I recently came across some of Jennifer Ray's photography and I really love it. She is attracted to the same sort of fringe, temporarily human-less urban/wild landscapes that inspire me, and I feel like she photographs them in a really interesting way. For her latest series, she figured out where DL gay guys meet up in the woods at night to have random sex and then she goes during the daytime to take flash-lit pictures of these places. I'm not sure how I feel about manipulating objects for photos (I never do it, and I'm sure there's a much bigger debate among documentary and fine art photographers on the subject) but I like the results in Ray's Go Deep Into the Woods series.
In truth, this post is mostly an excuse to tell the following story:
When I was in college, I started this hiking and camping student group and as part of it I created a guidebook to all the local nature preserves and hiking areas. For a few weeks after class and work I went out to visit the ones I'd never been to so I could map them and do a writeup for the guide. One day I went to this nature area really close to where my father grew up, and where my grandmother took my sister and I for walks when we would stay with her as kids. I changed from my work clothes into something more suitable for hiking and I after I got out of the car I started to get a weird vibe from a couple of middle-aged guys hanging out in the parking lot. I was a pretty naive kid, and undeterred I set out on one of the hiking paths and noticed that both of them were following me pretty closely, a grizzled-looking white guy and a fat black guy. I turned a corner and took off at a sprint and soon stumbled across a man sucking a dick in this little grotto. It was very Something About Mary. The guy on the receiving end was clutching a straight porn magazine in his left hand and staring at it intensely. I took off, blazing a new trail in a direction far enough to loop around the two guys who were following me but that would generally get me back to the car as quickly as possible. I even picked up a stick out of some primal urge to defend myself.
I had always felt so comfortable in the woods but suddenly they were terrifying and foreign. If there were rules for conduct in this forest I didn't know any of them, and it was clear that my behavior in the parking lot had given these guys the wrong impression. I had gay friends and coworkers and it wasn't the gayness that terrified me, but the fact that this was clearly a place where ordinary social conventions broke down, where my rules didn't apply, and where sex and lust were tangled with the secrets of trees. Though the woods were littered with used condoms, pages ripped from porn mags, and moldy clothes, this was the wildest place I had ever been.
Later that week I asked a gay guy I worked with about it, and he explained the whole culture of cruising men with wives and lives that didn't allow them to be gay going to certain places to have their sexual needs met (and I finally understood that those stalls at highway rest tops had those holes drilled in them---as Ricky Gervais said---for the guys who "love cocks, but hate faces"). A lot of this stuff became part of the public discourse during the Sen. Larry Craig bathroom scandal, and it seemed like this was behavior particular to older generations and it was growing out of favor through the use of the internet and greater tolerance for homosexuality in general. And while Jennifer Ray may be documenting a scene on the decline, I doubt it will go away altogether.
Looking at Ray's photographs, outside the context of terror and confusion I felt that day, I am startled by the realization that these repressed gay men, through their primal desire for sex, have returned a sense of wildness to the woods; through these procreative urges, they remind us that every forest is full of frustrated reproduction: spores and seeds that find no fertile earth, gametes that find no carpels, rhizoids with no anchor. And that's just the way a forest works.
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