The Harsh Truth of the Camera Eye

R. M. Vaughan faces the cruel absurdities of aging, in a most absurd place.

Christmas, 2009 / No. 23
Photograph by Sear Portrait Studio
Sear Portrait Studio

R. M. Vaughan hates many things. This is why we are friends. My first encounter with him was through one of his videos. I was at a screening of shorts at the 2005 Inside Out Toronto Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival, feeling that mixture of apprehension and hope that can only be experienced at such events—the hope (against hope) that this next film wouldn’t fill me with despair for the state of queer cinema, and the apprehension that it most probably would. Then, R. M. Vaughan and Jared Mitchell’s Hate came on the screen. It opened abruptly with a shot of Richard’s head, and his inimitable, apologetic, narration. As the camera did a slow pan down his all-too-human, all-too-naked body, he enumerated everything wrong with gay film, gay art, and gays. “At last,” I thought. “Someone who is as filled with hate as I am.”

But, to paraphrase a friend of mine, we’re not actually filled with hate, we’re filled with taste—except I can’t really say that in all confidence about Richard. He has a very complex relationship with taste, and all of his work sits, jostling and uncomfortable, within the thorny confines of that relationship. His work is acerbic, resentful, exasperated, and very, very funny, but also yearning, messy, and emotionally labile. Richard’s work, I feel, springs from his desire to be a dandy, a man of high wit and perfect taste, knowing full well that the facts of his life betray him: his class, his upbringing, his neuroses, his body. Of course he is tasteful and stylish, but taste and style are not always kind to those who aspire to them. Richard’s relationship with taste is like a schoolchild’s relationship with a crush—he loves it and wants its blessing and approval, and expresses that by kicking it in the shins and yanking its pigtails.

One day this September, Richard and I found ourselves in the basement of the Eaton Centre, at the Sears Portrait Studio. Richard had prepped me: the woman he had spoken to on the phone earlier had totally understood what he wanted to do. “Eva,” the Sears photographer we found ourselves confronted with that day, was decidedly not that woman. With her hair the inadvertent colour of irradiated cadmium and her chirpy eastern European accent uninflected by the niceties of volume control, Eva was a woman of dubious taste herself, most likely under the impression that she and taste were on a first name basis when, in fact, she was hanging out with an altogether different deity.

And so we were unsure how to proceed; how would this woman react to two cranky fags taking the piss out of her job? After all, when one is using the Sears Portrait Studio for his own artistic ends, it’s best to keep things on a need-to-know basis. But somehow Eva was game, albeit in a blissfully ignorant way, reacting to Richard’s various absurd poses with a naïve, manic enthusiasm and megawatt smile that threatened to suffocate us (no wonder she had such trouble keeping babies from crying).

In the photographs that follow, Richard plays his usual dangerous game. He is one of the best narcissists I know—attention must always be paid, but to his abjection, his shortcomings, his impotent failures. What better way to illustrate the cruel absurdities and petty indignities of aging than to situate himself in and amongst not the trappings of youth, but the mass-manufactured backdrops to some faceless corporation’s treacly, kitschy idea of youth?

By the time the shoot was over, whereas I was obliterated by the experience, Richard was enthused. As he paid for the session, he engaged Eva in a discussion on the actress and singer Jane Birkin (“My God, you guys are just encyclopedias!”). He was full of warmth and fondness for our unwitting collaborator, for how unexpectedly game she had been, for her compliments, for her friendliness (false, but certainly not compulsory). In the end, Richard had found a fellow traveller, and might even have been envious. Here we were, mere ironic arrivistes to the horrid campiness of the Sears Portrait Studio, while Eva, in her white jeans, white lacy poly-cotton blouse, white athletic sneakers, and radioactive hair, was living the life. Her neglected sense of taste was authentic, and Richard wanted in.

Photograph by Sears Portrait Studio
Photograph by Sears Portrait Studio
Photograph by Sears Portrait Studio
Photograph by Sears Portrait Studio

Sholem Krishtalka lives in Beaconsfield. He is a writer and a painter who made his New York debut with a solo show at Jack the Pelican Presents in spring, 2009, and recently launched a specially commissioned folio of prints with ARTinvestor magazine, based in Munich, Germany. Last updated Christmas, 2009.