Instinct Interview: Photographer Michael Ernest Sweet

(Michael Ernest Sweet, left, with his partner, poet Matthew Hittinger. Photo: Maeghan Donohue)

In the art world, there was a time when "gay artist" carried a certain cachet. In the years before the LGBT civil rights movement, when our kind were forced underground to create our own arts communities, making note of a "gay artist" rising through the mainstream allowed the art world to seize on the avant-garde, and communicated to oppressed homosexuals around the world hope, community and identity. In the post-Stonewall era, however, a time when the LGBT celebrates annual prides, can marry one another and is largely tolerated by the mainstream, the clarification isn't as immediately necessary -- or cool. In a community like ours that is forever associated with arts and culture, do we need to continue to hold on to "gay artist"? How has the art world evolved alongside the world's acceptance of the LGBT community?

For the answers to these questions and more, I turned to my dear friend and gifted, accomplished artist, Michael Ernest Sweet. Sweet -- who was awarded a Diamond Jubilee Medal by Queen Elizabeth II for his achievements in education and the arts -- has found success in many artistic disciplines, but is perhaps best known for street photography work that brings us intimately close with the human condition (links to books at the bottom of the interview). Reaching such heights in street photography, infamously a straight man's genre, has made salient Sweet's stance on being known as a "gay artist." I couldn't wait to chat with him and find out more. 

(All images below by Michael Ernest Sweet)

Instinct: How do you feel about having your sexual orientation be considered in relation to your art? Do you want to be known as a gay artist?

Michael Ernest Sweet: I feel ambivalence toward the issue, really. On one hand, one has to wonder what my sexual orientation has to do with anything outside of my bedroom. I’ve never really understood this country’s (I’m an expatriate from Canada) fascination with sexuality as a subject of public/political discourse. Americans, generally speaking, desire leagues of independence from oversight and government regulation, yet they also seem to be trapped in the sexuality issue. I guess they want government to be just small enough so that it fits neatly into a bedroom. I’m not a fan of this approach. I think we have an unhealthy attitude toward human sexuality, collectively, and that defining myself as a “gay artist” plays into this phenomenon. On the other hand, by necessity, gay people have formed very distinct communities, especially around arts and culture. There are, like it or not, key names – famous gay artists, writers, musicians etc., and certain benefits that come with such a distinction, namely a dedicated, ready-made, and usually very faithful audience. I like being a part of the community, so to speak, but don’t wish to have my identity tangled up in it to the point of losing my own individuality – which is so much broader and more complex than simply my sexuality.   

Do we need “gay artists” anymore?

This is a more challenging question than it would seem at first blush. It’s similar to whether or not we need gay bars and parades anymore. I do think that millennials are moving away from such scenes, as they become more and more accepting of all thing gay as mainstream and normal, as they should. However, the prejudice is not gone. This country is not, overnight, accepting and open toward difference, be it gays, African Americans, disabled people etc. We are all different, in our own way, from what this country still sees as the “norm." True, their vision may be challenged, as the norm is no longer straight white males, but we still have ground to cover. There is, nevertheless, work to be done. As long as that is true, I believe, we will continue to need leaders and icons and role models who identify with the various minority identities. So, yes, I think the gay artist is a dying phenomenon, but that it is not yet gone altogether, nor should it be. It will be something that slowly transitions out of our culture over a period of time. We are in the midst of this period today.

Does being gay inform your work in any way?

It must, is my hunch. I think everyone’s identity informs his or her lives, art, relationships etc., in some way. Is it reflected in my work, no, I don’t think so. I’m not a photographer of men or nudes or anything that would be readily identified as a “gay subject." Does it inform my sense of empathy and compassion for the “other”? Yes, I assume so. Would that show in my work? I would hope, yes. I think having been someone who has lived with being outside the majority in society has developed, or rather strengthened, certain empathetic sensibilities in me. In fact, it may be this very element that was the impulse behind becoming an artist in the first place.

Have you ever experienced homophobia on your rise through the street photography industry?

Surprisingly, no, I have not. I say surprisingly because the street photography community is a very heterosexual alpha-male-dominated world. I look at the work of some of the more noted contemporary street photographers and their cameras seem to be powered with heteronormativity, quite literally. In fact, it's come to the point of having photographs of women’s legs and butts accepted as street photography, by virtue of the very quantity of those kind of misogynistic images. Susan Sontag speaks of the camera as a sublimation of the gun, of photographing someone as a form of “soft murder." I find a lot of truth in that interpretation. Likewise, I feel that the street photography community is indeed over-masculinized in a way that is unhealthy. All of this to say, the environment seems ripe for such discrimination, but I am happy to say I’ve not personally experienced it. I know women photographers, however, who have been at the wrong end of this hyper-masculinized environment that is street photography, without question.

What’s your relationship with mainstream gay pop culture?

Minimal, at best. I’ve been more connected to the politics than the pop culture. I have intervened as an activist in a number of cases, mostly concerning education, over the years. I was appointed to Canada’s Commission for UNESCO in 2008 and spent three years there, mostly engaged in gay rights activism. Yet, I am, most undeniably, an ardent consumer of gay culture – books, art, cinema, etc. I am particularly tuned into the cinema end of things, as I know a few gay directors who produce gay-themed work. I also own Madonna’s first album on vinyl, does that count?

The work you’ve produced for your disposable project appears to be a change in style from your earlier street photography. Is that something you’re done deliberately?

Yes and no. My disposable camera work is different in some ways, but it remains the same in some very important ways also. For example, I changed the type of camera I was using, which, necessarily, changed the aesthetic output in an organic way, at least to some noticeable degree. I wanted away from digital and from the “gear craze” that consumes the modern photography world in general. So I turned to the disposable camera – a 35mm film marvel that requires no batteries or any technical manipulation at all; you simply aim the camera and press the shutter – that’s it. This was wildly attractive to me. I wanted a minimalist workspace and this, combined with the lack of post-processing (my images in this series are straight from lab, no modifications) made that desire manifest. I still photograph the irrelevant urban fragment, a little less so with people, but I’m still on the streets. I also still photograph close up and mostly with flash lighting. Many of the signature hallmarks of my earlier work are still present. Indeed, the work in this series is on film and in color and through a plastic lens. So, yes, it looks different.

What inspired you to start the project?

As I said, I needed a change. I wanted to try something different. I wanted to get away from the abundance of street that was being produced, i.e. someone running around with a Leica rangefinder capturing random strangers doing nothing. This work, largely speaking, is void of substance and vision for me. I see no value in the work whatsoever. So, the question for me was one of wondering whether one could even still photograph on the streets in this image-choked world and produce something that had any meaning or relevance in the greater world of art. I’m still not sure. I’m well into this disposable camera project and the work is still wanting in my opinion. I have made some interesting images, but what is the over all point of this project? I don’t want to simply produce anti-establishment work. That is, work that is only notable because it was made with a disposable, because it is low-fi, or because it is analog. It needs to be more than that for me or I will abandon the project altogether. I’m still shooting, so time will tell.

What are you saying to the world with the disposable work?

I’m not sure. However, I am trying to present work that is a somewhat more abstract in its fragmentation of the urban space. I’m trying to show bits and pieces of non-human life in our urban environment. Whether this is a deconstructed subway poster, or an ambiguous covered shape in the midst of the street, I want to show that sometimes the images without people tell us more about the people than the images with them. I’m really trying, at least in some ways, to make street photography without people. It’s hard. Also, there is an ephemeral element not to be missed here. I am making photographs that lack a certain component of permanence insofar as they are not images that anyone would call les beaux arts. They are snapshots in a classic sense, as they are not the kind of digital snapshots we see today from a cell phone, yet, they are approaching that same vein in that they are made with a certain carelessness and recklessness that is atypical in professional photography. Perhaps I am saying that street photography should be, or can be, something playful and flippant, even indecorous. Here, have a bite of these disposable camera shots art world, try these apples Howard Greenberg Gallery!

You’ve mentioned to me that you’re undergoing a creative transformation. What can fans look forward to from you next?

I think I will return to my writing next. I think I have said, or at least nearly so, all that I have to say in photography. I’ve done my thing. I’m not one of these people who are content to discover a talent or a new thing and then just continue in that thing, essentially, spinning ones wheels and making more of the same. It’s not me. I like to discover, uncover, conquer, explore and perfect new things. They say it takes seven years to master a thing. Well, I am nearing the end of that timeframe with street photography. I’m a naturally inquisitive person, I could never be happy to merely continue snapping elbows and knees with a disposable camera. My time as a street photographer definitely has an expiration date and it’s frightfully near.

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Head here to purchase Michael Ernest Sweet's Coney Island, or his debut photobook, The Human Fragment.

For more on Michael Ernest Sweet, visit www.MichaelSweetPhotography.com