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Intimate Strangers: In Conversation with Matthew Morrocco
by Ana Finel Honigman


Berlin, Jul. 2014: Matthew Morrocco’s “Berlin Series” depicts no-strings-attached encounters tied to the fabric of our most intimate human emotions. This tender photographic self-portrait series evokes the pleasure and pathos that can be embedded in online hook-ups. As a young New York artist studying in Berlin, Morrocco met older men and photographed them either alone or interacting with his nude body. He respectfully represents these men’s aged bodies and evident desires. Presenting his subjects’ faded, slack skin as velvet, he invites them to pose languidly and the sensuality of his images gives dignity and emotional depth to customarily taboo or scorned encounters.

Morrocco’s soft use of light, delicate color palette, and his own graceful boyish beauty bring an uncanny sense of premature nostalgia to his images. Where Laurel Nakadate’s self-portrait series taunting dejected older men is fueled by the contrast between her youth and sexiness and their evident sexual failure, Morocco’s art is devoid of cruelty. In fact, the empathy evident in his work asks whether Morocco casts himself as the embodiment of these men’s pasts, or whether he is peering ruefully into his own future.

Related concerns reappear in Morrocco’s other self-portrait series overtly referencing Francesca Woodman’s work. Here, he pays homage to the artist whose work and brief biography are usually interpreted through feminist theory. But instead of making a statement about gender, the series’ focus is mortality. For his photographs, taken with the same dreamy perspective as his “Berlin Series,” Morrocco contorts his body and tests his physical boundaries. By referencing an artist who took her own life at the age Morrocco is now, he presents a life-affirming hope that he will endure into an old age that embraces young men as handsome and empathetic as he is today.

Morrocco’s work can be seen in August in a show presented by the residency Picture Berlin and in a second show hosted by the artist platform, artistdock.


Matthew Morrocco, Shaun With Chair; Courtesy of the artist


AFH: Tell me about the identities of these men in your "Berlin Series"? How did you meet them and how collaborative are the images?

MM: I mostly meet men online, on hookup apps. I’m very shy. I like the barrier of the online profile—I’m much more interesting online than I am in person. The whole thing feels more personal and private. We get to make up who we are and under those circumstances people reveal things about themselves that are more provocative. I’m not necessarily trying to capture reality. I like it when people insist that the caricature they present is real life.

AFH: Your work is so intimate. In what contexts do you feel shy?

MM: In public, around authority figures that are too entitled. I especially hate heteronormative patriarchy but there’s nothing worse than an officious homosexual.     

AFH: Why did you title your series with older men as your "Berlin Series"? How does this work relate to the city and your impressions of Berlin?

MM: The last time I was in Berlin I was reading Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, so the title (I think more subconsciously than anything) comes from this. I see Isherwood as an important predecessor. In the pictures, I sought to honor history (political, personal, artistic). I wanted to experience and understand the combination of tense history and revelatory youthfulness that Berlin offers. 

AFH: Do you feel Isherwood still represents Berlin? Personally, I do. But I wonder whether that connection is anachronistic.

MM: No, I don’t think it is anachronistic. Isherwood was describing a personal artistic journey in The Berlin Stories. Sally Bowles, for example, exists everywhere. She’s not talented and never successful but she lives her life as if she’s already famous. Isherwood lionizes rather than criticizes her. In Berlin there’s a community that does the same. Isherwood’s Berlin allowed him to build the life that he wanted, both in writing and in his real life. This kind of place will always exist as long as people exist, whether in New York or Berlin or anywhere. Berlin is a place where it is encouraged to get lost in the illusion of your constructed identity.   

AFH: How would this series be different in another city?

MM: It is really a matter of architecture. I have similar work from New York, for example, but the apartments are so much smaller that the work tends to be more psychological. There’s less space to contextualize a person in an environment. 

AFH: I love that! It feel like a fantasy New Yorker, like a Woody Allen character, living my neurotic life in my gorgeous Berlin flat instead of a New York water-closet. What are the men’s relationships with the city?

MM: It’s just as much a safe haven for creative older men as it is for young people. But it varies by neighborhood. Men living in Prenzlauer Berg have a very different view than men living in Neukölln. 

Matthew Morrocco, Mark; Courtesy of the artist

 

AFH: Considering how unrepresentative most peoples’ photos are, do these men assume that you’re not actually an attractive young man? Your genuine identity is most people’s avatar. Do you find an imbalance in the illusions?

MM: No, mostly they assume I am attractive. I experiment with my self-image in order to make my work, but that’s tricky. Looking back to Isherwood, the tragedy of Sally Bowles is that she never lets her illusion drop. She disappears inside it and never comes out. Only children are impressed by magic tricks. Adults are thrilled by sincerity cloaked in a magic trick—it’s a fine balance. 

AFH: Do you only have one online profile for each site? Have you ever created a persona far beyond a legitimate extension of your real identity?

MM: No, I’m not really capable of that. Though, I do have a decently developed alias that will last me through a good ten minutes of conversation with someone I’ve never met.

AFH: When do you introduce this series into your conversations? What are the ranges of responses to your proposal?

MM: Usually right away. Otherwise people get the wrong idea. I don’t mind duplicity, but I don’t play games with the people I photograph. My relationships with these men are very important to me. Mostly, I get positive responses but some people refuse and stop talking to me.    

AFH: How much do you tell these men about yourself?

MM: I usually just say that I am a photographer and I’d like to take their picture. I don’t hide anything but I don’t offer more than necessary unless they ask. I’m very candid and upfront with them. If something unexpected happens during a shoot, it is unexpected for me too.

AFH: What are the personality and psychological characteristics that your older male models share?

MM: I don’t like to curate based on any particular kind of look or psychology. I want to photograph every day and sometimes it is just a matter of who is available. I’ve photographed ex-politicians, artists, real-estate agents, heroin and meth users, men who came out in their 50s, men who are lonely, and men who have very fulfilled lives. All sorts of men, but they all have a common interest in me. The work is narcissistic in this way.    

AFH: Have you refused to work with someone, perhaps because you felt he was too vulnerable or his motives were inappropriate?

MM: Never. I always take pictures. I react to what’s going on no matter what. The most important rule for any artist is that the work comes first, despite consequences. Those must be dealt with appropriately afterward, however. It’s a kind of civil disobedience.

Matthew Morrocco, Mark; Courtesy of the artist

 

AFH: Do you think of yourself objectively as a handsome young man in your work? Are you essentially objectifying yourself as part of your conceptual process?

MM: I’ve never thought of myself as objectively handsome, but I am definitely always objectifying myself in the work. I use myself as a handsome boy trope to make a point about sexuality, intimacy, aging, and attractiveness. But I don’t know what it’s like to be objectively handsome and refuse to claim it as part of my identity.  

AFH: Have you seen photographs of the men in this series when they were younger? Were they once as handsome as you are now?

MM: Seduction and attractiveness are really complicated. I’ve photographed men who started out very “attractive” when they were young whose seduction scenes fall flat. I’ve also photographed men who weren’t “attractive” when they were young but can convince me to do anything with their elegant diction, the way they move their bodies, or compose themselves for photographs. One of my favorite men to photograph, Shaun, tells me that at fifty-one he is the most attractive he’s ever felt. I think he was very handsome as a young man, but you can’t convince someone they’re attractive if they don’t think they are.

AFH: I actually think that handsome men have a much harder time aging than beautiful women. Culture assumes the opposite since men seem to physically age more gracefully but I’ve noticed that many handsome men are unaware that they’re treated differently than other men. When their beauty privilege wanes, they’re confused and normal treatment seems unjust. In that context, it makes sense that men who were never beautiful would feel more attractive once their peers fade and they become accustomed to their looks.

MM: I agree but I think it’s more complicated than that. Beauty is a powerful tool but it is cultivated and subjective. The majority of people in the world are equally beautiful but attraction is complex and socially coded. It’s a misconception that some people are naturally more attractive than others. Only sociopaths see attractiveness as a form of capital. 

AFH: That is an interesting and very nice interpretation. How does using your body as an element in your work affect your perception of your appearance?

MM: I have no real capital to start an art career. I can’t pay these men. I have to use my body and charm as a form of currency, which is fun at times, and difficult at others—I tend to feel a bit like a sex worker. When one photographs, one is seducing, sexually and otherwise. I don’t think it’s much different than seducing someone in a bar. Success or failure in life and art is always based on someone else’s opinion. 

AFH: Have you ever felt unsafe?

MM: Yes, all the time. When I’m offered a glass of water I wonder if there’s something dangerous in it. Sometimes people will bring over meth, or get too aggressive sexually. But I’ve found that most people are very respectful. 

AFH: Bring water, kiddo! On a less worrying note, what about the aesthetic aspects of your work? You use soft, ideal, and very romantic lighting. What does this indicate in your work?

MM: Accepting the glass of water is important, though! When I photograph someone we have to trust each other. Otherwise there’s no magic, no good photograph. I want the images to feel like sex on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Nice light means beautiful pictures. There’s power in beauty. 

 

Ana Finel Honigman

 

ArtSlant would like to thank Matthew Morrocco for his assistance in making this interview possible.





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