Full disclosure: Mark Beehre is a friend of mine, but in the interests of objective reviewership, I will endeavour to be impartial.
Men Alone – Men Together (Steele Roberts, NZ$40) is the result of a documentary project Beehre started about five years ago, photographing gay men, alone and together. It is openly influenced by Glenn Busch’s classic 1984 photographic book, Working Men, but as the project grew, the emphasis appears to have changed too. As Beehre states in his introduction, Men Alone “combines documentary photography and oral history to recount the stories of 45 gay men and how their lives’ journeys have led them towards or away from relationships with another.”
I know Mark as a photographer, yet on the basis of this book, he could easily be taken as a sociologist who just happens to be a fine photographer. Ignoring all those text heavy volumes on photographic theory, this is the most un-photographic photography book I’ve seen. The initial impulse may have been photography, yet the presentation of the photos means they serve the text rather than the other way around.
The essays accompanying each of the men photographed are based on interviews with Beehre, in which they discuss aspects of their life and sexuality. The text is very matter of fact, very (for want of a better word) straight, but there are also moments of humour, heartbreak, and real emotion (tears welled in me a few times). They may not all be equally compelling, but they do reflect honest human experience.
At the Wellington book launch a number of the speakers stated that the personal histories require time to digest—time which isn’t really available to the reviewer. Subsequently, I found myself jumping from one to another, without fully digesting each piece. While more likely to resonate with those who have gone through similar ordeals, or know the men personally, they certainly hold sociological and historical importance. One of the subjects says that straight people have no understanding of what it is to be gay. Men Alone doesn’t give us that experience (how could any book?), however its revealing stories of lust, love, romance, and loss do go someway to rectifying that.
What comes through most of all is the community aspect of homosexuality, the various networks, groups, and organisations they’ve built to help their own lives and those of other gay men—many of which would be unknown to the average heterosexual. It was largely as a result of these networks that Beehre was introduced to the men he photographed. Beehre begins each ‘chapter’ by telling us how he met the subject(s). We’re also allowed glimpses into his own life, through which we build up a bigger picture. It’s a nice reciprocation, being open and sharing alongside the men he photographed.
The real significance of this book is in the writing. To say the photos merely illustrate the text is to undersell them, but they don’t scream for your attention either. If I have one criticism, it is that more emphasis was perhaps required of the photos. As opposed to beginning each chapter, they could have been run together collectively as an essay in their own right. Granted, this is primarily born from my bias towards the photographic image, rather than it being a major failing of the publication itself—one which offers valuable insight into the experience of growing up gay.