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Face Off

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS

Face Off by Paul Festa photographs by Frank Yamrus          

Not so long ago, I thought of myself as the kind of guy who wouldn’t do it with the kind of guy who would do it on film. This semi-conscious delusion died a quick death one afternoon when I realized that almost everyone I’d gone to bed with in the
previous two years had been in porn.

    

The two-year streak probably started with Marcus, whose smoldering glower and bantam body drew me
to him one night at a bar. Some time later I found out that he had starred in a number of films. Part of me was more attracted to him because of this, part of me less.

    

After Marcus there was Ryan, star of a vampire she-male flick. As with Marcus, I didn’t know about the pornography until after we became involved.

He didn’t say a word about it until the picture was about to
come out, close to halfway through our relationship — straight to video. Did I want to see it? he asked.

    

I did not.

    

Maybe by this point I already should have made my peace with the regular appearance of sex industry professionals in my bed. After all, Marcus and Ryan were preceded by a Hollywood actor who informed me, after we had sex, that he and my favorite B-movie actress had costarred in a Playboy Channel flick. Then came Abdul, who used his experience in sex cinema to launch his own Hollywood career; and Betsy, a retired lap dancer who now stars in a website devoted to alien pornography. Somewhere in the middle of all this there was John, who had an angel face and the straightest erect cock I’d ever seen. He had just wrapped his second video when we first met and also had a few magazine covers to his credit.

    

“And Dale!” I told my friend Eric as I was counting all these up that afternoon my delusion died. “Wasn’t he in dirty movies?”

    

Eric nodded. “He’s also a hooker,” he said.

Pornography was once again on my mind some months later at a cocktail reception, in an excruciatingly swank part of town, where all the guests had one thing in common: At various times, each of us had shown up
at this same apartment, stripped off our clothes, and masturbated in front of our host Frank Yamrus, a photographer.

    

I’m not sure if this experience rose, or fell (depending on your point of view), to the level of pornography. Like Andy Warhol in his 1964 film “Blowjob,” Frank shot his subjects from the neck up. The results wound up not in the sticky pages of a skin magazine, but on the walls of art galleries and museums. Two of the prints are now property of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Frank’s show, titled “The Portrait Series — Rapture,” hung at the
Sarah Morthland Gallery
in New York for a month-long debut that ended October 14. The prints travel next to Houston in the spring,

and then to Portland, Oregon. To the part of me that sat in judgment of porn and its participants, I was able to argue, with some evidence, that this wasn’t pornography. It was art.

    

And yet, of course, I did it for the thrill. Art can thrill, but I posed for those other, less respectable jollies that over time have inspired me to expose myself in photo booths, go-go dance in seedy bars, drain my savings on Polaroid cartridges, and expend miles of video tape capturing the spectacle of my own semen flying through the air. I did it, I suppose, for the same reason that Marcus and Dale and Betsy and Ryan had done what they did. It was fun. It was erotic. It appealed to my narcissism. (It didn’t, unfortunately, pay.)

    

I had found out about Frank from other models who had sat for the project. The night I showed up for the shoot, the introductions were pretty casual — we were friends of friends, after all, just a couple of guys hanging out on a Thursday night and taking quasi-dirty pictures. The living room of his studio, a stylish two-bedroom in a pre-war apartment building overlooking the mouth of San Francisco Bay, had been decorated like an SM play pen, black rubber tarps draped over walls and furniture. A low table was set up in the middle of the room and covered with a black sheet. Video monitors stood on either side of the
photographer’s stand to show pornography on the right and a video display of the photo shoot on the left. Frank let me choose the music and provided high-end lube.

    

Prudery aside, I’m a born exhibitionist. I enjoyed the shoot. But I was frequently self-conscious, wondering if my expression was sultry or absurd, if I was looking in the right place, if I should leave my mouth hanging open or bare my teeth. I was performing, and a lot of energy went into trying to gauge the response of my audience, to decipher what, if any, cause-and-effect relationship existed between the

change of my expression and the click of the shutter. Why’d he take that one? Why not then? Now he’s gone a full minute without taking any pictures. I must be totally screwing this up. I can’t even jerk off right.

    

When the shoot was over, Frank said I had been unusually “confrontational” with the camera. After a while I had forgotten to look at the video monitors and started focusing on the lens. This may be a commonplace to porn stars and supermodels, but the camera, with its dark, dilating orifice, is an obscene piece of machinery. It opens, closes, opens, closes — then it keeps a part of you. To the exhibitionist, it is the perfect lover, demanding no satisfaction but to look.

    

Few of the models I met at Frank’s reception found the experience of being photographed similarly erotic.

    

“The situation itself was comfortable as it can be, but for myself I had to block it out.”

    

Ultra was a heavily and eccentrically made-up woman of forty who looked about ten years younger. She had bindis and jewels glued to her white-powdered face, an imposing black up-do, and sparkling black clothes: a Goth gypsy. The owner of an unspecified manufacturing business, she had measured speech and a rather frightening laugh.

    

“It wasn’t stimulating for me to think of a voyeur or get off about the situation at hand,” Ultra declared. “So it was falling back into my normal habits. I came twice, which is pretty common for me. I just blocked everything out.”

    

Joe Alemo, a dark, good-looking thirty-four-year-old in the apparel industry, was similarly uninterested in making love to the camera.

    

“Being photographed was not that erotic,” he said. “It was invasive, if anything. Because there are moments when you become self-aware — you hear the camera clicking. It brings your focus to yourself. When you’re in that moment with yourself, or with someone else, you want to just let go. We all know what he wanted to capture — it’s all about letting go.”

    

Equally mixed responses met the actual photographs, which the models were seeing for the first time. The pictures were surprisingly unsexy to me. Frank captured expressions that were variously serene, ruminative, deranged, aggrieved, embarrassed, elevated, spent and cross-eyed. This rapture was clean

of erotic kitsch and pornographic cliché; the spirit of Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts was anathema here. Frank’s work was less pretty. In some cases, much less pretty.

    

“Oh. My. Oh! My! God!”

    

These were not words of transport. They were words of alarm, spoken by Marc Guerrette, a thirty-three-year-old freelance florist who had modeled for Frank on previous occasions. In this portrait, his face, slightly blurred, was contorted in an enraged inhalation Dante would have hesitated to describe.

    

“I love it,” said a supportive friend.

    

“Oh. My.”

    

An hour later, when some of the shock had worn off, I caught up with the unhappy model. He was still unhappy.

    

“That picture makes me think, Is that really the face I make?” Marc said dispiritedly. “That’s something people shouldn’t see. I’m never coming in front of anyone again.” He reflected. “There are definitely times that I get reactions. Like, Oh my God, are you having a stroke?”

    

Marc’s portrait, he did not yet know, would grace the ad copy for the New York opening.

    

When I first saw my own picture, I was ambivalent. There were some nice touches: A single forelock dangled over my right eyebrow. Light gleamed on my tongue from between my parted lips. Far from looking like I was having a stroke, my picture had a certain comatose aspect, lent by the slits of white and barest crescent of pupil revealed by the nearly closed eyelids. My face was not contorted. In fact, it seemed to be missing some muscles. But orgasm had not disfigured me, and for this, at least, I was grateful.

As I circulated at the reception, I began to see that Frank’s models fell roughly into two categories. The first was a younger group of jaded exhibitionists for whom the photo shoot was a run-of-the-mill experience. The second, a generation older, found themselves transformed by it. Take my conversation with the middle-aged Jennifer Lovejoy, a painter, and her contemporary John Higgins, a massage therapist.

    

“For me it was really liberating,” Jennifer said. “When the process started I found I had to just give up everything I thought about who I was. Those images that come up, about who you are in relation to your kids, your family and all that, you just throw it out, and by the time it was over I felt I was completely liberated from so much. I came away feeling high as a kite.”

    

“It was a facing-the-demon-of-exposure kind of thing, the first chance at exhibitionism,” John reflected.

    

Jennifer had shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair, and spoke with ascending Midwestern inflections. She was garbed in grays and earth tones, accented by beads and silver jewelry.

    

“I’m the oldest one who did it,” Jennifer bragged. “I’m fifty-six, and I said, It’s time. How many more times am I going to be invited to do something like this? I’d have done it sooner if I’d have the chance, but then I was a wife and mom and everything, I wasn’t as free. I’m more free now than I was as a younger person.”

    

A few years Jennifer’s junior, John had a handsome, weathered face and borderline hippie hair.

    

“I’ve been a massage therapist for a number of years,” John said. “I was a gardener. Before that I was a union truck driver for fifteen years, and a husband and father. It was really liberating to draw this line between me and my past. I stayed high from it for days. I got this whole rush of self-confidence, which

was really surprising, the feelings I got from it. It was a really liberating experience. I didn’t know if I’d even be able to do anything near it.”

    

Liberation — where was mine? John and Jennifer had crossed a boundary in posing for Frank; I had not. My uncrossed boundary bordered directly on hard-core, mass-produced commercial pornography. On the other side of that line beckoned my tricks and lovers of the previous two years. Their videos, their magazines and websites held little attraction; but I was fascinated by their nonchalance, by their
indifference to the stigma that clung fiercely to porn. Whatever I thought of their profession, I admired their independence. I envied it.

    

Peering into the pornographic beyond, I saw what was at stake for me: long-held assumptions about who I was, what kind of sex I would have, and whether it, or representations of it, were for sale — whether I was for sale. At stake was the threat of an irrevocable alienation, branded on my imagination as the slumped figure of Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights, the bereft porn actress learning she had lost custody of her child. For Jennifer and John, the sense of liberation that came with posing for Frank also stemmed from a familial distancing, drawing a line between a sexual present and a parental, spousal past. But theirs was a willing, joyful separation.

    

The contours of the alienation I feared eventually became more defined. I’m not the kind of guy who would do it with the kind of guy who would do it on film, I had once thought. As it became increasingly clear over time that that’s exactly what I was, I began to wonder whether I was compulsively attracted
to people who were incapable of love — and whether I, too, might not be just such a person.

    

Incapable of love? That’s a pretty heavy number to lay on people in the sex industry, and certainly inaccurate: A college boyfriend in the business, for example, is now shacked up with a porn colleague and he’s become incredibly boring on the subject of their matrimonial bliss. Betsy’s alien sex website is being produced by her husband of ten years. In contrast to these happily hitched sex workers here I remain, shot discreetly from the neck up — and witness the picture: I am alone, alone!

    

In the face of this evidence the prejudice remains, fortified by the suspicion that other people share it, and warding me off from porn with the warning that to be so eminently and easily sexually accessible, even if mediated by film or video, I would become untouchable. Instinctively I had held porn against my sexual partners who had done it; pornography was a strike against them, and a damning one. I would not have it held against me.

    

So one last liberation awaits me, that vaunted perquisite of old age: indifference to prejudice, sufficiency of self. I will be old, and round, and wrinkled, an unlikely pornstar. But I will no longer care what others think of me, and that will be its own rapture.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Paul
Festa
‘s essays appear in Nerve, Salon, the Best Sex Writing
anthologies for 2005, 2006 and 2008, and other publications. He is
the author of OH MY
GOD: Messiaen in the Ear of the Unbeliever
, which is based on Apparition of the Eternal
Church
, his award-winning and critically acclaimed film about the
music of Olivier Messiaen. A violinist, he has toured extensively,
given the U.S., Boston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles
premieres of Messiaen’s 1933 Fantaisie, and performed with the
Stephen Pelton Dance Theater and the North Bay Shakespeare Company. He
is the official historian of the Presidential Memorial Commission of
San Francisco, and is revising a novel. More info at paulfesta.com.

©2000 Paul Festa and Nerve.com, Inc.