Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jolly Old Saint Nicholas (Riewoldt) – the nudest nude

“Lewd” and “explicit” have been the media’s most common adjectives to summarise the purloined photo of AFL player/team-captain Nick Riewoldt and teammate (/subordinate?) Zac Dawson. Riewoldt’s barely-contained anger at his press conference yesterday continued the theme of umbrage and offence. Unless you’ve seen the photo, you may well translate these scant descriptions of (/reactions to) the forbidden image as “homo-erotic”, but while it is indeed a powerful image, it is not of this kind.

There are, I think, two readings of the image. More obviously, it shows a rumpled Riewoldt and a fresh-faced Dawson, both hamming it up for the camera. Riewoldt, who of course is nude, faces the camera, and gives a comic, pursed-lips shrug. Dawson, who is shirtless (only) and almost side on, is either looking at Riewoldt’s eyes or something past the left of frame, sports a wide grin. His arms are locked down at groin height, and his clasped hands hold a sealed condom packet at a suggestive angle (the only aspect of the photo I find possibly “lewd” or “explicit”). Riewoldt’s hands frame his genitals, which are in close proximity to Dawson’s hands. A summary of this tableaux might go “Alpha dog indulges cheeky puppy”.

A deeper reading of the image starts by asking: Where did all the homo-eroticism go? And why is Riewoldt so furious, nonetheless? The short is answer to both questions is: into the visibly chiselled and yet mostly-clothed body of Zac Dawson.

Riewoldt’s bodily stance has some similarities (presumably unconsciously so) to a classical Saint Sebastian or Michelangelo’s dying slave – the naked (or almost so) vulnerability, at least. The latter’s homo-eroticism is notably missing in Riewoldt’s image – in part because his facial expression brooks no ambiguity or projection of fantasy by the viewer, but more so because the homo-eroticism Riewoldt’s body deflects is at the same time volcanically withheld in the body of Dawson.

The shirtless young man in jeans almost always entails a peculiarly heterosexual swagger. Think the tough youths lurking behind in Carol Jerrems’ Vale Street (1975), or the drug-affected, shirtless Ben Cousins filmed in Perth’s broad daylight a few years ago. The implicitly-swaggering Dawson’s unfortunate (if presumably unconscious) juxtaposition alongside the naked and vulnerable Riewoldt is made worse by their differences in physique: not even Riewoldt’s also wearing a pair of jeans in that photo could disguise the fact that Riewoldt looks much older than the three years and four months that separate him in age from Dawson.

For all these reasons, I hope that the currently-forbidden image may one day be appreciated as a classic in Australian photography. Snapper Sam Gilbert is at once an accidental Modigliani (painter of “the nudest nudes”), and the book-ender of the manipulated-subject, nude-tableaux Oz photographic era that began in the mid-70's with Carol Jerrem’s Vale Street and Bill Henson, and now has ended with Sam Gilbert, Bill Henson and Twitt-book.

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