“Gay In America” (Welcome Books, 2011, $45) by Scott Pasfield takes its rightful place beside such coffee-table classics as Tom Atwood’s “Kings In Their Castles” and Michael Goff and Out Magazine’s “Out In America.”
Pasfield spent three years and traveled 52,000 miles to prepare the book, which features 140 gay male subjects, all of whom responded to a call for photographic subjects. It includes both their pictures and their unique stories, creating a colorful portrait of 21st-century gay life in all 50 states.
I spoke with Pasfield in September 2011.
Gregg Shapiro: My partner and I have two dogs, so one of the first things that I noticed in the pictures was that there are more than a dozen pictures of men and dogs.
Scott Pasfield: And so many dogs got cut from the book (laughs).I think there was something like 30 or 35 dogs that I photographed over the course of the project. I was always excited to try and include pets when I could. I think they are such an important part of gay men’s lives. More often than not, if the dogs or pets were around and seemed intrigued by the whole process, I asked if we could try to get them in the shot and most pet owners are happy about that (laughs).The dogs by far were the most popular. I think there were five cats, some goats and lots of birds, too.
Who had the final say in the setting, what was worn and what would be included in the shots?
I guess I had the final say in terms of editing the pictures and narrowing it down to my favorites. The designer and I always were on the same page in terms of selecting the final image. During the actual photo shoots I always did my best in terms of trying to compose the most interesting photographs. The location in their home dictated where that picture and portrait setting should be. It always seemed like a natural choice. In terms of their clothing, usually I asked the guys beforehand to dress in their most comfortable clothes. In instances where I felt like it wasn’t the perfect choice for the photograph, we would revisit some of their clothes. I would say that 98 percent of the time what they wore ended up in the final shoot.
Reading Ken from Maryland’s story, it’s understandable why he got a few more pages to tell it. What came first in the process, the photos or the subjects’ stories?
I decided who to go photograph based on their story. Their story had to ring true to me and it became very clear right away who was right for the book and who wasn’t. It hit me like over the head like a ton of bricks. This person was being so honest and their story is so wonderful and I haven’t heard anything like it before, therefore I’m going to go photograph them.
Of the 140 men, five are from Alaska and seven from Georgia, but only one from Illinois How did that kind of geography come to pass?
The stories really dictated who I picked, so long as every state was represented at least once. When I felt so strongly about two different people or two different people in the same city, I would photograph them both thinking that in the end the editor might narrow that choice down. As often was the case, both subjects in the same city ended up making it in the book, and the editors really enjoyed the comparative stories in the same city. You would think that some places, like Chicago, would be a very easy place, but for some reason it wasn’t. People didn’t reach out to me in the same way.
How different do you think this book would have been if you’d done it 10 or 20 years ago?
The Internet played a big part in how I found people. It would have been much more difficult to find them. The thing that surprised me the most is the regularness of all these guys. I think most outspoken gay men and all facets of the LGBT community are those people who defined themselves very much by being gay and they have that issue that they really want to share with the world. They’re very outspoken. I think the type of men I was looking for aren’t as outspoken as a lot of those advocates are. That difficulty in finding them was made so much easier by the Internet. Ten, maybe 20 years ago I’m not quite sure how I would have found the same men because they’re not going to gay community centers, most of them. They’re not out at a lot of gay bars or clubs in urban areas.
Did you learn things about gay men that you didn’t know before?
Really a lot of the reason for the book was to search out that wisdom from gay men in determining how to live a happy, fulfilled life and not to let other people’s views of homosexuality affect your being. And I was able to learn from them just how not to let all of that get to you, how to be happy. I think the more we share our stories and we learn how other people overcome those same things, it can help us all understand what it does means to be gay in America a little better.