A Photographer Seeks to Emancipate the Modern Slave

By Darren White
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 28 | Posted Jul. 13, 2011

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Photo by Ryan Strand

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.” 

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Comments 1 - 28 of 28
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1. Insensitive person said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 09:45AM

“This is gay. PW are you serious?

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2. James said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 10:22AM

“Personally, I think it's another white gay male exploring his sexual fetish for the black male form under the guise of emancipating the modern black slave. The work is what it is - solid photography of beautiful men. However, this framing of it as the emancipation of modern slavery is culturally insensitive and sets this artist up to appear as the great white hope when in all actuality his obsession with black male form is no better than the exclusion he supposedly is trying to over come.

As a black male and an artist, this work is simply recycled Mapplethorpe and the continuation of America's historical exploitation of black male sexuality. Call it what it is.”

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3. pete white said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 10:30AM

“agree with james!!”

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4. Anonymous said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 11:12AM

“A few questions: What the f*ck is a modern slave? How can photography emancipate said person? And why should it take a white photographer with a fetishized fixation for the hypermasculine, black male physique (which has already been oversexualized literally to death.)

I'm sure Black men everywhere are pleased to note that they are deemed appropriate of "emanicipation." It is unfortunate for the photographer's case that freedom is an inside job, that one has to think himself free in order to become "free," that these images displayed on this website involve nooses, weapons, lumber and beefcake--none of which necessarily denote freedom.

I'm terribly confused. Please advise, Philadelphia Weekly.”

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5. pete white said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 01:06PM

“4# thank you”

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6. Anonymous said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 01:55PM

“Ok, jokes over. It is no news nor is it a secret that white men love sexy images of black men. So, where's the story? Where's the freedom? Perhaps this is the photographer's opportunity to free his favorite flavor...

This is an un-innovative excuse for "art."”

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7. 1 of 1000 said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 08:59PM

Why PW? Why have you dedicated this much space to this insensitive, ill-considered, naive, embarrassment - when our city is TEAMING with, vibrant, courageous, intelligent, artists and artist run spaces of all ages and backgrounds struggling to be seen and heard. WTF?!!! Where did this guy come from? There must be thousands of other artists you could have highlighted in this city! Get a consultant with a clue or something…
All things aside – I am appalled by JD’s ideas – and the article claims this work is an “important political intervention in the history of art”???!! Modern Slave? Modern?
HAHHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA (sob sob sob sob).

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8. Alberto Lauro said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 09:05PM

“Toda exhibición tiene mucho de provocación. Lo mismo hacen los modistos pero con la ropa de alta costura en las pasarelas sobre las modelos. Dragan no viste a los modelos, al contrario, los desviste. Y creo que no denigra al hombre negro sino que lo toma como inspiración usando algunas técnicas del trabajo con la luz como hacia Caravaggio y otros pintores que siguieron sus hallazgos. Belleza y provocación: eso son sus fotos. Alberto Lauro”

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9. Anonymous said... on Jul 13, 2011 at 09:25PM

“Recycled Maplethorpe.”

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10. Ryan McMenamin said... on Jul 14, 2011 at 01:00AM

“I would like to ask all these detractors if they have walked into AxD Gallery and taken enough time out of their busy schedules to both view the work and read what is on walls before taking such a high road in dismissing Dragan as just some Mapplethorpe wannabe with a chocolate skin fetish.
You are all more than welcome to voice your displeasure toward one man's passion for depicting other men as beings possessing self confidence and quiet strength in face of crushing societal pressures, but I hope you have not done so without first seeing this exhibition with your own eyes!

Thank you for this lively discourse,
Ryan McMenamin, AxD Gallery”

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11. Rich said... on Jul 14, 2011 at 07:19AM

“All the photo's are tastefully done. JD Dragan is extremely talented and has a great eye.”

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12. James said... on Jul 14, 2011 at 07:43AM

“Ryan, I disagree. Living life daily as a black male is a sufficient filter to respond to the collective nonsense of Dragan's images and his positioning of this work as something redemptive for the black male.

Dragan's work does nothing to normalize or humanize the image of the black male. He does not show us as the fathers, brothers, community leaders, presidents, mayors, business men and the positive influences on the world that we are. Rather, he focuses solely on a very limited view of black male sexuality. That in itself, is no crime. However, positioning this work as something righteous and good for the image of black men is.

How is this work redemptive, if we as a people are rejecting its supposed value? I am no modern slave and certainly do not need to be emancipated or validated by a white man taking pictures of black penis.”

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13. Tet said... on Jul 14, 2011 at 01:44PM


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14. TB said... on Jul 15, 2011 at 05:42AM

“I'm confused as hell.”

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15. Dwaine Gordon said... on Jul 15, 2011 at 06:08AM

“Look past the headlines people. I know Mr. Dragan and I appreciate what he is doing. I have also met a couple of the models and I can assure you the photography of the men enhances their real-life appearance.

Many times the name of an exhibit and/or event is used to start a dialog and/or generate interest. I seriously think "Modern slave" is nothing more than an attention grabber. Anytime Black and slave are mentioned in the same paragaph or title it's bound to raise an eyebrow or two.

I like the fact that Mr. Dragan does and extensive interview of the models before the first picture is snapped. And for those of you who are offended by the props, the models supply their own props, so don't blame the photographer.

The fact that he is a white man should be a non-issue. And to compare his work with Mapplethorpe is an insult.”

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16. Eshuneutics said... on Jul 15, 2011 at 03:51PM

“It is disconcerting that the way most see (as exhibited in the comments here) is Mapplethorpe centric. The shadow of Robert M has inhibited views of the Black male nude for too long-- and has done much damage historically. Rotimi Fani-Kayode almost faded into obscurity because he was viewed as sub-Mapplethorpe. Years on, critics realise their errors and accept that RFK had a very different agenda than Mapplethorpe and his aesthetics were far deeper than Mapplethorpe's. Dragan's work most certainly is not sub-Mapplethorpe, is free of the level of objectification so prized by Mapplethorpe, whosework is without question racist. And racism has mutated since his time, from sexual fetishism into commodity fetishism, the placing of the Black male body on the slave block (once again) to sell. White culture has re-invented what it created in the (18 and (19. As a White male, Dragan's work stands as a critique of White culture and how it continues to imprison the Black male within a phobic body”

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17. aumu said... on Jul 15, 2011 at 06:29PM

“white culture??? crackers aint got no culture!! 1 man can not critique something so diverse.

Please everyone go out have fun or go to work.”

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18. Anonymous said... on Jul 16, 2011 at 12:49PM

“Read the story,the background,and all the explanations:
I wonder why PW thought this nonsense worthy of the front cover. Oh yeah, we are in freaky Philly,where anything goes for $$$.

Was thinking of attending the showing,but do not want to hurt feelings. White folks just don,t truly understand . The paint(white face,) the noose,the Gay white man(men buyers,)the agenda .

Another Black woman ,NOT FEELING IT !”

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19. Anonymous said... on Jul 16, 2011 at 12:57PM

“Oh yeah! This is just part of the gay entertainment here for this week!
PW leads the way,check out the back ads for additional fun.”

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20. Jordan said... on Jul 16, 2011 at 03:31PM

“Dragan's art would more aptly be called "The Modern Mandingo" rather than "The Modern Slave." This work fetishizes black male sexuality (especially the black male penis) in exactly the same way American culture has since slavery. If we'd like to talk about these works as defying stereotypes, why not talk about the Mandingo stereotype? Why wasn't Dragan asked directly about that? It's a glaring omission from this article, which makes it feel much like a puff piece designed to help Dragan sell his art. Also without that discussion, this work feels to me like a white person confronting certain forms of racism he dislikes while holding on to those stereotypes to which he may be more personally attached. Philly might be a conservative town, but we're all "con" slavery I assure you. The work manages to feel preachy and racist all at once. An accomplishment if you meant to do it, but it doesn't seem like that type of double entendre was intended.”

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21. Nick said... on Jul 17, 2011 at 12:02PM

“I had to laugh when I read that someone who knows Dragan was quoted as saying "(His) work is much more subtle and soft" than Robert Mapplethorpe. Was the friend describing the "soft" way a handgun was held over a subjects taught buttocks, or the "subtle" drapping of a noose around the same subjects muscular back? It is no wonder that Dragan hates being compared to Mapplethorpe but he must know that his work is only relevant in that it is a poor imitation. He is only relevant in comparison to Mapplethorpe. I am guessing that his success comes from the fact that there are a lot of queers with more money than taste in Philadelphia, or they just can't afford the real thing.
Just because there is a lot of dick does not mean it is "edgy", and just because the artist lives in Philly does not mean he deserves the cover. I can't decide who is more gimmicky, Dragan or PW.
Shame on you,”

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22. Dick said... on Jul 18, 2011 at 01:01AM

“I pass my wind, for him to enjoy the aroma.”

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23. kingman said... on Jul 19, 2011 at 08:37AM

“there are no modern slaves. seems like he wants a big black king snake.”

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24. lupus said... on Jul 19, 2011 at 10:58PM

“Take a picture of my big dump, it has artistic value.”

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25. Jeff said... on Jul 20, 2011 at 11:32PM

“Mr Dragan is a remarkable talent who truly embodies every word that was recorded in this story. Speaking with him, and his models, only validates the themes and messages he is trying to convey. For those who have so crudely and inarticulately voiced negative opinions, it's obvious you did not attend the show, speak to the artist, or to any of the men who choose to pose for him.

Your armchair dismissals of his work only prove to the cognoscenti that you are clueless rubes.”

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26. Jim Russo said... on Jul 21, 2011 at 04:48AM

“Here's a novel idea: if PW wants to explore the human condition of the contemporary black male through art, why not run a feature of Philadelphia area black photographers and emphasize THEIR work and themes. Just a little suggestion from another clueless rube...”

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27. Dornan05 said... on Nov 12, 2013 at 07:43AM

“http://www.sinsinawa.org/lv.html louis vuitton outlet sale”

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28. Daniel said... on Mar 14, 2014 at 01:58PM

“Do you take make nude pics ? If so I am interested
Thanks Daniel”


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