Art

Auto-Erotica: Peter Berlin’s Self-Loving Self-Portraiture

Peter Berlin, Self Portrait in Black Cap, c. 1970s, Hand-painted vintage gelatin silver print (all images courtesy of ClampArt, New York)

Peter Berlin, Self Portrait in Black Cap, c. 1970s, Hand-painted vintage gelatin silver print (all images courtesy of ClampArt, New York)

In an interview with The Guardian’s Dominic Rushe, photographer and porn star Peter Berlin explains, “I have wondered what it would be like to just have Peter Berlins on this planet. I think I’d prefer that. It sounds selfish. Very rarely have people made me stop the way I made people stop. If I was on a planet where everybody looked like me, I think I’d like that–but maybe it would be a mistake.”

While Berlin’s statement could be understood as an alternately comic and off-putting form of narcissism, his stunning photographic self-portraits, which are currently on view at ClampArt’s exhibition WANTED: Peter Berlin, reveal his inventive and influential use of his own body and self-created aesthetic as a revolutionary source of erotic pleasure. With his tight jeans or leather pants, blond pageboy hair and classical Grecian figure, Berlin’s portraits portray a distinct and enduring hypersexual gay male eroticism similar to Tom of Finland’s unwavering leathermen imagery. However–unlike Tom of Finland, who completed several portraits of Berlin, Berlin asserts his own body as an ideal, transforming self-portraiture into self-love.

Peter Berlin, Double Self Portrait, c. 1970s, Hand-painted vintage gelatin silver print

Peter Berlin, Double Self Portrait, c. 1970s, Hand-painted vintage gelatin silver print

Berlin’s oeuvre and fascinating story has experienced somewhat of a resurgence after 2005’s documentary That Man: Peter Berlin, which reintroduced Berlin to a new and younger generation. Following the interest generated by the documentary, as well as the increased critical attention given to gay male erotic illustration and photography with exhibitions such as Stroke at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play at Artists Space, ClampArt’s WANTED: Peter Berlin further solidifies Berlin’s importance not only as a stalwart of sleaze but also as a photographer.

Peter Berlin, Self Portrait in White Jumpsuit on the Piers New York City, c. 1970s, Vintage gelatin silver print

Peter Berlin, Self Portrait in White Jumpsuit on the Piers
New York City, c. 1970s, Vintage gelatin silver print

From Berlin’s moody and atmospheric black-and-white photographs in New York’s derelict but storied Hudson River piers to his hallucinatory double portraits, it is difficult to look at Berlin’s photographs without thinking of the endless proliferation of “selfies” in our contemporary era. A predecessor of the selfie and–let’s be honest–the dick pic, Berlin’s connections to the digital age’s self-obsession allows his photographs to remain fresh, new and pleasantly subversive.

Peter Berlin, Self Portrait in Nature, c. 1970s, Hand-painted vintage gelatin silver print

Peter Berlin, Self Portrait in Nature, c. 1970s, Hand-painted vintage gelatin silver print

Born in Poland with a mouthful of a name as Baron Armin Hagen von Hoyningen-Huene and raised in Germany, Berlin began designing his own custom-made clothing at a young age, startling his mother and anyone else nearby. Fashioning an almost abject and highly sexualized personal style by highlighting his •ahem* member by tightening his pants, Berlin employed style as both a means of rebellion and creation as he developed his own spectacular personae arriving in San Francisco in 1969.

Peter Berlin, Self Portrait as Urban Cowboy, c. 1970s, Vintage gelatin silver print

Peter Berlin, Self Portrait as Urban Cowboy, c. 1970s, Vintage gelatin silver print

Posing his way through the major cities such as New York, Paris and San Francisco, Berlin evolved into a cult-like figure of homoeroticism. Through his flaneur-like image, as well as his starring roles in Nights in Black Leather and That Boy, Berlin transformed into an idol for the gay community, as well as a connection between erotica and the art world as depicted in his appearances in photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol.

Even though he admits he saw cruising as a form of performance art, it seems as if Berlin was cruising himself as much as–if not more than–other men when looking at his self-portraits, as well as his discussions of his forays in the 70s and 80s. In a Narcissus-esque tale, Berlin recalls being taken by a man he spotted in the street only to realize he was staring at his own reflection in a window. “That was the best compliment I ever got in my life,” reflects Berlin in The Guardian, “Unfortunately, I gave it to myself. I was walking, I looked up and thought: ‘Oh my God. Who is that?’ It was me. People think I must be so stuck up, it’s nothing like that. It’s just that I liked what I saw. I would have preferred that it had been someone else. I would have loved to have an experience with that person.”

Peter Berlin, Double Self Portrait in Blue Jeans c. 1970s, Hand-painted vintage gelatin silver print

Peter Berlin, Double Self Portrait in Blue Jeans
c. 1970s, Hand-painted vintage gelatin silver print

Berlin’s photographs record this same inward-glancing erotic gaze, as described by Berlin himself. Viewing the entirety of WANTED: Peter Berlin, Berlin’s autoeroticism can be overwhelming at times as Berlin’s image–as if a Warhol painting–proliferates throughout the gallery space with his iconic look. Particularly Warholian are his series of double self-portraits in which he is engaging with himself sexually and jarringly separated from his double.

Deemed the “Bettie Page of beefcake” by Armistead Maupin, Berlin’s self-portraiture contains an even deeper resonance than purely sexual release. In a repressive hetero- and even homo-normative society since Berlin recalls even gay men’s horror at his hypersexual aesthetic, Berlin’s use of himself and his own body as an erotic ideal translates into a radical act of self-love. As stigma continues after Stonewall through the decades of Berlin’s work and through till today, Berlin’s autoerotic pleasure and even–dare-I-say–pride in his own physicality becomes a powerful and yes, political act, challenging viewers to accept and worship Berlin too.

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