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George Steeves Photographs

Go to the George Steeves exhibition webpage

The Desiring
By Peter Schwenger

He stands in the tub – has apparently been standing there for some time, as the water is up to the overflow fixture—with a weak spray from the shower head directed at his midriff. He must have been standing directly under the spray before this, as his hair is plastered to his head, and his makeup seems blurred. He wears a lady’s white openwork top, reminiscent of a crocheted tablecloth. Its network-and-flower weave, together with the patterned tiles on the wall, and the painted designs above them, create a claustrophobic excess of ornament; the patterns seem to crawl. Against the lacy top, draped in a swag below the contours of his belly, is what first seems to be a chain link belt and then changes its significance as we realize that the chain is attached to manacles. The manacled hands are placed at the hips in a pose that is incongruously reminiscent of a classic cowboy stance: thumbs in front pockets, fingers loosely framing the bulging crotch, one hip thrust out. But here the hands are more consciously caressing, and there are no pockets, indeed no pants. From beneath the lacy top the penis’s blunt head peeks out behind a dribbling stream of runoff. The legs are encased in nylon stockings, slick with water. Around this figure is the usual paraphernalia of bathrooms: shower cap, back scrubber, shampoos and conditioners; you can read the brand names. You cannot read the expression on the man’s face, nor guess what he is looking at. It is certainly not you.

This is George Steeves by George Steeves. Or rather, it is a version of George Steeves, one of many depicted in the series of photographs that he has titled Excavations. And just as in the image described above there are too many simultaneous fetishes to add up to a neat psychological package, there are too many versions of George Steeves in the series, and too many versions by him of others, to pin down in a readymade word or phrase. For in Excavations it is not immediately evident what is being excavated –though it is probably something that is just as hard to get to in words as it has been for Steeves to get to it in images. What is needed in both cases is a kind of productive perversion —recalling that the etymology of the word perversion makes it most broadly any “turning away” from the norm. And so I am going to bend the norms of language in an attempt to get at something that underlies the remarkable variety of Steeves’s photographs, and which I will call the desiring.

Why not simply “desire”? Because desire, as it is usually understood, is split between two versions: subject and object. The objects of desire are all around us, in images that range from advertising to rock videos to pornography (which are indeed increasingly difficult to distinguish). They are the objects of a subject of desire, one who is subjected to desire for these objects. But it may be that an object and a subject become fused in desire, that a subject becomes its own object of desire; and this is closer to what the man in the shower is enacting. Becoming one’s own object of desire may for some people come down to being a “narcissist.” That this word is usually considered a self-evident condemnation reflects a superficial understanding of it; narcissism is in fact a necessary element in the structuration of anyone’s self. This is the claim of Jacques Lacan’s famous interpretation of the “mirror stage,” where the child at six or seven months recognizes, for the first time, that the image in the mirror in a sense is that child. Before this moment there has been only a broth of fragmented perceptions; now the child’s existence in the world is given a definite shape and contour. Consequently this moment of recognition is a “jubilant” one. The newborn sense of focus and clarity is of course delusory, since the child is split at the very moment at which its unity seems to have been attained in an external image. Nevertheless the child will carry into adulthood this mirroring, this imaginary playmate called self, and will never lose it –not even after reading Lacan. The frequent presence of mirrors –some broken, to be sure—in Steeves’s photographs may allude to this sort of narcissism, which is more fundamental than a character flaw or a Freudian pathology.

What is notable about the photographs of Excavations, in fact, is the degree to which they depart from the most common narcissistic agenda, which is one of self-glamorization. The subjects before Steeves’s camera are unflinchingly themselves: their bodies are generally imperfect, with the signs of age and mortality visible on them. Nor does Steeves spare himself: he is a pudgy man who makes no attempt to conceal that fact. Yet he has a sexual presence that is more than a matter of “explicit content,” as is the case with Steeves’s other imperfect subjects. The contrast between their bodies and their sexual props and poses might easily lend itself to an effect of pathos or grotesqueness, but does nothing of the sort. In their most outré poses there is a dignity to Steeves’s subjects. These are sexual bodies that are also complex consciousnesses; and this already separates the photographs from the pornography to which they might superficially be assigned. Admittedly, pornographic props are deployed: manacles, masks, feather boas, makeup and various fancy stockings. But the point is not the props, as in the classic fetishist image; nor are the bodies in these photographs props for someone else’s desire.

Steeves’s subjects ask not to be glamorized but to be expressed. And what is expressed repeatedly in these photographs is the desiring, an ambiguous state that is reflected in the grammatical ambiguity of the term. The desiring is the one who desires, the desiring one; yet this does not mean that the desire in question is directed at an external object. Nor is the desiring one an object in itself, though subjects may aspire to become objects without ever being able fully to do so. The desiring is a process, then, neither a goal nor a stable subject position. It is the very desire to enact desire within and with one’s body, a body that must always fall short of what is aimed at. What is aimed at is not orgasm —or not that alone— for orgasm, produced by the body, takes one momentarily out of the body; it has been described as a “little death” for almost as long as it has been described at all. This death drive is not what one reads on the bodies of Steeves’s subjects. Their sexuality, explicit or implicit, pulls against the body’s mortality, its descent into an anonymous and common fate. We see that pull, that resistance, enacted before us. The enemy is entropy (a word that Steeves has used to title one of the four sections of his series). It is the fact that things fall apart –not just bodies but lives.

Many of Steeves’s subjects have known the bitterness of a shortfall in their lives, or prolonged emotional pain. One can see the marks of this knowledge in their physical presence; it is this, perhaps, that makes their presence memorable.

For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent. (1)

The perfect body is always anonymous. These bodies, these faces, are intensely individual. Their intensity resists entropy: his subjects, Steeves has said “will themselves onto the film emulsion.” (2) And insofar as he identifies with that intensity, partakes of it, Steeves finds for each individual an expressive photographic language. That language ranges remarkably, from a straight-on shot of the face to the most contorted compositions, positions that one can hardly imagine corresponding to any erotic scenarios.

Nor is it ultimately erotic scenarios that are being depicted here –or not only erotic scenarios. The desiring can be expressed through sexuality, but it goes beyond that. Indeed that very going beyond –or the poignant and brave attempt to do so— is at the heart of the desiring, and at the heart of Excavations. Let me give a couple of examples of how this is so.

Though the sexual bodies in this series are often photographed in the no-place of the studio, with backdrops that are unabashedly artificial, it is just as common for them to be photographed in ordinary domestic interiors. The man in the shower is standing in someone’s real bathroom, with all the banality of its commercial products in plain view; others are found in the midst of CDs, glassware, books and potted plants. In these cases the erotic seems to have invaded a normal domestic existence, bursting through its tranquil surface to reveal a powerful beyond. The subversion of the norm is expressed as well within and by these invasive bodies. There are no sexual clichés here, no readymade classifications; rather something that in the sixties, when George Steeves began taking photographs, used to be called “polymorphous perversity.” If they are polymorphous, then these images not only go beyond a domesticated norm, they also go beyond the standard catalog of perversities. They fascinate us precisely for this reason, because we cannot assign them to a category and thus control or dismiss them. When Steeves uses a vocabulary of perversity, he combines its elements in ways that pervert that very vocabulary, and hint at a desiring that is, in the most profound sense of the word, unspeakable.

This desiring is manifested not only in Steeves’s more extreme images but also in straightforward head shots. In almost every photograph we see it in the eyes, in the gaze of his subjects. I am using this term in Lacan’s sense, a sense that distinguishes the gaze from the look. A look is focused upon something, or rather someone. Sartre found this focus existentially unnerving, as it turns its recipients from the subjects that they mentally see themselves to be into objects physically seen by another, who in this way usurps the subject position. A gaze, in contrast, is less focused; it goes beyond what it seems to be looking at, which even when that is a person is not so much someone as it is something. What is that something? It is the very desire that goes beyond the physical object; for, Lacan asserts, “in its relation to desire, reality appears only marginal.”(3) The gaze does not find its goal in an external object but goes beyond that object, seeking what it represents: an original “lost object” that must continually generate an unfulfilled desire. And if desire is continual in this way, then its unfolding and unfulfillment more fittingly takes the gerund form: the desiring.

This dynamic of the gaze is reflected in the optical-psychological paradoxes that are present at the moment the picture is taken. The photograph, one assumes, reflects the photographer’s vision of his subjects; yet Steeves speaks of “a desire to put myself in the other person’s place” while shooting. (4) But the gaze emanating from that other person’s place crosses his; it is directed not at him, nor at the camera, but beyond the camera at an image, the image of that person’s desiring, and Steeves’s. The same is true of the photograph when it is hung in the gallery. If the gaze of the depicted subject goes beyond the viewer (he is not looking at you), the viewer’s gaze correspondingly goes beyond the image. In both cases, this back-and forth shuttling enacts the same sort of dynamic that Lacan has argued is fundamental to any gaze: it finds no resting point, any more than desiring itself does. (5)

Yet it seems that in the image a resting point should have been found: with the shutter’s click the instant is frozen, the interminable stilled. That there is motion beyond this stillness is due to the nature of image itself, as described by Maurice Blanchot:

According to the usual analysis, the image exists after the object: the image follows from it; we see, then we imagine. After the object comes the image. “After” means that first the thing must move away in order to allow itself to be grasped again. But that distancing is not the simple change of place of a moving object, which nevertheless remains the same. Here the distancing is at the heart of the thing. The thing was there, we grasped it in the living motion of a comprehensive action—and once it has become an image it instantly becomes ungraspable, noncontemporary, impassive, not the same thing distanced but that thing as distancing, the present thing in its absence, the thing graspable because ungraspable, appearing as something that has disappeared, the return of what does not come back, the strange heart of the distance as the life and unique heart of the thing.(6)

Image in Blanchot’s view always involves a certain remoteness —remoteness from the physical object, but also remoteness from the viewer. Neither object nor subject, the image inhabits a space between, which is also a space beyond. Blanchot’s language in this passage is paradoxical, but one point emerges clearly: what you see is not what you get. The image is what is not present, it is the thing as distant from us. This distance is obviously not something that can be measured; rather it is something that is felt. And the name that is given to that feeling is desire, the desire to close the distance. Each image is its own lost object; to view the image is at some level to reenact the dynamic of loss and the corresponding desire to recover that loss.

Clearly there must be degrees to which this assertion is true: not every image evokes this sort of fascinated desire, and most images claim already to have fulfilled it. But this property of the image can be brought to the fore by art, and particularly by an art that has chosen for its subject matter desiring that recedes without resolution, desiring that continually aspires beyond. The photography of George Steeves is such an art. On the one hand, nothing could be more painstakingly finished than his photographs. From their initial composition through the entire process of developing and printing, Steeves exhibits an astonishing technical proficiency. On the other hand, all this control and finish is devoted to one end: that each image should hit us with the force of a blow to the unconscious and simultaneously recede in a wave of undefined emotion, taking us out with it. Not everyone will want to be so taken, for the emotion in question is both profound and painful. There is perhaps an allusion to it in the title of the last section of Excavations, “E-Minor.” This is the key that opens the Götterdämmerung; Steeves has described it as the sound of a “hard longing.” (7) In this photographic series the longing of that music is conveyed in images, conveyed to us. Or perhaps not conveyed, as it is always already present in us; rather, expressed and released in visual form. For ultimately when viewing George Steeves’s photographs the desiring we enact is our own.


1. William Butler Yeats, “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop”

2. Personal interview, October 3, 2006.

3. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Penguin, 1979), 108.

4. Personal interview, October 3, 2006.

5. For a full explication of Lacan’s theory of the gaze, and its application to painting, see my essay “Red Cannas, Sardine Cans, and the Gaze of the Object” in Mosaic Vol. 35, No. 3 (September 2004), 55-71.

6. “Two Versions of the Imaginary,” trans. Lydia Davis. In The Station Hill Blanchot Reader (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1999), 418.

7. Personal interview, October 3, 2006

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