With today’s *ooof* I may be throwing a potato into the ring that may be a bit too hot to leave unattended. *sizzle*
Whoa, you didn’t see that one coming?
I ended last week’s *ooof* by saying that I couldn’t mess with Proctor and write him into a trivial fictional ditty. Oh, saintly me. (…) Interestingly, I feel no such reluctance when it comes to this image. Taken by Jay Brooks, presumably as one of the theatre promo images for TC, it is obviously meant to depict John Proctor. And yet, for me this image is not a representation of Proctor at all – despite the make-up, the style, the design of the photo. This image of a (half-)nude, self-hugging man just does not represent Proctor for me – despite the notion of sensuality/sexuality that surrounds the character, which Armitage highlighted himself in his interview with DT. In fact, upon seeing the image the first time, I was quite confused as to where it sat in the context of TC – or even within the until-then seen catalogue of “photographic Armitage”. Previously, Armitage has never shown much skin *in photographs*. (Let’s draw the veil of silence over the 2002 promo shoot for Cold Feet where sexpot Lee is seen – rather orange – with a macho open shirt…) If you have previously drooled over appreciated topless RA, it will have been courtesy of caps from CF, BTS, SB, Spooks and RH. In his photo shoots, however, RA has always been demurely dressed, titillating with his smoulder, maybe, but not with the open display of his skin. In that sense, today’s image does not really represent Armitage to me, either.
Despite the confusion, when this image initially appeared, it still practically shouted at me for an *ooof*. Naked skin. Prominent nose. Body hair. Black background. All the kinks trappings of a perfect *ooof*: In the image we see Armitage with naked torso but made-up to look covered in dirt and grime, shot from the side. Thanks to the awkward pose, the sitter’s head is not seen in profile but pushed slightly towards the camera. The left side of his face is fully visible, and we can discern a tiny bit of his right eye. The sitter has put his left hand on his right shoulder and is reaching with his right arm over his head, his right hand just touching his left ear. Due to strong lighting from somewhere above left, the subject’s back is largely in shadow, but his arms, face and head, as well as some of his left shoulder and his right hand are illuminated. The subject holds his head slightly down – pushed by his right arm? – but directs his gaze upwards. The facial expression can be described as determined, serious, unflinching – a strong look.
While ticking all the boxes for a sexy, skin-flashing picture, perfect for appealing to a heterosexual female, the image also screamed “homoerotic” to me. This is not meant as a statement of dislike btw. The depiction of the male form in homoerotic imagery appeals to men and women alike – which is why there is no qualitative meaning inferred when I, a heterosexual female, use this term to describe the above image. I certainly enjoyed and admired Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic images long before I knew that he was a gay photographer, before I had seen his very challenging, graphic, and very homosexual images and before I even *understood* that the images of his which I admired so much were homoerotic. To this day they remain some of my favourite nudes, purely for the pared-back aesthetics, the sharp lighting, clinical look, simple design/composition and wonderful contrast. If they weren’t so omnipresent, I would not hesitate to display a Mapplethorpe nude on my G-rated sitting room wall.
But there is a contradiction in my reading of this image, that detracts from the appreciation. Granted, I see a very strong and always welcome *smirks* focus on the markers of masculinity in this picture. There is the prominently displayed bicep in the foreground. Not only is it the biggest expanse of flesh anywhere in the image, but it is also seen in its entirety, and is well-lit, highlighting the rounded, muscular shape. Then there is the dark, distinct beard against the pale skin, a marker of masculinity that connotes virility as much as maturity. The body hair on the forearm, and possibly on the chest and in the armpitage, are not quite as strongly marked, but for those who notice, it evokes associations of primeval man, a man close to animus and nature, in tune with his natural instincts and desires. Even the strong, freakishly long-fingered hand and the prominent nose jutting forth from the face are markers of masculinity. The strong, assertive, determined look in the eyes contributes to the very masculinity of the sitter. As such, these markers are supposed to appeal to the male way of seeing (themselves) particularly. And they seem very much in keeping with the way Proctor is characterized in the play. But this “muscular masculinity” seems contradicted to me by the pose, an effeminate? self-hug. A slightly unfortunate pose imo, too, because it reminds me of a typical pose women perform when the self-exam their breasts (not humourously meant – please inform yourself here)
To be quite honest with you, the image doesn’t quite “gel” with me. There is the contradiction of the strong masculinity in the picture (the muscles = strength, the nudity = confidence, the unflinching assertive stare of the sitter = confidence, the strong lighting that unflinchingly exposes the sitter), and then there is a pose that I find effeminate – a self-hug, the body touching itself, the hand on the head, all connoting feminine softness, rather than masculine strength. Now, these are *my* personal interpretations, and I am fully aware that they are based on stereotypical gender roles and characteristics ascribed to the two genders. Which makes me gag at my own world view, of course! I am floundering, confused by the apparent entanglement of the yin and the yang, when Proctor seemed so strongly yang to me.
And yet it is hard not to be drawn into the image, not to roam what is exposed to our eyes, and not to feel moved in some way or other. What the image does very well, is create a life-likeness. Despite a static (and, let’s face it, rather unrealistic) pose the sitter does not come across as a marble statue: I can almost feel his body warmth radiating from the image, imagine the slightest whiff of pheromonic sweat scent and sense his ribs subtly moving under his skin with every single breath of his lungs. I imagine all these things because there is one thing that I find very “alive” in the image – the open eyes. They draw the viewers in, anchor our gaze, and characterize the image as a portrait of a living being, not a still life of a carven stone. The warmth of the tones and the three-dimensionality of the image help, of course.
Would I hang this on my sitting room wall? No. In a poster gallery for the West End’s best productions? Neither. I fail to see how this image represents Proctor – maybe in terms of muscular masculinity, but he does not strike me as “a man in touch with his feminine side”. Proctor incapable of tenderness? No, not at all. (One only needs to remember the heartbreaking scene between him and Elizabeth where Proctor is trying to show Elizabeth his love, softly declaring his wish to please her, desperately hoping she will let accept his love again, asking for a second chance, essentially. He touches her in the most tender, tentative way, leaning in so slowly, carefully, hesitantly?, for a kiss from her as a sign of her willingness to forgive him.) But he comes across as a no-nonsense character, a straight-forward, unforgiving man, and certainly not given to softness towards himself, neither in sentiment nor in action. I suspect, that is what whoever made the editing choice for the Crucible promo material thought as well. The image of a contemplative, self-hugging Proctor looks too much “new man”, and thus not in keeping with the earthy farmer he is. The assertive stare, even the bowed head of the final poster-versions of Proctor, capture his essence much better than this image, however strongly masculine the figure in this image may look. No criticism of Brooks, though. He tried various approaches and produced some stunning, spot-on imagery of Proctor – and I will forever be grateful that he gave us a look at the rejects. Just imagine if this image had been left languishing in the virtual wastepaper basket of the digital darkroom… That would have been dark times indeed…
It had started very pleasantly, of course. He had gotten up just as the sun inched over the horizon. He wanted to do it “his” way, all the way. He had pulled on his heavy boots over a pair of tattered jeans and a loose-fitting shirt, and with a steaming bowl of porridge warming up his stomach, he had set off for a short walk across the land – to experience the farm life with all his senses: the heavy soil under his feet, the touch of frost on his skin, the blinding light of the rising sun in his eyes, and the faintest scent of the bluebells in his nostrils. This is how he lived. He had momentarily felt connected to the man, to the past, and strangely – also to the earth, to nature and the universe. It was as if a former, ancient self had reestablished itself in him.
Mind you, the ethereal feeling of the dawn reconnection with mankind had withered fairly quickly as soon as he entered the byre. The steaming warmth of the animals had welcomed him. The odour not so much. But he had mucked in with all his might, mucking out. Gently prodding the cows to move out of his way, occasionally stopping to catch his breath, leaning on his fork, and then pitching in again, piling up the dung in a well-used wheel-barrow to take outside. After getting anointed with some of the soft, splattering excretions of those blessed females he had quickly learnt to read the tell-tale sign and jump out of the way. With his fork in hand, it had almost been a pas-de-deux, and he had felt smug like a little boy, every time he had managed to dodge a pat, just in time… His simple lunch – just bread and butter, a piece of cheese, and a bottle of beer – had never tasted so good, and he had leaned back in a haystack outside the cowshed, soaking up the spring sun on his face.
Man, he felt grubby! He had been out all day, working on the farm, preparing for his role as an earthy 17th century man. Playing farmer had appealed to him. The fresh air, using his hands, the satisfaction of seeing one’s progress with every log cut, good old-fashioned physical work. His hands were hurting, unused to work as hard as this. They were long-fingered and soft – too soft for a man? – from only ever thumbing through manuscripts, and the occasional lifting of luggage into a car boot. It had been donkey’s years since he had laid a laminate floor! And even the strain of a two-and-a-half-year movie project had not really trained the muscles he had used today. But an honest days’ work it was, and as he finally closed the barn door behind himself at the end of the day and walked over to his room in an outhouse, he was looking forward to the only 21st century luxury he had decided to allow himself on this exercise – a hot shower.
Leaving his muddy boots outside, he stepped into the warmth of the bare hallway and closed the door behind himself. He stank. Of cow. And of man. Honest sweat was no less smelly as any other. He pulled off his socks with his fingertips and shrugged off his shirt, wriggled out of his mucky jeans and impatiently hooked his thumbs under the waistband of his tight boxer briefs. As he stepped out of them, he let the tighty whities snap off his fingers. They flew in a graceful arc and landed on a hook beside the coat rack in the hallway.
Naked, and goosepimpled from the cold stone floor under his feet, he hurriedly tiptoed along the hallway to the small bathroom beside the kitchen. It was a simple space, not luxurious. No gleaming tiles, no shiny taps, not even a glass enclosure in sight. He stepped into the porcelain square of the shower, fiddling with the taps to get the water flowing. He closed his eyes as he let the water beat his chest and run in hot rivulets along his front. Ahhhh… His muscles rejoiced as the heat of the water began to loosen them. This was it. The simple things in life – a work-out, no distractions, and a hot shower to cleanse himself from the toils. As he reached for the bar of soap, he broke into a wide smile, belting out his favourite bathtime ditty. “Love in an elevator, livin’ it up when I’m goin’ down, love in an elevator, lovin’ it up til I hit the ground…”
He felt gratified, happy, sated. Despite my aching body, he smirked to himself. Then he reached his right arm over his head – and did a double-take as his gaze met his reflection in the almost-blind mirror across the room over the sink. He looked like a right farmer – straggly beard, his torso looked black with dirt, a grey layer of mingled sweat and grime. He sighed and scratched himself in a gesture of comfort under his arm. He was exhausted. Knackered. Banjaxed. And filthy. A *dirty*, *old* man, he thought with devilishly grim grin.