Salty Dog and Master of the Male Nude Jack Pierson Goes South for the Winter

Interview by Alex Needham

Jack Pierson began his art practice by cutting and pasting porno collage from the stacks of discarded skinmags he’d scavenge at flea markets in New York in the eighties. By the mid-nineties, he was collecting abandoned signage from the demolition intended to clean up Times Square, and putting together the text-based sculptures for which he’s probably most well known. Not one to limit his own artistic expression, Jack began photographing with a snapshot aesthetic that straddles the line between commercial and art photography — he’s created installations, paintings and drawings too. At the age of fifty-five, he’s busy with his own zine called Tomorrow’s Man, now on its third issue, and snowbirding to the Florida to catch that golden hour lighting so prized by photographers. Alex Needham interviewed Jack in his grand, but cosy East Village flat, where the walls are covered in pictures and the art books are piled high.

Alex: Where did you take the pictures for the latest issue of Tomorrow’s Man?
Jack: The bulk were either taken at my studio out in Ridgewood, Queens, or on an island called North Captiva in Florida. It’s not uninhabited, but there aren’t many people there.
You have suggested that you wanted readers to keep this publication under the mattress. If guys jerk off to it, is that a complement?
Yes, but we could both go on our phones right now and find much juicier imagery than what’s in Tomorrow’s Man. It’s more like poetry or something. It’s just hearkening back to the old fifties and sixties physique magazines, one of which was actually called Tomorrow’s Man. I just loved the idea of those magazines, and now I’ve made one.
These guys are pretty hot.
Oh good, I’m glad you think so. I do too. I kind of do it for myself. It doesn’t really serve me in the greater art world. Male nudes are not in high demand.
What makes a guy beautiful to you?
I’ve always shot guys naked, and in my early style, I can make it look incredibly intimate, much more like, ‘Oh my god, what happened here?’ I’m still the dirty old man, but I’m not pretending these are my lovers. I want it to look like physique photography. I want it to be fairly innocent — innocence is a weird word — I just wanted it to have that fifties kind of thing, or just vitality. I want to be able to continue shooting male nudes for the rest of my life.
Does it worry you, the dirty old man connotations?
No, not really.
Is there a particular type of body that you’re drawn to?
I don’t think so. I go for guys that you wouldn’t expect to be naked… Boy-next-door types.
And younger?
I don’t know. Maybe the next issue will be older guys. But that’s also really covered with the bear community.
So you’ve been going to Captiva…
For a few years now. I did a Rauschenberg fellowship. He had a studio on Captiva. He had bought so much land that you could be private in nature. It was great because I wanted to do nudes outdoors. It wouldn’t be this like, ‘Okay, quick, put your pants over there,’ like, ‘Try to look relaxed for a second, and then grab this before someone shows up…’ You know what I mean? Some of them were taken on North Captiva, which is even more remote. People still end up walking by or go by in boats, but from a distance.
Do you find there are two sorts of guys — the one’s who will take their underwear off and others who won’t?
Clearly there are, but I don’t want to force anyone or talk them into it. I drop it immediately if they say no. I want to be absolved from any kind of manipulation.
Have you done naked self-portraits?
I have, and I’ve posed nude for people. I don’t ask anybody to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. For me, it’s difficult because I’m not a person that should be naked. I had someone take some naked pictures of me a few years ago, and haven’t looked at them since.
Do you always prefer to shoot guys?
I guess I do.
I once interviewed Gary Hume, and he said he never painted guys because he wasn’t sexually attracted to men, so why should he bother? Is it the same for you?
I feel like that a little bit somehow. But I don’t think my pictures of girls look bad. But it also seems like they’re well-exploited, you know what I mean?
That’s true, there’s plenty of photography with women as the main subject. Besides here in the East Village and in the desert in California, do you also live in Florida?
More and more, but I don’t own a place in Florida, I just rent. I like to get out of New York for the winter. California is slightly warmer, but the light goes down really fast, like around four o’clock. In Florida, the sun sets at six, and then you’ve still got an hour of residual light. And also the desert at night can be very open, very lonely, whereas when I’ve got an ocean in front of me, I feel somehow less alone.
Do you live on your own — you and the dogs?
Yeah. One of the dogs I’m taking care of for an old boyfriend who’s away in Morocco for a month, so I usually only have the one.
Have you lived with boyfriends before?
I have, and it never seems to have worked out for very long.
Are you hard to live with?
Um, I think I’m impatient and controlling.
Really? Do you think it’s tricky for a successful guy to go out with someone less successful?
No, I’ve seen it both ways. I’ve seen people that are together twenty-five years where there’s a great imbalance, and I’ve seen people together twenty-five years where they’re like a power couple. What I find difficult with my own thing is that I travel a lot. I don’t know that I wouldn’t travel if I had the love of my life cooking me a meal every night, and we had all the same friends, yadda-yadda. Maybe that would change everything, but right now, I move. If I had somebody with a real job, they can’t leave, you know?
Are you looking for a boyfriend?
Um, I don’t know that I’m not. If you look, it makes it more difficult than if you don’t, no? Or I to think I’m not looking, so that if it happens, I’ll be surprised as opposed to spending every day like, another day I looked and couldn’t find.
In a couple of the pieces I’ve read about you, you’ve said that you’re lonely.
Did I say that? Or do people say that about me?
You said it.
You know, there’s a certain human condition of loneliness, and I’m not sure it goes anywhere when you have a relationship.
Is that feeling expressed in your work?
It probably is somehow. Most of my friends are other single guys my age. Once you’re fifty, it’s probably not gonna happen because anybody else that’s fifty is probably uniquely-damaged too. I don’t know. It will be a lot for me to find someone that I could give up complete control to somehow.
You once suggested that you were a bit lazy in your thirties. Did I get that right, or have you worked hard your whole life?
I have a leitmotif of thinking I’m very lazy, in general. And maybe compared to some people, I am. But I still I produce a lot of work.
Do you go to Provincetown still?
Yes, in the summer. I like Provincetown because you can see a lot of people, or you can be alone on the beach or in nature, if you want. I first went there when I was eighteen, and there was a class of gay guys that lived in Provincetown in May and moved to Key West in October. That was going to be their life, and it seemed ideal to me. But a lot of those guys are gone, and that option doesn’t seem to exist anymore because everybody wants more. You know what I mean?
Yeah.
These days, it’s hard to promote wanting less.
Well, there’s a lot to be said for just enjoying life.
Yeah. Rather than like, knocking yourself out thinking you should be doing a lot more. I guess it’s also easy for me to say that.
Because you’re successful?
Yeah, I guess. But I don’t want success as much as I want to be on the beach.
Have you ever been to the Dick Dock, the famous P-Town cruising spot?
I have, but not recently.
Are those days behind you?
I still like the idea of outdoor sex, but there’s hardly any place to have outdoor sex anymore. In Provincetown, if they are having sex outdoors, it’s in bright, overhead sunlight, and I need dappled light and a tree. I used to love outdoor sex in my youth. Boston had the Fens which was incredible — it’s all swamps and reeds. And if the moonlight didn’t hit it, it was right behind the baseball field, Fenway Park, which had those huge lights that made it interesting. You know, that kind of thing where, all of a sudden, you can be in a group of twenty naked guys.

Drive-in Saturday, 1984, Chromogenic development print. Jack Pierson and friend, André Laroche, make a pitstop during a road trip.

When was your first road trip?
My parents took me to Florida a few times when I was nine or ten years old. I had an aunt that lived there. In Miami, you see this whole new kind of architecture, the sun and the beach. The first road trip I took as an adult was when I was twenty-three, and drove again to Miami from New York on a Christmas vacation. I was so broke that I had to stay for three months to earn enough money to come back. I had left my conservative, suburban parents thinking, ‘Ooh drugs, sex, the homo life’, and I fell in with Mark Morrisroe and Stephen Tashjian. We were like a trio, not a romantic trio, but just like feeding each other’s sensibilities. Those two were slightly older than me, slightly more driven, and I was like the Cinderella — like everything I did was lame. I realized I had left my parents for two other parents — even though they were drag queens and junkies, it felt the same. When I went to Florida, I realized it’s not all about New York. It cleared my head.
What was it like to go out with Mark Morrisroe?
He was a real kook, but he gave me a lot in terms of possibility and sensibility. A lot of my sensibility definitely comes from him, but a lot of his comes from me. I’m not saying I taught him, but it was something that was going on with us.
How old were you when you met?
I was twenty-one. He was like a powerhouse, a non-stop creative person. That’s probably why I still think I’m a bit lazy somehow, because he worked constantly. He was driven by this idea of being famous. He was really obsessed with the idea of topping Warhol. I never had that kind of ambition. People want their artists to be obsessed and passionate and driven and non-stop, and I was kind of like, ‘What about if you’re not?’
Would you rather just hang out on the beach?
A little bit, yeah. Part of the reason I was drawn to Mark was because I was new on the scene, and he was like this punk rock icon in Boston. But at that moment, he was eschewing everything punk and just wanted to be successful. He would read this book, Dressed for Success, that told you how to wear a suit, though there was no getting the punk out of him.
The color pink looms large in your pictures. What is it about pink?
It just look makes you look better. I tend to go for obvious tropes, like a blue or a pink. I had a rose period and a blue period. I’m very much about a sort of obvious choice.
Is pink still a gay color, do you think?
I don’t know. I don’t think there is gay anymore is there?
Do you think of gay as a separate identity now that there’s marriage equality in the States? You were honed in an era of a specific gay aesthetic, weren’t you? I’m not saying that’s necessarily your aesthetic —
But it is, isn’t it? It’s of value to me somehow. When they were redoing Times Square — the Times Square you see in Midnight Cowboy with the sleazy porn houses, where everything was trashy and druggy — when they started to redo it, people were trying to fight it and I was like, ‘Forget it. You can’t fight it. It’s gonna go’. Bruce Benderson wrote that beautiful essay, Toward the New Degeneracy. He says everything in there that I feel, and he’s probably the same kind of old fag like me that doesn’t care about marriage. Of course we want equality, but marriage and having babies, it’s not what I wanted.
Me neither.
I still want to be an old school gay, but I’m not going to say, ‘Don’t have a long-term relationship and a family’. That would be ridiculous. Like just sit home and watch old Bette Davis movies — that’s what you should be doing.
Right.
I go to teach at Yale sometimes, I sit on a photography panel there. And there was a gay kid, he was like twenty-three. He was from a military background, his father was like a general in the air force. And this kid was drop dead gorgeous, a beautiful, boy-next-door type. I loved him, but he had the most boring work. Like black-and-white street photography, which is the Yale aesthetic, but it had no sensibility. I finally said to him, ‘Don’t you wanna have some naked guys in there or something?’ He said, ‘Does my work have to be gay because I’m gay?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, kind of, it does… The reason why it has to be gay is because what you missed twenty years ago was a complete holocaust’. Nobody was gonna talk about homosexuality until there was something to talk about. AIDS created that. And that had to happen for there to be marriage equality fifteen years later. I was like, ‘These people died so you can sit there and say things like ‘my fiancé’ in a Yale class’. So yes, you do have to make it look gay.

Tomorrow’s Man 3 is now available from Bywater Bros. Editions. Follow Jack Pierson’s coming and goings in the art world on his studio page.

End