Photographing Utopia

Photographing Utopia

Utopia, the term coined to describe a community or society with near perfect qualities, is used to express imagined desires of an ideal community that obtains perfect happiness and fulfillment. Utopias are imagined to be the perfect society, one that encourages equality, tolerance, creativity, along with great productivity.  Various forms of art and literature have explored these imagined states, starting in the ancient age with Plato’s Republic, later with Thomas More’s Utopia, and more currently Bertolt Brecht’s play Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan.  The desired societies discussed in these works were believed to be based on the notion of rational thought, eliminating class distinction and instead promoting friendship and communal wealth. Many pieces of utopian literature project a perfect society where peace, equality, justice, friendliness, and cooperation are the core values, promoting the betterment of society and humanity.

Taking the concept of utopia to use as a framework to examine art and society, we are able to expose contemporary faults within our capitalistic and heteronormative civilization. Queer photography provides us with an open platform to see where artists struggle and investigate these utopic questions, intervening against a restrictive heteronormative history. Throughout queer culture we are able to see some of the most intimate moments of personal expression, providing a quick glimpse into a private utopia. By studying the reoccurring thoughts and ideals of utopia that are expressed throughout queer photography, we are able to find the hopeful future aspirations expressed by artists on both a personal and public level.  Through these personal expressions of utopia we can identify what is missing from a heteronormative, capitalist society, and are enabled to imagine a more perfected future. Following the ideas expressed by Plato, Ernest Bloch, and Jose Esteban Munoz, we are able to see that both queer and utopian visions give a hopeful insight towards an alternative future. Using the Platonic method of first identifying what is necessary to gain internal harmony and then applying it to the larger societal body, we shall examine works from photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Alice Austen to try and gain an insight of what is desired for a personal utopia. These queer artists invite us to question the limitations of a heteronormative social construct, thereby leading us to question our own relationships and ideas.  This construct allows us to break apart what is normally associated with these artists and their works, allowing us to find a new vision formulated by utopia. Within this framework we are given a glimpse into the possible utopias that could exist, allowing us to imagine the new future that our society needs.

The Hope for Equality within Intimate Relationships

Equality and intimacy are utopic feelings that humans have continually strived to obtain in both their personal and public lives. Robert Mapplethorpe uses the power of the camera to break through distinctions such as race, gender, and sexuality to display the longing for equality expressed within an intimate relationship. Mapplethorpe’s image Embrace (Figure 1), photographed in 1982, demonstrates the open potential that a relationship, especially one which clashes with societal norms, can have. Embrace, captures the affectionate interlocking of a gay mixed race couple, proving a notable alternative of what was a traditionally accepted relationship. Mapplethorpe uses the striking intensity of black and white film to capture his figures, creating a passionate yet raw image.  He poses the models in the direct center of the frame filling its entirety, pronouncing the secure bond shared between these two men. Mapplethorpe’s dominating use of formalism while depicting his models provides for a beautiful image of a typical gesture, leading us to perceive that there is so much more beneath this momentary capture of a hug. His depiction of affection shared between these men displays the potentiality that this relationship has. A deep level of shared intimacy and equality gives us a glimpse into the ideal qualities of a relationship and its future, features that are attractive to a utopian society as a whole.  

While searching for utopia within queer photography we can see how Robert Mapplethorpe uses the relations between the camera and models as an opening for creating a heterotopic space. As defined by Foucault in his paper Of Other Spaces, heterotopia is an ambiguous concept in which specific spaces and roles portray some utopian elements.  By hiding the identities of the male’s faces we are not subjected to placing them within associated social categories, but rather we focus on the positioning of the models.  The absence of color forces our attention to the space and models in the frame, realizing that there are no significant markings of time or place. In essence we have the timelessness of utopia expressed through a hug, allowing us to think and create ideas beyond hierarchies and gender.  The camera is used to create a mirror of this relationship, framing both the couple and the space in a way of pointing to potential realities of the future.  We can see that Mapplethorpe’s camera creates a special relation between the subject and background space, allowing for a variety of visual interpretations. Mapplethorpe’s use of heterotopia within a photograph allows us to see the utopian potential that his collections are not normally associated with, providing us with the expansion of our minds and outlooks.  Seeing the utopian potential expressed throughout art provides us with a path of envisioning it within ourselves and the greater societal whole.

Examining Mapplethorpe’s photography through a utopian methodology critiques important aspects of everyday life exposing both the negative social stigmas while also pointing to the positive and hopeful desires.  Both utopian and queer studies focuses on the idea of what is not yet here, and how we can use this potentiality of what is missing to create a future.  The blending of race and sexuality that is provided by Embrace, ignores the previous notions of what is acceptable in a relationship combating the “perfect relationship” ideal that heteronormativity provides.  He visually poses the question of what could happen when we accept hybridity into our lives, evoking an intrinsic look in order to find the answer.   Mapplethorpe’s Embrace, gives us an insight of the utopian principles we can instill in our everyday relationships, allowing us to find bliss within the ordinary.

Community Acceptance and Bonding

The idea of a wholesome, accepting community is a major aspiration in the search for utopia.  Alice Austen, a prominent female photographer working in the Victorian Era uses her lens to display her own unique vision of an accepting community.  This period of history was dominated by a patriarchal body, leaving the majority of the population subjected to a repressive male power. Although alienated by this power structure, Austen did create an inclusive community for herself and her photography.  Austen can be identified as one of the earliest queer photographers, producing a large collection of photographs depicting strong female bonds. Much of her photography consists of herself and a close knit group of friends, captured during moments of work, leisure, and communal bonding.  Through the use of her camera she reflected a world through a female oriented lens displaying her own unique perspective and utopia.  The photograph, That Darned Club (Figure 2), is exemplary of Austen’s dream of creating an accepting community.  The picture consists of her and three close female friends embracing each other, hinting at high levels of trust and intimacy.  Trust, intimacy, and acceptance are ideals that are important to every relationship especially between those subjected to a repressive community.  That Darned Club, is one of the many photographs that Austen created for her personal collection, using her camera as an alternative outlet to the restrictive notions of heteronormativity.  Victorian society was oppressive towards women for a variety of reasons, but the influence of those external factors allowed Austen to express beauty and pleasure in her art in a personally meaningful way rather than focusing on the expression of pain.   That Darned Club, portrays the pleasure Austen created for herself within her tight knit community of friends.  Her photographs focused on the creation of the personal utopia she had created for herself on Staten Island, and embodied those visions of acceptance and happiness.  

While Austen created a sense of utopia through a large and accepting social circle, she also use the staging of her photographs to further accentuate her search for a personal utopia.  Through her photography, we can see that the spaces of her home, Clear Comfort, shaped both herself and her photography throughout her lifetime.  Many of Austen’s photographs occur at her home of Clear Comfort or that of one of her close friends, displaying the eased relationship between the friends and family of those close to her.  The photograph Fun & Games (Figure 3), depicts Austen and her friends in the midst of a weeklong party in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  Austen, along with seven friends are pictured in a state of high festivities at a fellow upper middle class friend’s home, showcasing her confidence in her associations and spaces.  Austen uses the open potentiality of her camera to create heterotopic spaces within her community, documenting the relations she’s created between sites. As stated by Foucault in his paper on heterotopias, “the spaces in which we live draw us out of ourselves, it creates a space where our lives, times, and histories occur.” Her use of background staging plays a specific role in what makes these spaces so different, forcing us to evaluate the relations she has created.  Austen’s capturing of a personal utopia within the tight knit community of Staten Island reflects her search for acceptance within a larger Victorian community.  


In conclusion, the use of the photograph allows artists to document an empirical reality, a place where they can explore their own identities, sexuality, and intrinsic concerns.  The artist Thomas Eakins, a widely known painter and sculptor from the late 1800’s, employed the use of the camera as a tool for his work in other mediums. The preparatory photographs for his masterful painting The Swimming Hole (Figures 4-5), display a close study on not only the male nude but also encourages a closer look at the spiritual man-to-man intimacy that occurs within the male “cult of friendship”.  Eakins preluding photographs of The Swimming Hole, channel his utopian vision of male comradeship that was tabooed in the late Victorian Era. The series of pictures, taken around 1883, depicts a group of young men diving off a rocky jetty into a country lake.  Although these photographs were used as a study of motion for Eakins and his students, there are also full underlying utopian subtext.  The Swimming Hole evokes the notion of an accepting and intimate community shared between these men, which is observable by both the nudity and the relaxed postures and movements of the individuals.  The complete ease of the subjects give no notion of underlying identity structures, sensing the complete freedom an individual has to express himself. If we use utopian ideology to analyze these photographs we can discover a whole new meaning of happiness that Eakins was trying to discover. Looking at these photographs through a utopian light, we are shown these men encapsulated in a moment from a lost world, creating a context for a new world that is yet to come.  The photographs provide a space of utopia for Eakins, forcing us as viewers to rethink the important concepts of our life and relationships.  

The dreams of utopia prompts us to reject the status quo, and contemplate within ourselves as to what’s important.  As humans we always strive to obtain the ultimate good, and it is by first finding what is desired within ourselves that we can then learn how to create this dream in real life.  Thinking about utopia gives light into to what’s missing, hinting at the futurity of a place that could be. Exploring these images produced by repressed queer artists within a utopian framework gives us a glimpse into the qualities that are ultimately desired, both within our personal and public relationships, hinting at what’s missing as a common whole.  Utopia creates a concrete possibility for another world, providing a tangible way to head towards a hopeful new future.



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Ellenzweig, Allen. “Male Images from Durieu/Delacroix to Mapplethorpe” The Homoerotic Photograph. Columbia University Press. 1992.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics, Vol. 16, No. 1. 1986. pp. 22-27.

Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press. 2011.

Peimer, Laura. “Alice’s Identity Crisis.” A Critical Look into the Austen House Museum. History of Photography. Vol. 24. No. 2. 2000. Pgs. 175-179.

Morris, Williams. “The Aims of Art.” Signs of Change.

Munoz, Jose Esteban.  Cruising Utopia: The Then and Now of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, November 2009. E-book.

Plato. “The Republic”. Trans. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992. Print.

Roscio, Jessica. “Photographic domesticity: The home/studios of Alice Austen, Catharine Weed Barnes Ward, and Frances Benjamin Johnston, 18851915Boston University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2013.


Image References

Figure 1: Robert Mapplethorpe, Embrace, 1982

Obtained from Robert Mapplethorpe: Photographs from the Kisney Institute Collection. Bloomington, IN.

Figure 2: Alice Austen, That Darned Club, 1886

Obtained from Alice Austen House

Figure 3: Alice Austen, Fun and Games, 1885

Obtained from Alice Austen House

Figure 4: Thomas Eakins, Eakin’s Students at the site of the “The Swimming Hole,” 1883

Obtained from Ellenzweig’s The Homoerotic Photograph

Figure 5: Thomas Eakins, Eakin’s Students at the site of the “The Swimming Hole,” 1883

Obtained from Ellenzweig’s The Homoerotic Photograph


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