Will Roger Peterson
A camera alone does not make a picture. To make a picture you need a camera, a photographer and above all a subject. It is the subject that determines the interest of the photograph. – Man Ray – Oct. 2, 1966
The enchantment of erotic art has had a long history. From the explicit picture by Gustave Courbet L’Origine du monde to the sublimated metaphors of French Rococo painting, and the mystery of Victorian pornography, there has always been a dialogue between the explicit and the abstract in erotic art, and it is this dance that defines eroticism. For the artist Will Roger Peterson, one of the co-founders of Burning Man, the subject is one of celebration and performance. Exploration, spirituality, freedom and artistic expression are fundamental.
The appeal of Peterson’s compelling erotic black and white photographs is multifaceted. Peterson’s practice is at once technically interesting, intellectually engaging, and deeply sensual. In the pictures, there is a playful fluctuation between object, participant, viewer and voyeur. This fluidity is at the core of the success of Peterson’s alluring dance series (1987-present). The beguiling stop motion photographs skillfully merge erotic dance with the mystery of the 19th century Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic studies of movement. Using modes often associated with surrealist photography, Peterson inverts proportion, space and perspective creating an enthralling sense of discovery. To this end, Peterson uses motion effect including one-second exposure, strobe and spotlights on the moving subjects to create a dialogue about codified definitions of erotica, fine art and pornography. The spellbinding photographs emerge as a convergence between all three, suggestively fluctuating between a sense of the bacchanal, of the boudoir and the artistic. Light, shadow emerging from a darkness that is almost moonlit, pale snowy skin against light orchestrates a moving portrait, with an illuminated feathery atmosphere.
Many of Peterson’s images of a woman dancing are subtly erotic, elusive portraits of ballerina like dancer. The subject is Crimson Rose, Peterson’s partner of many years. The images are as much an expression of her sexuality and personality as his desire, or that of the viewer / voyeur. Peterson deftly shows glimpses of the feminine body against a foggy and dynamic elemental movement. She is deeply alluring, mesmeric.
Other images are reminiscent of classic example of modernist feminine beauty, channeling the magnetism of Gustav Klimt’s erotic poetry of womanhood; there is the play with closeness and distance that characterizes erotic art.
Conversely a number of racy images showcase fetish, costume and role-playing. Throughout, there is a riveting sense of delight, sexuality and enjoyment. As well, one of the most compelling pictures is an inversion of the typical female nude, a self-portrait of a masked Peterson as an expression of male virility veiled in mystery that also functions as a trope on surrealist practice linking his work to the practice of Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Brassai, Salvador Dali, and Andre Kertesz.
Peterson’s journey to the capturing of the reverie of sexual exploration has taken an interesting path. Before beginning his study of the elusive subject of human sexuality and desire, he began in a field defined by quantification. Originally trained in analytical chemistry, Peterson worked at the Rochester Institute of Technology, eventually earning an MFA and finally serving as a professor of photography. As a teacher he became well known for his course, “In Search of the Mystical Image.” And indeed, Peterson’s work juxtaposes the mystical and ephemeral with physical desire in this series of suggestive photographs, a dance is captured as a moment in time with tactile sexuality. Always interesting in depicting and portraiture, Peterson moved to California in 1991 to concentrate on portrait photography. However, when digital film took over the industry, he turned his focus to Burning Man. This concentration culminated into an artistic and personal affinity for the desert. Today, in addition to his captivating erotic photographs, Peterson also takes botanical photos and aerial images of Black Rock City. As a pioneering co-founder of The Burning Man Festival, Peterson’s work is intrinsically tied to exploration, dance and the expression of self and sexuality. The dance series mirror not only an undercurrent of raw sexuality, but also the grace and choreography of classic art, and modern photography.
This focused study of Peterson’s erotic images offers an unprecedented and intimate view into the magnetism of sexuality, dance and discovery and is the first exhibit of the artist’s work in twenty years.