Category Archives: Photography
By May Swenson – 1913-1989
Taking a photo of you taking a photo of me, I see
the black snout of the camera framed by hair, where
your face should be. I see your arms and one hand
on the shutter button, the hedge behind you and
beyond, below, overexposed water and sky wiped white.
Some flecks out of focus are supposed to be boats.
Your back toward what light is left, you’re not
recognizable except by those cutoff jeans that I
gave you by shooting from above, forgetting your
legs. So, if I didn’t know, I wouldn’t know who
you are, you know. I do know who, but you, you know,
could be anybody. My mistake. It was because I
wanted to trip the shutter at the exact moment you
did. I did when you did, and you did when I did.
I can’t wait to see yours of me. It’s got to be
even more awful. A face, facing the light, pulled up
into a squint behind the lens, which must reflect
the muggy setting sun. Some sort of fright mask
or Mardi Gras monster, a big glass Cyclopean eye
superimposed on a flattened nose, that print,
the one you took of me as I took one of you. Who,
or what, will it be—will I be, I wonder? Can’t wait.
About This Poem
“‘Double Exposure’ was a kind of love poem I’d always wanted––earthy and witty, with a streak of primal strangeness. May Swenson disliked the label lesbian poetry (and told me so, in a letter). While my generation’s identity politics found expression in publishing collectives and coming-out anthologies, Swenson continued hiding in plain sight. With marriage equality decades away, she knew who she was and whom she loved, inventing playful shapes that explored (among other things) intimacy between women.
“Two women (‘you’ and ‘me’) photograph each other in a spirit of experimentation that’s both childlike and scientific. The poem reminds us that we’re animals––’the black snout of the camera framed by hair’––and teasingly suggests simultaneous orgasm: ‘I / wanted to trip the shutter at the exact moment you / did.’ But the poem’s erotic life is as much about the intimacy of minds in dialogue with one another as it is about bodies. The Cyclops Swenson sees in the single glass eye of the camera lens invites fear into the ritual, but danger is part of the thrill. Glee is the state of mind and feeling as we transform each other: ‘Who, / or what, will it be––will I be, I wonder? Can’t wait.'” —Joan Larkin
About the Poet
May Swenson was born Anna Thilda May Swenson on May 28, 1913, in Logan, Utah. Her parents were Swedish immigrants, and her father was a professor of mechanical engineering at Utah State University. English was her second language, her family having spoken mostly Swedish in their home. Influenced early on by Edgar Allan Poe, she kept journals as a young girl, in which she wrote in multiple genres.
She attended Utah State University, Logan, and received a bachelor’s degree in 1934. She spent another year in Utah working as a reporter, but in 1935 she relocated to New York, where she remained for most of her adult life. In New York City, she held various positions—including working as a stenographer, a ghostwriter, a secretary, and a manuscript reader—while writing and publishing her poetry. In 1959, she became a manuscript reader at New Directions Press.
Since her first collection of poems, Another Animal, was published by Scribner in 1954, Swenson’s work has been admired for its adventurous word play and erotic exuberance. Her poems have been compared to those by poets E. E. Cummings and Gertrude Stein, as well as Elizabeth Bishop, with whom she was engaged in regular, often frequent correspondence from 1950 until Bishop’s death in 1979.
Swenson’s other poetry collections include A Cage of Spines (1958); To Mix With Time: New and Selected Poems (1963); Half Sun Half Sleep (1967); Iconographs (1970); New & Selected Things Taking Place (1978); and In Other Words (1987). Posthumous collections of her work include The Love Poems (1991); Nature: Poems Old and New (1994); and May Out West (1996).
She is also the author of three collections of poems for younger readers, including Poems to Solve (1966), More Poems to Solve (1968), and Spell Coloring Book (1976), and a one-act play titled The Floor, which was produced in New York in the 1960s. As a translator, she published Windows and Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (1972), which received a medal of excellence from the International Poetry Forum.
She left New Directions Press in 1966, having decided to devote herself fully to her own writing. In 1967, she moved to Sea Cliff, New York. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, she served as poet-in-residence at several universities in the United States and Canada, including Bryn Mawr, the University of North Carolina, the University of California at Riverside, Purdue University, and Utah State University.
About her work, the poet Grace Schulman said, “Questions are the wellspring of May Swenson’s art… In her speculations and her close observations, she fulfills Marianne Moore’s formula for the working artist: ‘Curiosity, observation, and a great deal of joy in the thing.'”
Swenson’s honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ford, Rockefeller, and MacArthur Foundations, as well as a National Endowment for the Arts grant. She received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, and an Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
In 1967, she received a Distinguished Service Gold Medal from Utah State University, and in 1987 an honorary doctor of letters. She served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1980 until her death. She died in Oceanview, Delaware, on December 4, 1989, and is buried in the city where she was born.
Four months before her death, Swenson wrote: “The best poetry has its roots in the subconscious to a great degree. Youth, naivety, reliance on instinct more than learning and method, a sense of freedom and play, even trust in randomness, is necessary to the making of a poem.”
Why I Chose This Poem
Today is Mardi Gras. I was looking for a poem about Mardi Gras, and found one I liked and was going to use this one next week since it only mentions Mardi Gras masks, but then I looked up the poet of the other poem and realized he’s a member of a far right anti-LGBTQ+ religious group. While I considered posting it anyway, I chose against it. Besides, reading the poem from that perspective, I decided it wasn’t that good anyway.
While Mardi Gras is not observed nationally throughout the United States, a number of traditionally ethnic French cities and regions in the country have notable celebrations. Mardi Gras arrived in North America as a French Catholic tradition with the Le Moyne brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, in the late 17th century, when King Louis XIV sent the pair to defend France’s claim on the territory of Louisiane, which included what are now the U.S. states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and part of eastern Texas. The brothers celebrated the first Mardi Gras in what is now Biloxi, Mississippi.
Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday) has a history traced all the way back to medieval Europe, where early renditions of the holiday known as “Boeuf Gras” (or fatted calf) were celebrated everywhere from Italy to France. In 1699, the Le Moyne brothers settled on a plot of land about 60 miles south of New Orleans and named it “Pointe du Mardi Gras.” When their men realized that it was the eve of the holiday, they had an impromptu celebration.
Bienville went on to found the settlement of Mobile, Alabama in 1702 as the first capital of French Louisiana. In 1703 French settlers in Mobile established the first Carnivale or what became known as Mardi Gras. Mobile celebrated the first formally organized Mardi Gras parade in the United States in 1830. The first informal mystic society, or krewe, was formed in Mobile in 1711, the Boeuf Gras Society. By 1720, Biloxi had been made capital of Louisiana. The French Mardi Gras customs had accompanied the colonists who settled there.
In 1723, the capital of Louisiana was moved to New Orleans, founded in 1718. The first Mardi Gras parade held in New Orleans is recorded to have taken place in 1837. The tradition in New Orleans expanded to the point that it became synonymous with the city in popular perception and embraced by residents of New Orleans beyond those of French or Catholic heritage. Mardi Gras celebrations are part of the basis of the slogan Laissez les bons tempsrouler (“Let the good times roll”). On Mardi Gras Day, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the last parades of the season wrap up and the celebrations come to a close with the Meeting of the Courts (known locally as the Rex Ball). Other cities along the Gulf Coast with early French colonial heritage, from Pensacola, Florida; Galveston, Texas; to Lake Charles and Lafayette, Louisiana; and north to Natchez, Mississippi and Alexandria, Louisiana, have active Mardi Gras celebrations.
The Naked Gunner
You have probably all seen this photograph by Horace Bristol form 1944. It has been widely reproduced and viewed as a symbol of bravery, loyalty, and erotic masculinity. In October 2020, the photo was included in a Sotheby’s auction of Classic Photographs. Lot 13, “HORACE BRISTOL | PBY BLISTER GUNNER, RESCUE AT RABAUL” sold for $ 27,720, well over the estimate of $ 8,000-$12,000.
“PBY Blister Gunner, Rescue at Rabaul, 1944” is one of the most iconic photos of the Pacific War. But the identity of the “Naked Gunner,” as it is popularly known, remains a mystery to this day. The photo was taken by Horace Bristol (1908-1997), a founding photojournalist for the illustrious Life magazine. In 1941, Bristol was recruited to the U.S. Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, as one of six photographers under the command of Captain Edward J. Steichen, documenting World War II in places such as South Africa and Japan. It is not known if the Bristol ever asked the soldier for his name as he captured his image. Sadly, we will never know. Bristol died in 1997, having kept a discreet silence on the bomber’s identity if, indeed, he ever knew it.
Bristol ended up being on the plane the gunner was serving on, which was used to rescue people from Japanese-held Rabaul Harbor (New Britain Island, Papua New Guinea) when this photograph was taken. In an article from a December 2002 issue of B&W Magazine he remembers:
“…we got a call to pick up an airman who was down in the Bay.
“The Japanese were shooting at him from the island, and when they saw us, they started shooting at us. The man who was shot down was temporarily blinded, so one of our crew stripped off his clothes and jumped in to bring him aboard. He couldn’t have swum very well wearing his boots and clothes.
“As soon as we could, we took off. We weren’t waiting around for anybody to put on formal clothes. We were being shot at and wanted to get the hell out of there. The naked man got back into his position at his gun in the blister of the plane.”
The fearless airman was deployed as part of a rescue campaign known as Operation Dumbo. Dumbo was the code name used by the United States Navy during the 1940s and 1950s to signify search and rescue missions, conducted in conjunction with military operations, by long-range aircraft flying over the ocean. The purpose of Dumbo missions was to rescue downed American aviators as well as seamen in distress. Dumbo aircraft were originally land-based heavy bomber aircraft converted to carry an airborne lifeboat to be dropped in the water near survivors. The name “Dumbo” came from Walt Disney’s flying elephant, the main character of the animated film Dumbo, appearing in October 1941. The campaign saved many Americans and their allies from a watery grave.
The PBY Catalina (a waterbomber) for which the naked man was a gunner, was an amphibious aircraft, recognized and celebrated by American aviators and flight crews for its vast range and endurance. According to the PBY Naval Air Museum, Washington website, the ‘versatile’ aircraft was capable of dropping “torpedoes, depth charges and bombs” while providing defense for their crews from “multiple high-caliber machine guns.” The airborne fleet, designed by Isaac Machlin Laddon and manufactured by the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, was used all over the world, but particularly in coastal areas, to “patrol for enemy fleets and perform rescues.”
You can see more of Bristol’s photographs if you go to http://www.horacebristol.com.
The Boy with Glasses 😲
I had planned to write a different post today, but time kept getting away from me, so I thought I’d post this picture of a group of school boys ogling vintage beefcake physique model Steve Kotis in the 1950s. I usually don’t post vintage pics. BosGuy does a much better job with his Thursday Vintage Gay posts. However, this picture of Steve Cotis just tickled me, because I can (and I bet a lot of you can too) relate to the boy in glasses checking Kotis out. I think we all know what that kid was looking at. It’s just such a great picture in my opinion.
Pics of the Day
These three images are from Bear Pond, an “infamous book” of nude photography by Bruce Weber and poetry by Reynolds Price, published by Little, Brown and Company in 1990. The book currently sells for anywhere between $200 and $900.