Robert Gant’s extraordinary photography enjoyed a major outing in Mates & Lovers, Chris Brickell’s 2008 history of gay New Zealand. Now Brickell treats us to a more leisurely tour through a body of images that reveals how, for young middle-class males in 1880s Masterton, the world of entertainment bled seamlessly into the world of sport. By profession a pharmacist, Gant was an extroverted theatrical type who effortlessly manipulated the impressive stable of rugby-playing lads that were his photographic subjects. There is the easy masculine camaraderie of touchy-feely poses, as men relax, draped over other men, and the occasional transvestite thrill when Gant persuades his mates to dress as ladies. Has anything much changed in the Wairarapa?
The survival of the two precious photograph albums, passed down within the family of one of Gant’s favourites, Charles Blackburn, is itself remarkable. Just as remarkable, perhaps, is Brickell’s suggestion that the albums originated as a wedding gift to Charles and his fiancée, Minnie May D’Arcy, one of the few women depicted in the albums. Was Minnie at all alarmed by her fiancé’s effeminate friend, or might she have helped him with the elaborate costumes? Could she be the photographer of the images that include Gant and her future husband decked out in feminine attire?
A pronounced fetishism relates to shoes, sometimes depicted in close-up with or without masculine ankles attached. But another of Gant’s fetishes is far more arresting, namely the obsessively replayed scenes of beautiful young men in the process of being beheaded. “I wonder what it would feel like?” runs the breathless caption to an alluring image of Bert Erskine clutching a chopping block, a gigantic axe poised alongside. “How it would feel” is at the heart of Gant’s sole published text, a story in which a handsome young medium channels an episode of decapitation by pirates. Brickell quotes historian Bronwyn Dalley’s suggestion that old photographs can give up the “involuntary confessions of history, the things tucked away in the corner of images”.
Gant’s work is instead the polar opposite of reticent colonial imagery, semaphoring an urgent and quite palpable homoeroticism, played out in fantastic scenarios. The beauty of this charming book lies in its revelation of a much sexier and far more interesting past than we might have imagined.
MANLY AFFECTIONS: THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF ROBERT GANT 1885-1915, by Chris Brickell (Genre, $49.95).
Roger Blackley teaches art history at Victoria University of Wellington.