The Larrikin In Me

If I had to describe, in a word, the kind of man I eulogise in my work, it is the larrikin.

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The larrikin is probably the favourite stereotype of Australian masculinity, though I think the qualities are universally attractive.The word itself is claimed by Australians, though it’s from England, where it’s recorded in Yorkshire, in the early-mid nineteenth century, as a derivative of the word lark, describing ‘a mischievous or frolicsome youth’ (English Dialect Dictionary, ed. J. Wright, 1898-1905), who would lark about or ‘larrack’ about. The Australian myth is that an Irish born policeman in Melbourne in the 1860’s, after arresting an unruly youth, described him to the magistrate in his brogue as ‘a larr-akin’ about, which the magistrate heard as ‘a larrikin’, and the word stuck as describing a hooligan or thug. But by the early twentieth century it had come to be used here more as a term of affection, to describe a man of courage and self-confidence, a free thinker who defies unnecessary pretence or hypercritical conventions in a likeable and warm‑hearted, or ‘cheeky,’ way. The larrikin became the standard bearer for Australians of a convict heritage, the likeable rebel who laughed in the face of adversity and often knew he was of a better calibre than his supposed superiors with their dubious rules. These characteristics take the old English word and give it an Aussie overhaul, adding sex appeal.

In a world where perfected beauty is valued and flaunted, I think we often find male beauty more alluring when the owner doesn't take it too seriously; his sexiness is enhanced when he carries his good looks with a certain nonchalance. It conveys a strength of character. Similarly, I think a photo of a naked man assumes greater potency when the subject is not flaunting generic or fashionable physicality, but seems happily detached from it. For years I’ve explored this otherness and what makes it so mesmerising. It’s these intangible qualities I try to elicit in my work and in this story of the larrikin.

I grew up suppressing my prematurely realised homosexuality in a religious family, in a quiet Australian backwater that would often seem bleak to me, despite its staggering beauty. An introvert, I loved to sequester myself for hours on end with books. I read escapist adventures before I graduated to more serious literature and non-fiction, mainly English history, full of real life drama and tragedy, human foibles and heroics. My early life was by no means all solitary gloom. I had a stable and very loving family, as conditional as I might have come to feel that love was. And though we were not well off, my parents were all about education and family.

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Relatives owned farms and orchards, and holiday shacks in gorgeous coastal hamlets, ripe for adventures with cousins, boating and fishing. We lived in the hills on the edge of a small city, Hobart, in a new subdivision where my parents had built a house, next to native bush land. With a gang of neighbourhood kids we constructed massive tree forts out of lopped branches, with walls of woven basket grass, and fought battles with bows and arrows made from tea tree and native ferns. We disappeared from supervision for hours on end, over hills, to search for caves, wild berries, and tadpoles in ponds, trespassing on old orchards, gorging on fruit and exploring deserted farmhouses. We fed our local kangaroo rats at night, at our back door, and we careered down the steep rocky track behind our house in billy carts made from prams and old timber boxes. We ran screaming from accidentally disturbed snakes and blue-tongued lizards, often falling over and running home, holding up stigmata bleeding hands for motherly tending and solace. And there was laughter. We were seen as a happy family. 

Along with a somewhat volatile temperament and a sensitivity protected by my mother and easily slighted by three older, competitive brothers, I inherited from someone a colourful personality and sense of humour, which enabled me to achieve easy camaraderie with the boys I fell in love with, but could never tell. I blended in at school, was good enough at sport, and could play the lad, despite my good grades. My attractions, which began very early on and could only ever be secret, evolved in me an escapist romanticism that was as paradoxical as the Catholicism I was raised in, Spartan discipline and self‑flagellation in maccabre but sensual Baroque surroundings.

My first crush was for the goofy, accident-prone and handsome Captain Parmenter (actor Ken Berry), from repeats on TV of comedy series F-Troop, a show about a hapless US army outpost in the late nineteenth century, and their attempts to control the equally spineless Hekawi Indian tribe. Daydreaming in one of the endless catechism classes at convent school, I cast Parmenter in the role of Jesus on Calgary, bleeding and in pain, in the moments before the cross was erected, he helpless in his nakedness and suffering, and I gently tending his fever and wounds with gentle kisses and a damp cloth, trapped in a painfully sensual, recurring farewell. I knew nothing of sex, except that I’d been mesmerized by Ken Berry’s hairy chest in at least one episode, and he was funny and loveable, much more appealing to me as Jesus, than the insipid, lank-haired depictions I’d seen of him. I was seven. I understood little of what it all meant, except, already, that it was wrong. At around this time too, I discovered photos of naked men in the Theatre section of an Encyclopedia Brittanica Yearbook, which my parents subscribed to, and which was kept on the bookshelf in the 'good' living room, used for visitors. I would sneak in there when it was empty and, behind a big upholstered rocking chair, be shocked and eroticised by the shameless hairy frontal nudity of the male cast of ‘Hair’ and ‘Oh Calcutta’.

My first real life crushes, from eight to ten, were comparatively tame, and were for two similarly angelic-looking pranksters at my school, the type whose uniforms were always un-tucked and disheveled, and who I loved to wrestle in the playgrounds so I could furtively relish their soft skin and squirming strength, and smell their tussled hair.

Two of the great loves of my life were unrequited, and occurred before I was twenty. They were both fascinating to me, popular with their peers, but slight outsiders. The first of these was an athlete and champion footballer, good looking in a careless way, and, somewhat uncharacteristically for a jock, the class clown and a bit of a nerd. We eventually spent a lot of time alone together, playing tennis or golf, which I pretended to love, or spear fishing in freezing dark coastal waters, near his house. It was worth it for the intimacy of the friendship and the long hot showers in change rooms afterwards, the whispered confidences of sleep-overs and the school-team bus journeys away. In endless phone calls we were in each other’s thrall, me working harder to be captivating. I fed hungrily off these intimacies, the only kind allowed. I was helplessly trapped. I was proud he liked me, anxious about it and possessive. I was impatient with others who interfered. I was angry at my mother when she’d want me off the phone. I was angry, period. I had nightmares where I was outed, though it wasn’t called that then. Now fifteen, frustrated and rampantly sexual, I obsessed over every detail of him, his body, his smell, his mannerisms and his personality. My brain was my smart phone, recording everything to be played back over and over in hopeful agony later. I practiced walking like him. I loved it when people confused our voices on the phone or talked of us as inseparable friends, an item, they joked. I wanted to be like him. Every waking moment was consumed by him, how I could be near him as much and closely as possible without raising suspicion, and then how I could ever escape the interminable pain. And despite my better judgement, I dreamt of him confessing his love for me. And of our romance.  

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My second love, at university, was a more thoughtful soul and modest, despite his popularity and looks. He was thick set compared with me, and muscled from sport. Devoid of vanity, he wore his favorite few clothes over and over, and the luxuriant dark hair which crowned his classic, mostly unshaven face, was always slightly unkempt, with neglected boyish tufts, sticking out here and there, that drove me crazy with desire. I envied his looks and his attitude, so different to mine. I found his vulnerability addictive, once I gained access. Again, it baffled me that someone so enviable to me could be so wracked with self‑doubt, and come to lean on me.  I exalted in his darkness. It was Shakespearean; he was an impenetrable mystery that I wanted to solve, a hero to save, as I had with Captain Parmenter’s Jesus. His problems, the world’s problems, made him broody, which I loved, along with his sardonic wit and playfulness in happier moods. I was insatiably patient, much to his constant surprise. “Why do you bother with me?”, or “What do you see in me?” were music to my ears.  What do you see in me, I thought, that you privilege me with your confidences?

I couldn’t tell him he was more beautiful to me lost and troubled, or that I empathised, and part of me hoped he hid a pain similar to mine. I martyred my own starving needs in order to be ever buoyant and dependable for him, though I didn’t care at the time. He fuelled my fascination with the loner heterosexual male. Even today when I see an apparently un-conceited good-looking man engaged in solitary activity, I am both sympathetic and attracted. I read into him those same characteristics I came to revere as essential to masculinity, not as discernible in the brash affectations of pack men.

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My jealousy and possessiveness, which might have given me away, were for the most part kept in check, and women kept at bay, by the fact we lived on campus in an all-male Catholic college. I could see women were drawn to him, but he was shy and elusive, for the most part. To my shame, I was critical of the occassional female object of his interest. He was the best friend and the big brother of my dreams. Again I did things I didn’t naturally long to do, but his patience in teaching me, and my willingness to learn from him, made them happen, and made me come to love them. In these times he was my rock, and seemed so much more manly and mature than me. I often felt silly, though I contained it, or dispelled it with comic bravado. One time, he taught me how to pull a car engine apart and put it back together. I learned to water ski and to scuba dive, and to take bravura risks doing so, swimming underwater, one time, in strong currents, fully outfitted, into a blow hole, a naturally occurring water cave carved out of seaside cliff faces, in order to impress him. I caught crayfish with a spear and swam calmly near a small shark. We flew in single-engine planes across the perilous Bass Strait for cycling trips, on Flinders Island, in the brutal winds of the Roaring Forties, took bushwalks in Tasmania’s wilderness, camped in storms, burnt off leeches daily, slept dirty and sweaty, bathed in freezing streams, walked endlessly wet or covered in mud, trudged across marshes and dangled over cliffs at Cape Pillar in Tasmania’s south, for daring ‘selfies’. We surfed, or at least I attempted to, in enormous and dangerous waves on Tasmania’s west coast, in bleak conditions. He let me drive his pride and joy, a souped-up Torana, even on my eighteenth birthday, when drunk, I insisted on going for a joyride, just the two of us, and we ended up in a ditch on a country road outside Hobart, until a police car found us and ordered a tow truck to take us home. And he taught me to process film and print black and white photographs, in a dingy darkroom in our campus college, something which was to stand me in good stead many years later.

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I eventually escaped this tortured happiness when he failed university and joined the navy. I spent our last summer staying with his family before returning to study. We shared a bedroom, talking about life way into the nights. We swam in the Launceston Gorge every day and listened to Fleetwood Mac, and his mother cooked us dinner and cared for me as part of the family. It was a bittersweet time. I couldn’t drag myself away but was relieved to be free. And today, some of him, and this repressed romance, inhabits my work.

Long years of this rich but punishing and lonely inner life, and the never- ending fear of discovery and rejection, grew into an irresistible urge for any kind of physical love, and an intellectual conviction that my personal truth did not make me a sick aberration, but the world around me did. And was. I have carried with me a resentment, an anger at a wrong done, a subconscious determination to speak out in some way, about the wretched denial of everything that should have been life-affirming and beautiful, as well as confusing and fraught, in the adolescence of a man loving man.

Life and love as a gay man in Sydney was colourful and eye opening, but the romance was juvenile and rife with jealousy and envy. I was immature and damaged, as were most of us in the gay ghetto, and I yearned for some past idyll that had never existed, for an impossible white knight to rescue me. I felt the need of an outlet for this frustration. I enjoyed my quota of oblivion in partying and sex, but suffered from depression and emptiness. Acting was meant to be my destiny, my salvation, but the satisfaction was as transient as a drug, or my sexual conquests. My insecurity made me fear it too much, yet my ego needed it badly. I either wasn’t good enough, or thought I wasn’t. Both thoughts filled me with dread.

But I craved a creative outlet, and photography kind of happened. Back home, where I had won my school art prize, my paintings adorned the walls of my parent’s home. But in Sydney, after a few false starts, the muses left me. I began photographing actor or model friends for headshots and portfolios, and picked up lighting tips and ideas from shoots I’d participated in as a model. Magazine and commercial commissions followed, and in my personal work I gravitated to photographing men. They say that in art you should pursue a subject you are passionate about, and for me, this was it.

It was often my female friends who helped me appreciate this work early on, just as it was they who gently helped me discover and face some of my issues around self-worth. These were my feminist heroines, trying to escape their own constraints, and hoping, back in the early nineteen eighties, that we subversive gay men, as we still were, would be their allies in dismantling the institutional relics of misogyny, and the personal restrictions those wrought. We didn’t, but my male photography, as it evolved, was as dedicated to releasing them, as it was to purging me.

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 For all my hopes and dreams about who I would become, and what would influence my later life, if you had told me that I would be best known for photographing naked men, against everything that had inclined me towards conventional success and acceptance, I would not have believed it worthy of me, or paradoxically, that I had the courage for such defiance of norms, let alone the audacity to expect the work to be accepted in the mainstream, as part of a male art tradition begun over two thousand years ago.

But my work is born out of my personal, as well as my cultural history, and I’ve learnt to embrace and defend it as valid. My early nudes emulated modern exponents of classicism in photography. Like many modern interpretations, most of them were sanitised, with none of the sensuality of actual classical art, and nothing of me in them. But my own unique and Australian story of repression, of dashed hopes of romantic salvation, and years of secret observations, mulled over painstakingly, have perversely instilled in me an unrepentant celebratory male aesthetic. A photograph of a fully naked man is a powerful statement. And it’s still controversial. Like the love that dare not mention its name, the penis is marginalised in photography as pornographic, shameful, unmanly, silly, or gay. ( Ironically I censor photos here on the website for entirely different reasons-to prevent the piracy and misuse of my images and the website being blocked.) Castrating the male to make him morally and fashionably palatable has resulted in the denial of primal masculinity, something I think we connect with when we see it, from deep within our genetic subconscious. This denial prevents us as a culture from a civilising appreciation of real male beauty, the only intrinsic beauty we are encouraged not to revere. My male nudes are not intended to be salacious, but cathartic. Each is an reverential story, told with unashamed honesty, about individuality and freedom, and the vulnerability that entails. Each eulogises a masculinity which, coming as it does from the very personal, speaks, I hope, to something universal.

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There are times when my objectives seem trivial, or I fear retribution, and times when the work seems like the most important appeal that could be made for the dismantling of a stifling bias. Any public acceptance of my work must first contend with prejudices to even be tolerated, let alone appreciated. Freeing men and women, alike, from the patriarchal suppression of something as intrinsic and natural as the beautiful naked male as art, is the promotion of a cultural and historic maturity, equality and joy, the removal of a veil, the forgiveness of a sin, the return to Eden.

I am grateful for the appreciation I receive. Like any striving artist, nothing is ever finished or quite right, but the process is rewarding, and the people who support the process and the work are my sustenance, liberals, in a world in which liberalism is under threat, from within and without. As a gay man in a challenged multi-culturalism, I feel I’m on the front line, defending myself against irrational beliefs I have feared and fought all my life to escape. I value the personal freedoms that my culture, however imperfect, has fought over and earned for us in the past decades, and over hundreds of years, and my work defends those freedoms, against a fearful compromised version of them. I’ve experienced enough judgement. I’ve served my sentence. And the men who collaborate with me and appear in my work, who face their own fears or pressures to be a certain kind of disdainful macho or follow a prescribed fashion, like my many lost loves, become the heroes of my romantic revisionist folklore, unashamed, individual and earthy, happily unkempt at work, adventuring or at home, imperfect in their perfection, larrikins.

Paul Freeman                                                                                             Sydney, August 2016