XXY in Conversation with George Downing, the Photographer Capturing Intimacy
XXY in Conversation with George Downing, the Photographer Capturing Intimacy
In the throes of an ungracious summer, I met up with an old friend, George Downing. We had first met two years previously at a strange and intimate rave held in the warm Australian outback. We bonded over our names both being George, as well as a shared love for dust, heat and ‘doof’. Two weeks later, we ran into each other again at a festival in an old ski resort, and the friendship was forever solidified.
A few months later, George Downing published a series of photographs in a book entitled Hosting. The book was highly praised and was publicised in magazines such as i-D. In Hosting, George had photographed his Tinder dates in the privacy of their bedrooms. George had set out to explore the so-called ‘new forms of dating’ that were occurring under the auspices of apps like Tinder and Grindr. The result was a series that contested the notion that intimacy dies when love, sex and friendship are so freely available.
In mid-2016, a month or two after Hosting, George moved to Berlin. At our rendezvous a year later, George brought along a series of photographs from his upcoming collection, Bilder von Meinem Freund. In this series, George had moved to capturing a more prevailing form of intimacy – that between true lovers. In photographing only his boyfriend, Bilder von Meinem Freund sacrificed the ‘modernity’s intrigue’ that surrounded Hosting. However, it also allowed for a deeper, more earnest exploration of sex and love. The sense of intimacy in Bilder von Meinem is softly-spoken, intense and habitual, and makes you feel as if you can imagine the moments which surrounded and gave rise to these stills.
It was a special pleasure to catch up with George and to peruse through his new collection. We ate German dumplings and drank a sinful amount of wine, but we parted with a resolve to do a proper interview about Bilder von Meinem Freund before I left Berlin:
George Newman: George, in March 2016 you realised your first collection entitled Hosting. You released this book in Melbourne, Australia. Can you tell us a bit about Hosting and how it was received?
George Downing: Well Hosting explores the transient culture of online dating through my own personal experience as a user on Tinder. Essentially, I used the app as a tool to meet people and ask permission to take portraits of them in their bedrooms.
The book received mostly positive praise. The first edition sold out within a week. I guess the concept itself was quite topical and relevant, and people were interested. It was picked up by i-D,Vice, Spiegel, Tetu and a number of other online publications. The general response was that the images managed to convey an intimacy much deeper than one would expect between a photographer and subjects that were near strangers.
Though of course there were some criticisms as well. The portraits were criticised for being too staged, as (interestingly), a lot of people assumed these were taken post-coital and were purportedly candid. They were not. In fact, that’s the opposite of what I did – the aim was to explore and diversify the function of dating apps. But that general reaction – the belief that I took photos of guys that I’d slept with – only reinforces preconceived ideas of online dating.
GN: Hosting when it came out was seen as quite a bold expression of intimacy between people who were essentially strangers. And with Tinder as the matchmaker, it really felt like your photos were kind of expressions of ‘love in the digital age’, so to speak. I wonder, were people made uncomfortable by this? More so, did you maybe experience any homophobia because of Hosting? In Melbourne or elsewhere maybe?
GD: From my personal experience, Melbourne is quite progressive. There I’ve only experienced outward homophobia a couple of times, mostly on the street and late at night. One experience escalated into physical abuse, but apart from that I’ve been relatively lucky. None of this was related to the publishing of my book though – they were just random events. I was surprised at some of the comments that came through online in relation to my book. Namely, just close-minded homophobic people writing immature comments – but I learned to stop reading the comments anyway.
GN: Now that you’ve moved to Berlin, do you find the attitudes similar to Melbourne?
GD: Well before I moved to Berlin, I’d always imaged a kind of gay utopia. In a lot of ways, it’s exactly that, but there’s also a lot more homophobia than I expected. For a city with such a huge queer community (and a country whose parliament just recently legalised gay marriage) I still don’t feel safe holding hands with my boyfriend in most places. I’ve experienced more homophobia here in one year than I have during my entire life in Melbourne. Of course, I’m lucky enough to have the choice to display my homosexuality – I can choose not to hold my boyfriend’s hand and conform to cis/heteronormative standards as a cis white male. But just from observation and experience, Germany still has a long way to go.
GN: And these negatives attitudes, have they in any way affected your photography? For instance, your choice of subject matter or maybe your style?
GD: These attitudes have only encouraged me to pursue such subject matter even further in developing my practice. If art as expression is hindered by negative attitudes of others then I think it’s missing the point… Naturally, I think my work is becoming more personal.
Part of Bilder von meinem Freund was shot in Nowa Huta, the easternmost district of Krakow. It’s a beautiful socialist realist district where I was fortunate enough to stay for a few days last September with my boyfriend. Half way through our stay, we met a friend from Krakow. He was shocked when we told him where we were staying and warned us against displaying any public affection. Apparently the risk of hate crimes in Nowa Huta is quite high.
Accordingly, the mood of our stay shifted slightly, and I was worried to even leave the curtain open in our flat in case someone might look in and see two boys sleeping together in the same bed. So it created this sort of microcosm in the socialist style apartment we’d rented – where our love-making and affection was kept hidden behind locked doors and curtains, and outside we were two straight tourists, walking uncomfortably far apart and refraining from touching each other (this was difficult, because we’d only just recently fallen in love). As a result, the images I took in this flat are very meaningful.
GN: I suppose hearing about those conditions, that anecdote paints a profoundly romantic image of you two… I guess that’s a good Segway to talking about your new collection, Bilder von meinem Freund. How does it differentiate itself from Hosting?
GD: My new book is, obviously, far more intimate than Hosting. Seven out of eight of the models in Hosting were guys I’d only just met, so the pictures are slightly removed and mostly posed. I only felt able to go so far with each person, and so the result is something quite PG. Concretely, Bilder von meinem Freund is more explicit, as it only features images of my boyfriend over the course of our relationship. It’s a deeper look in to intimacy and much more personal. There are a lot of candid photos, which is something I felt Hosting lacked.
GN: What would you say you want the viewer to feel when they see this new collection?
GD: This series is an uncensored look into our relationship, and I hope the book as a whole conveys the excitement, anxiety, passion and fear that comes with falling in love. But of course different people will feel different things, it’s subjective and personal, so I’ll leave that up to the individual.
GN:Final question: when can we expect Bilder von meinem Freund to be published? And will you exhibit it in London?
GD: I hope to have the book published by the end of the year, if all things go well. And yes, I plan to have an opening exhibition in both London and Berlin, with limited copies and selected prints available.
View George Downing’s work here
Written by George Newman
Visuals by George Downing