that for vacation. I only photographed in black and white because I could process the images from the beginning to end. I like the artistic side of creating my own photographs.”
He studied biology and botany as an undergraduate at St. Michael’s College in Vermont during the late 1970s, only to return to higher education after a move to Florida. He enrolled in a continuing studies program in photography at the Ringling School of Art and Design in 1997. Though Dragan photographed his first male nude some time in 1973—“It happened to be of a neighbor. It was the young man that lived across the street from my parents’ house. I was on a college break, and I photographed him”—it wasn’t until he got to Ringling that he decided to make that his focus. “One of my professors said that we all needed to find out what we wanted our subjects to be … so I went out, shot a few rolls of film.” When he presented the negatives to the professor, she knew immediately that Dragan would be photographing nude men. “‘Forget all of the other stuff, this is it,’ she said to me.”
From that point on, Dragan began shooting male nudes exclusively. But as a student of photography, discovering the work that came before him and the work of his peers, he found a void in the representation of the male form. “After I decided that I was going to do male nudes, you get to a point where you sort of look around at what your contemporaries are doing and what your predecessors have done. I saw a real discrepancy in how fine-art photographers dealt with Caucasian men and all men of color.”
During his youth, Dragan was surrounded by cultural diversity, an exposure that’s incredibly relevant to his world view. “I can remember holding protest and rallies after school with friends,” Dragan says. “It was something that I saw in real life. In college I remember that in Vermont there were no black people. So I found a local chapter of the NAACP and joined their board, and we would actually have to get guests from out of state to speak to us because there was no one there.”
His work in many ways is a continuation of that fight for equality. “It’s always been part of me. I was part of that generation. I grew up and became self-aware in the ’60s, and those were really turbulent times. And certainly that has colored my point of view on race and race relations. So many people were unfairly disenfranchised … I really wanted to bring these men to the forefront, as being just as viable, just as equal.”
Getting these men to the forefront requires commitment and Dragan’s interview process sets him apart from other photographers and ensures that he’s shooting a whole man, not just a body. “I really get to know my models: what they like, what they do … which is why I take so much time interviewing them as individuals to see what makes them each tick.” Dragan says the model and the photographer each share details about their lives and their beliefs. “I spend a lot of time talking about myself, how I got to what I do today, why it’s important to me.”
One of his models, Jelani Lee, speaks highly of working with Dragan, whom he refers to as John. “It was about seven or eight years ago, and someone just introduced me to him. I hadn’t done nude photography. John made me like the experience ... I’ve been to shoots where maybe it’s porn, maybe it’s not, and that makes you a little uneasy. But John really goes along with your comfort level.” He adds: “I’ve loved all the work we’ve done together ... he is outspoken, but he defends his point well and I appreciate that.”
That level of comfort and rapport exhibited in the relationship between model and photographer was integral to making “Modern Slave” happen. The show’s politically charged and religious overtones required a model who was OK with pushing up against societal boundaries. “I show them some of my work, and then I’ll ask ‘Why does this interest you?’ and ‘Are you OK with doing some things that may be out there?’ I ask about hobbies, jobs, things they typically do … that makes a huge difference. I think it would be disrespectful to not take [the models’] input.”
The No. 1 collector for Dragan’s erotically charged (usually full-frontal) nudes are gay men. “I was first drawn to [Dragan’s] work because of its beauty, of course, but also by the fact that he photographs black men, often excluded from serious consideration in the gay scene,” says friend, collector and fellow gay artist Michael Broderick. “Just as if it was a microcosm of America, racism exists within the gay community as well, finding black men objectified on the fringes of the gay society at large. His choice of black men as his exclusive subject matter,” Broderick says, “is something very special and important.”