Photographer Luke Austin talks Instagram, intimacy and his explorations of bodies, race and identity…
Many people like to complain that Instagram has become a social media platform filled with bought followers and people thirsty for more and more likes. Sure, you could say that Instagram has led to more gay men indulging in some sort of shirtless-selfies narcissism. And you could say that it contributes to more LGBTQ people feeling the pressure to fit within some mainstream aesthetic of the ideal body. But the promise of Instragram, an open ‘democratic’ platform, allows for many artists to gain exposure and fans. Artists (and their communities) that are often underrepresented within the mainstream art industry can flourish on the app. Further, it allows those of us who feel we aren’t shown within mainstream representation to finally see ourselves. This is the realm in which photographer Luke Austin operates.
Austin started out as a photographer shooting bands and musicians before his work turned more inward with portraits (and a few self-portraits) representing his own community. And he gained traction, and his subjects, through the social media platform. He has travelled the globe finding and shooting his subjects (and often crashing at their pads) thanks to the app. But Luke’s work quickly turned into more than beautiful images of gay men. He has gone from simply being a photographer with a large Instagram following to a published photographer exploring notions of identities. His latest book, LEWA, is an exploration of masculinity, race and sexuality through photographs.
We sat down with Austin to learn about him and his process.
How did you get in to photography?
I began creating work with a ‘professional’ camera in 2004. I won a competition in Rolling Stone magazine to win an AAA photo pass to Big Day Out [Australia’s Coachella]. So I got myself a Canon SLR and shot all the bands from the side of the stage, which was amazing. I then continued shooting bands, musicians, music festivals and shows. I wanted to be a top music photographer in Sydney but after a couple of years I began taking portraits of my friends and now my focus is portraiture.
Many of your models are just people you have met though Instagram. What made you decide to use Instagram? How does being an ‘Instagram Star’ inform your work?
In 2010 my best friend in Sydney said to me, ‘Have you seen this new app Instagram? It’s kinda like Facebook but JUST images.’ And I remember thinking that’s ridiculous, we already have MySpace, Facebook and Flickr, and I don’t need any more social media. Cut to eight years later and it’s a force to be reckoned with ha. I’ve actually been struggling with using it for the past year. It’s a different app now than it was eight years ago. In the beginning it felt like it was for creatives, the community felt small and the feedback was great. Now it’s more orientated towards marketing yourself and creating yourself as a brand. Self-portraits are the most popular content. When I post my portraiture work they feel overlooked, and as an artist it’s sometimes tough to see work you love not received very well. You start to think it’s not good and I think that was pushing me to make work that I knew would be liked on Instagram, and that’s just crazy. So I haven’t been posting new work on the app, allowing me to work on it without checking “likes.”
You shot over 100 men in different cities all over the world in a few short months—which is a feat in itself. But how do you manage to capture such intimacy with people you have just met?
My favourite feedback about my portraits is about the light and the intimacy, so thank you. But in saying that, I’m not sure how it happens, ’cause sometimes a shoot is as quick as half an hour with a complete stranger. I guess I like to make them feel as comfortable as possible. And the fact that most of the models are in their bedrooms is straight up intimacy. I love images of men lounging in chairs, lying back on beds etc.… So I just try to capture an intimate connection in that setting. We chat, I watch the model’s mannerisms and I grab an in-between moment when they aren’t ‘thinking’ too much.
Are people as open to sharing their spaces as studios as they are posing for you?
Most of the time, yes. I often get ‘no, my place is awful,’ but we shoot there and we get some great portraits. People feel comfortable in their own spaces. I also love the challenge ’cause I never know what lighting situation I’m going to get. I also shoot at my apartment if people would rather that.
I am sure many people draw parallels between you and Robert Mapplethorpe, but I see a lot of Nan Goldin and some hints of Cindy Sherman in your work. But who really inspires you and your work?
I think the Mapplethorpe one is too easy and not really thought about. It’s because of the latest book (LEWA). So we are both white men who released a book of photos of Black men, but I think that’s where the similarities end. I’ve always loved David Armstrong, Paul Jasmin, Peter Hujar, and early Annie Leibovitz work.
What made you decide to tackle issues around race and masculinity and queerness?
I really don’t think about it when choosing men to photograph. I’ve always just taken portraits of the men around me and no matter what their shape or size. I shoot in a gentle, sometimes feminine way, and 98 per cent of the time they’re gay men. I guess it became a ‘thing’ when I started to notice that the people of colour weren’t getting the same ‘likes’ as the white guys on my Instagram. I think without really thinking about it too much, that pushed me to photograph more p.o.c. [people of colour], to the point now where I rarely photograph white men. There are already plenty of accounts on Instagram that feature ONLY white men.
I am particularly drawn to your explorations of the self through your self-portraits. What made you decide to include yourself as subject and not simply photographer?
I really like taking self-portraits. Usually it’s to express how I’m feeling at a certain point. Or I came across a beautiful location and had no model to shoot there, so I put myself in the shot. Most of the time I cover my face because it’s more about just having a human element in the photo as a shape and a point of interest or something for the light to play with as opposed to me creating a mood with facial expressions.
In the mini book Femme, you play with notions around gender and performance via a wig. What made you decide to play around with ‘feminine’ objects like a wig?
I think gay men love a ‘girl hair moment’ and it was interesting for me to play around with photographing these men as themselves but with big, stylized, typically girl hair. Would they sit differently? Would anything change? I had some of the men put on a skirt. What was really interesting is that book was the least popular, by far. I think we are comfortable looking at drag queens who do the full look, but men with just the hair was a problem.
The ‘gay’ world seems to be fascinated with ideal bodies but you seem to purposely try to showcase other versions of ‘ideal’ bodies. Was that intentional or simply haphazard?
Not intentional. I think about what I was doing back in 2007 in Sydney and I remember wanting to photograph muscles because I didn’t have them and was always drawn to that. I also think it’s too easy to photograph bodies that are stereotypically perfect and muscular. Whether it’s good or bad photography, gay men love a photo of a cut muscular dude with abs. As I have progressed and my work has changed, I focus more on the face and care less about what the body is doing. I photograph a lot of really skinny men, average bodies, gym worked, and up to body builder-type muscles. But I don’t pick men based on their bodies. Also, I think a lot of people think I only photograph ‘ideal bodies’ ’cause I’m good at capturing each model in their best light. So if you quickly flick through my Instagram it looks like everyone has the ideal body, but there is actually a great range there.
When you started shooting men, did you think your work would evolve into explorations of bodies, race and identity?
Nope. Not at all. It was just a hobby really, and capturing my friends if they’d let me. Honestly, I’m still not really sure what I’m doing. I’ve spent a lot of the last year reflecting on my work, what I’m making, and why I’m making it. I think the last 10 years went by so fast and it got to this point where I’m like ‘okay, so you’re taking these beautiful portraits of queer men, but why?’ None of the new stuff is on Instagram but that’s what I’m exploring now.
So what’s next?
Now that LEWA is done and out, I can get back into finishing Mini Beau Book 10. It will be the final book in the series and it will be portraits of trans men. I think trans men are underrepresented, especially in the gay world that focuses so much on passing trans women, so it’s been great meeting and taking portraits of these men. And just continuing to explore my own personal portraiture work, which hopefully will end up as a show of some sort at my gallery here in Los Angeles.
You can check out more work by Austin at www.lukeaustinphoto.com, or, if you aren’t already, you can follow Austin on Instagram @lukeaustinphoto.
CHRISTIAN DARE is a freelance writer who spends his time between Toronto and New Orleans. He writes for numerous publications and is known for his writings on pop culture, lifestyle and design. He occasionally appears on daytime TV when not hunting for a great pair of shoes or design piece.