Joe Oppedisano

Dark & Dank, Fighting & Screaming
Sexy was already back. Enter the “hypermasculine” fantasy world of photographer Joe Oppedisano

[originally printed in fab issue 311 – January 11, 2007]

“Gay fantasy” is what Joe Oppedisano calls his work. In the crowded field of male nude photography, Oppedisano’s shots stand out with their potent sexuality – an unapologetically- raw masculinity conveyed with rich colours and stark lighting. A fixture in European gay magazines, the New Yorker is finally becoming a name in North America.

The photographer gravitates towards “guys who are beefier and sexier” rather than the fashion world’s preference for “skinny and interesting” models. “I grew up playing football and baseball and running track,” he says. “I was always into athletic guys.” In the first collection of his photos, the aptly-titled new book Testosterone, Oppedisano takes his massive models into a world that’s “dark and dank and a little spooky. You turn a corner and see this big tattooed man. Is he going to fuck you or kick the shit out of you? There’s that question of should I go for it?”

He describes his work as “highly stylized and homoerotic” and it’s an artistry that prevents even his sexiest shots from being dismissed as pornography. He studied art history in Florence and was inspired by Caravaggio and other Renaissance painters. During a normal work day, he says, “I just started shooting with this really dramatic lighting. It’s very strong, very top-heavy. It accentuates the body and the muscles.” Another inspiration was less highbrow: “Black velvet paintings from the ’70s,” he laughs. “I love the bright colour and shadows.” Used in his own work, Oppedisano says, “all that muscle and flesh coming out of darkness is really romantic and sexy…I really saturate the hell out of my colour. The reds are redder, the blues are bluer. Everything is much more rich than it would be in real life, which makes it more cinematic.”

“I’m a drama queen,” he laughs. “I’m Italian – I love fighting and screaming and carrying on. That’s how the whole ‘fight thing’ started,” he says, referring to a fashion spread of slick suits that he just had to “make a little more interesting.” Inspired by the movie Fight Club, he led the models to a grungy boiler room and had them beating up on each other. The resulting photos became infamous and launched his new direction.

It was a sort of rebellion for a man who had spent 12 years as a fashion editor, working for some of the top arbiters of style like L’Uomo Vogue, W and Vanity Fair. “I’ve done everything,” he shrugs, “I’ve worked with everyone I wanted to work with. I dressed Ricky Martin for a year when he was really famous.” In the end, however, the “fashion industry bullshit” became “really boring for me. I wanted to get more creative but I just couldn’t [in that field].”

Oppedisano found the fashion magazines he worked for surprisingly resistant to his efforts to amp up the sexuality of their models. “I’d tell them, ‘we don’t have to be sexual, we’re not going to show anybody with a dick out,’ but just to show that ideal of hyper-masculine beauty…No one ever wanted to do it.” And the gay magazines were worse. “I find gay magazines more homophobic than straight magazines,” Oppedisano declares, “because they’re desperately trying to appeal to straight advertisers.” He rattles off the big designer names – Klein, Lagerfeld, Vuitton, Jacobs. None of them, he says, “support the gay magazines the way they should,” preferring to advertise in Details or GQ. Oppedisano says he was stunned by Out magazine, who recently hired him for a shoot after years of refusing his work: “They’d always say, ‘oh, it’s too gay, it’s too strong, it’s too this, it’s too that’ and meanwhile, they’d have other photographers – mainly straight – doing the same boring photo over and over again. There’s no sexual vibe, nothing. Just a guy by a river. Totally uninteresting to me.”

Oppedisano rails against the sort of de-sexed, tasteful black-and white male nude that became ubiquitous after the pioneering overtly gay imagery of Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts. “God, how can I say this without sounding…” Oppedisano trails off, frustrated. “I mean, their photographs are classic and timeless but very one-dimensional. If you look back in old photography books, every single one of those shots has been done before. It’s basically the same thing but modernized. I’m not saying I’ve reinvented the wheel by any means,” he says, “but what I’ve done is take all of those old references and not do it so literally.“ Some of his recent shots “are as classic as you get but they still have a raw, gritty, modern edge.”

While many photographers of male nudes strive for classicism – Greek statues by way of Leni Riefenstahl – Oppedisano’s tastes are more pop. “I find more inspiration in movies,” he says. “Did you see Batman Begins?” he asks. “Oh my God, that was so hot. Totally hot.” Having already done a ‘gay cowboy’ spread years ago [below], Oppedisano loved Brokeback Mountain. “The part when he spits on his dick to fuck him raw in the middle of the woods was genius! I couldn’t believe it!” After seeing the film, he says, “I’d have loved to do another gay cowboy shoot out in the woods somewhere but everybody was kind of going for that at the time so I held back.”

It’s the pack mentality too often seen in publishing that Oppedisano pushes against. While preparing Testosterone, he says, the publishers “wanted me to reshoot the book, to be like a Bel Ami book, and I told them I wouldn’t do it. I would rather not have a book.” After a while, he says, “they realized that having guys in Dolce & Gabbana suits fighting in a boiler room IS much hotter than them naked and laying lifeless on a bed, pretending to be sexy.” Oppedisano wants “that really raw masculinity that you don’t see in other photographs of a guy looking pretty with his ass up in the air. Sure, you want to fuck him but after that, then what?”

It’s the question Oppedisano wants viewers of his work to ponder: “I want the person looking at the picture to walk away with a fantasy in their head of what the fuck is going on? Is it going to turn into sex, or is it a sexual take on something, or is it real?” It’s only fair, since the same questions are being asked behind the camera as well. “For me, I find it hard to separate fantasy from reality when I do these shoots so I have to use the models as a totally blank slate, where I can make them what I want them to be.” He insists, however, that freely imagining his own sexual fantasies on set doesn’t extend to a casting couch. “Of course, I would, in a different situation, want to have sex with them,” he says, “but I really keep my distance because once I know someone really well, it’s hard for me to photograph them. I can’t create the fantasy in my head.”

This issue’s cover model Joseph Sayers is “kind of the exception,” Oppedisano admits. “Joe is like my little brother. I speak to him three times a day and I work with him all the time. He knows his body really well…how to use it, how to contort it. Joe’s an exceptional model.” Sayers’ career took off in 2002, when he was featured in an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog and a Pet Shop Boys video, both shot by Bruce Weber. Other photographers quickly followed Weber’s lead in showcasing Sayers as the quintessential beautiful blond boy but, since collaborating with Oppedisano, his look is that of a chiseled, athletic, full-on sex symbol. The photographer praises Sayers as “a chameleon” and “the most twisted little straight guy you ever met in your life. If you give him a situation, he gives you more than you can ever dream of.”

Oppedisano’s boyfriend only gives the photographer five minutes. “Literally!” he laughs. “Brad doesn’t give me a lot of time to take his picture but it’s good because I don’t need it with him. He knows what I want.” While Testosterone features a few photos of Oppedisano’s boyfriend – a bartender at New York leather bar The Eagle – it’s not nepotism when the subject is “really photogenic, really handsome.” Only one photo was a request. Brad “wanted a picture of his ass…Half the eastern seaboard has had it,” he jokes, “and it’s spectacular!”

“We lived in the same building,“ he says. “We were fuck-buddies for seven years, then one day, out of the blue…” The two have lived together for three years now. Brad’s support has even meant “suffering” through the premiere of the new Dreamgirls movie. “I’m not a Broadway person at all,” Oppedisano says, “but I came out during that play.” He saw the original production on a high-school field trip in the early ’80s and “when I saw Jennifer Holliday on top of those stairs, singing, ‘I Am Changing’…this big fat fierce woman…I was crying!”

Oppedisano moved from Albany to Chelsea at 17. “I was a club kid, I was a drag queen, I did it all!” he says, including putting himself through college as a go-go boy, stripper and escort. “And then I did fashion,” he laughs. “I’d do fashion in the daytime and then at night I was a hooker. It was like Batman – I’d go home, put on a leather jockstrap and go out again. But there’s nothing I’ve done that I’m ashamed of.” All of it, he says, “makes me who I am.”

“The reason I can take the pictures I take is because of those different experiences,” he says. “I know what it’s like to be treated like a piece of meat and to feel used. And that’s part of the reason I don’t touch the models or come on to the models – it’s disrespectful.” Also, he insists, it interferes with the results. “If you start coming on to the models, if they feel the least bit uncomfortable, they’re never going to give you what you want. They’re going to start feeling hesitant.”

Instead, he says, he keeps his sets fun and “completely asexual. I’ll put on Christina Aguilera, so there’s no sexual vibe in the room at all.” While his straight models “know when they walk in that they’re probably not going to have many clothes on,” Oppedisano says, “they love it because they all end up looking great. We have a great time and the way I shoot, they have no clue they’re shooting erotic photos. They just fighting and I’m putting them in shapes…They usually have no idea that it’s homoerotic photography,” he laughs, “even after they see it!”

Oppedisano says the reaction from straight men to his work has been the most pleasant surprise. “Two straight trainers at my gym liked the book and they bought it. And I was like, ‘Why did you buy it?’ And they said, ‘Because it’s so hot. We love the fight pictures.’ It’s not what I expected…but they’re New York straight boys so it’s a little different.” On the whole, though, he sees his work as “mainstream… It shouldn’t be shocking anymore. I think the world is becoming more open to things…My niece and nephew are eight and 12. They came to the book signing and they were surrounded by 400 gay men. They had the best time.”

Oppedisano turns 40 in February and, with the success of Testosterone, he’s already working on follow-up collections, including a book solely with Joe Sayers. “Right now, I’m completely satisfied with what I’m doing,” he says. While he admits when pressed that he’d love to eventually direct a film, Oppedisano believes “it’s all leading in the right direction. For me, it’s all about fantasy. I like to create fantasy and I like to have people turned on. I like to keep it as sexy as possible.”

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About Scott Dagostino

An arts & culture journalist who's the bastard love child of Van Morrison and Jessica Mitford
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