Acclaimed Photographer Gruenholtz on Exhibitions, Erections & More

Credit: Kenneth Gruenholtz

It’s always fun when you find out about someone incredible from another person that is equally awesome.

I had profiled model & all-around good guy Tom Ernsting (pictured above) for an profile piece & Instagram Live chat recently where he submitted photos for said article that was shot by a photographer that simply went by Gruenholtz (his last name).

Credit: Kenneth Gruenholtz

Gruenholtz’s work was nothing short of absolutely spellbinding to me after I took a peek at several of his portfolios. The black and white imagery he creates along with the gorgeous subjects he shoots are the perfect definition of what eye candy truly is. 

It was enough for me to want to know more about this fellow Big Apple mainstay and how he got to where he is. Turns out the beginnings of his career were quite different on his journey to becoming one of the biggest photographers in the world.

Check out our exclusive interview with him below.

Credit: Kenneth Gruenholtz

How did you get involved in the art of photography?

I had been doing sports photography as a hobby for several years, mostly collegiate athletics with a particular focus on wrestlers and decathletes. On a lark, I submitted two images I had taken at a Track and Field championship to the Sony World Photography Competition. To my surprise, both images were awarded recognition and exhibited at Somerset House in London.

After that happened, I decided to take some night classes in photography. My teacher became a mentor and encouraged me to apply to the Masters Program in Digital Photography at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. I was accepted and after graduating my career took off with a little help from Instagram. 

Did you have any inspirations before getting into the industry?

Inspiration for my work comes from so many talented artists—Warhol, Mapplethorpe, Muybridge, Anderson and Lowe, Avedon, and Weber, among others. But, perhaps most inspiring are the Hollywood glamour shots created by George Hurrell in the 30’s and 40’s. While Hurrell focused on classic head shots for his Hollywood stars, I wanted to create an incandescent glow for the model, head to toe, in just their birthday suit.

With respect to my couples work, my inspiration for this ongoing series comes from the Berlin memorial for gay men who were discriminated against and persecuted during WWll. The memorial is an unassuming small black shack across the street from the Holocaust memorial. The structure has one small window and when you look inside you can see a 1-minute black and white video loop that shows two young men embracing one another and being affectionate. It’s simple message of “love is love” was so affecting that it continues to inspire me to create images that celebrate the beauty of love between men. 

Credit: Kenneth Gruenholtz

How would you describe your specific style?

My work is mostly black and white and has a slightly surreal quality. I typically highlight the model in a way that makes them pop a bit against the background. Most of the time, I endeavor to shoot the model head to toe because I like the formality of that composition.

About a year after I starting posting my portraits on Instagram, the Dean of my arts program at SVA told me that she always knows when she sees one of my images due to its distinctive style. I had never thought about that or tried to create a distinctive style. It really just happened organically.

But it was a great compliment. Knowing that someone might see one of my portraits and say—that’s a “Gruenholtz”, is definitely appreciated.

You’ve shot some pretty amazing guys during your career. Do you usually search for them or do they come to you?

It happens both ways. As I became more established on social media, more models started contacting me. But, there are many guys not necessarily inclined to contact a photographer because they’re not models or just shy. Shoots with guys who have little or no experience with modeling are more challenging as they are less aware of lighting, angles and movement, but that inexperience can help create fresh and unexpected images. Accordingly, I am always looking for new talent. 

Credit: Kenneth Gruenholtz

What has been your favorite shoot to date and why?

Great question and one I haven’t been asked before. A few favorites come to mind.

My favorite “real-life” couples shoot was with an electrical engineer and a medical school student. Photographing people who are actually in love with one another is appealing because their expressions of affection are genuine and it shows. They were not professional models, but as I looked through my lens I kept seeing extraordinary moments of beauty. About three years after the shoot I learned that they had gotten married.

I loved shooting French twins from Paris who were personal trainers. Although both of them are straight, they had no trouble tapping into their affection for one another in a physical but nonsexual manner. If you didn’t know the context, you might even find the images erotic. At one point, I asked them to reimagine that they were back in the womb hanging out. They loved the concept and because they were uninhibited during the improvisation, I got some amazing shots.

My favorite solo shoot was with a young lawyer from Prague. He had never modeled before. As soon as he took off his underwear, he had a spontaneous erection which grew to impressive proportions. I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing. And, while the shoot (and his erection), lasted nearly three hours, we never discussed it. Although, at one point, when he was slow dancing in front of a floor to ceiling window, I noticed he had an unusually long string of pre cum sparkling (and swinging) due to angle of window light. I asked him to hold still and explained why; he didn’t move until I got the shot. That shoot is a favorite because it was so unexpected and I was able to create images I had never seen before. 

If there was one event that you could cover what would it be?

The focus of my work is environmental portraiture—shooting people where they live or work—so I really don’t cover events. But, back when I was covering sports, I used to wish that someday I might cover the near-naked mud wrestling in Turkey.

Credit: Kenneth Gruenholtz

Do you feel photographers are not as appreciated these days due to so much of the focus shifting to social media selfies and filters?

I used to think that but my experience on social media suggests that many people do seem to appreciate and recognize fine art photographers. It’s reflected in the number of likes and followers that good photographers get. In all candor, I was surprised at how sophisticated and discerning the typical Instagram “eye” has become. In fact, it may be that because so many people are posting images there is a greater appreciation for those artists who are creating images that are not easily replicated.

What does the future hold for you and what are you looking forward to the most in your career?

I just gave birth to my first photo book (UNCENSORED on Amazon), which is about my one year behind the scenes at Lucas Entertainment. As a result of that book, I’m having my first solo exhibit in New York City at the ClampArt Gallery (2/22–4/17/21).

I have also been working on censorship issues, especially those relating to Instagram’s deletion of images that don’t violate their guidelines. Last month I was asked to be one of the curators for a new website, dontdelete.art, that seeks to address unfair censorship on social media

While I have experienced aggressive censorship on social media, I have also experienced resistance to the exhibition of print images that show erections. As a result, I decided to create a digital collection of my favorite erection images: THE FINE ART OF ERECTIONS. It will be available on my website, Gruenholtz.com, when it opens at the end of December.

I am especially excited about the digital collections I am currently creating for my website. Aside from THE FINE ART OF ERECTIONS, I recently completed three others: NUDE WORKOUT, FIT OVER FORTY, and THE TWINS. The next collection,which I have just started working on, is MEN WITH FANS. It will include all of the men I have photographed for my OnlyFans page and I expect it will have several volumes.

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